Fencing for Cambridge

by Georgia Good on 30 January 2019

Stasa Tumpa is a graduate medic at Lucy Cavendish College. She also fences for the Blues team at the Cambridge University Fencing Club; as a teenager, she fenced at national level. We caught up with her about the highs and lows of fencing, why she couldn’t live without it, and why you should try it, too.

How did you discover fencing?

I was a hyperactive child, and my parents wanted to get me into sport, but ball sports didn’t work for me – I’d always come home with bruises, I couldn’t coordinate with the ball. My neighbours in Croatia were fencing coaches and they said, “Well, she’s pretty tall, she has long legs – she has good predispositions”. They showed me the weapons, and I wanted to try it – so that’s how I started. In fencing there are three weapons: foil, épée and saber. Usually people start with foil because it’s the lightest, and the attack surface is the smallest (only chest and stomach) – but they put me straight on épée, which is a heavier weapon with a bigger attack surface. I really liked it, and I just kept going, kept practicing and improving, competitions came along, and camps in Bulgaria and Hungary – and that’s how it happened!

How old were you when you started?

I was seven. It was my first year of elementary school. You start with a plastic weapon, then you build up your strength and move on to the real ones. When I was sixteen, I’d just gotten into the Serbian national juniors team, but then I had a knee injury. It was devastating for me – I’d either have this big surgery, keep on going, be an Olympic fencer and then stop at the age of 35, or I’d stop and get an education instead. So I stopped. I still love it, though.

What do you like about fencing?

There’s an excitement and adrenaline that I don’t get with any other sport. Physically, fencing requires a lot, but it’s also mentally challenging. I love all the game-playing: you don’t see the opponent’s face but you need to think about their actions, and how reactions depend on them. You can trap them into attacking you, for example by moving backwards – but then if their attack is shorter than yours, you can counterattack… so there’s a lot of thinking! Medicine is stressful and I don’t want to think about it all the time, and when I’m fencing, I have to focus completely, so there’s nothing else going through my head. Fencing is painful, but when you’re in the fight, you doesn’t associate the pain with the hit – you only realise when you take off the kit! There’s a machine that makes a sound and lights up when someone makes a point, so when you turn around and see your light, that’s a really good feeling too. It’s very exciting.

Fencing seems unique, too.

It is! There’s a lot of history. When someone attacks and both opponents could get a point, in foil, it’s all about whose attack it was; in the past, when soldiers used swords in battle, the one attacking was more likely to win, even when both went ahead with their swords – so in foil and saber, only the person in attack gets the point. A lot of the rules in fencing have a historical basis.

How often do you practice?

At Cambridge, we train five times a week, and we have one strength and conditioning session per week as well. I also train twice a week at the Lucy gym, so eight times a week in total. On Saturdays we have four hours of fencing, an hour break, then an hour and a half of strength and conditioning. My Saturdays are dedicated to sport!

You must be busy!

I am. Especially with medicine – I usually bring my flashcards with me to use between fights! But it’s worth it; it really makes me happy. If I’m not doing it, I get stressed and anxious. It helps to have something other than studies, especially something that heightens adrenaline and endorphins.

Has being at Lucy helped at all?

Lucy has been supportive of me and my decision to be in the first team. Since fencing is quite expensive and requires a lot of equipment, Lucy was happy to support me financially. That really helps with travel costs, when I go to competitions, as well as some of the kit costs. My Director of Studies and College Supervisor have both been very supportive and happy with me doing fencing alongside the graduate medicine course. I’d definitely recommend anyone interested in sport to apply to Lucy Cavendish.

You competed at a national level when you were a teenager. Do you have any plans to do that again?

I do. One of the biggest issues I’ve faced is that I loved fencing when I was one of the top in my country. I’m comparing myself to my best, so when I decided to try it again, I was bad. This semester was a struggle for me, and I’m proud of myself that I persisted, and throughout the semester I’ve improved. I loved competing at the BUCS weekend in November, being there surrounded by athletes, so I’d like to compete at a national level. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to (even if I’m not as good as I used to be), to travel and do all the fun competitions outside the UK too. Obviously I have my degree as well, so time management would be a number one priority – but it’s possible.

The Varsity match is in March. How do you feel about it?

Very nervous. We fenced against Oxford at the BUCS weekend and they’re quite good, I’m not going to lie. I need to learn how to utilise my height, because my attack is quite long – and I need to build my confidence. For Cambridge and Oxford, this is the biggest match of the year. It’s really fun, a very good atmosphere, a lot of people cheering for you – and we’ll have a lot more support because it’s in Cambridge (it was in Oxford last year). There may even be a live stream on YouTube, so my parents can watch!

What should someone do if they’re interested in fencing?

Join the Cambridge University Fencing Club (CUFC)! It’s a really good club, and one of the oldest in the UK. It’s for advanced level and novices, so anyone is really welcome to come and join. We have sessions twice a week, and just a positive attitude and willingness to train and improve would get you there. The coaches are really good. They guide you through everything: lower and upper body coordination, thinking, everything. We play games, which is really fun – so for example you’ll have a balloon and your opponent has a balloon, and we’ll do the fencing steps forwards and backwards, and it’s about managing the distance. Fencing is a really fun sport, but people can find it intimidating; you have to think about combining steps, attacks, techniques… there are a lot of components, but you can always build up more and more, and get satisfaction from that. There’s a lot to learn, but it’s fun, and people usually stick with it. The CUFC is very welcoming, and there are great people – I’m really enjoying that. Everyone does something different at Cambridge; we learn about what everyone studies and what their interests are, and we’re not competitive within the club – we’re all keen to help each other. That’s why you should join!

And you’re looking for fencers now?

Yes! At the moment we’re lacking women fencers. Teams should be up to twelve people, and we have six. At the BUCS weekend we were doubling and tripling on weapons, which is frustrating, and tiring. We need anyone who’s keen on exponentially learning, so they can get to the level of competing for the university. As long as someone is interested and wants to improve, they have a full chance of getting into the half blues or blues team. You can improve a lot in two or three years at Cambridge!

To learn more about Cambridge fencing, and how you can be involved, please visit the CUFC Twitter, Facebook page and Instagram.

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