By Samantha Thompson
Walk into the East Field House gym on a weekday afternoon, and you might stumble on a strange sight. That’s when a dozen or so students are busy dueling it out in suits of all white, behind black masks that make them look more like beekeepers than flashy swordsmen.
The crash of metal against metal and the sounds of sneakers sliding and stomping against floor echoes throughout the building, while the sound of basketballs dribbled by impatient players on the sidelines gives an audible reminder that these Slug fencers are interrupting a much more popular game on campus.
Fencing at UC Santa Cruz, which was once a popular campus sport and one of the most successful clubs in the country, now exists completely out of the limelight. The program consists of only a few weekly recreation classes and one small competitive club that fights to keep control of the gym when a basketball game is waiting.
The team’s members have had to rely on their peers for most of their training, as they do not have a proper coach. And while many at UCSC are probably unaware that the university even offers fencing classes, the fact is that from the school’s very start, fencing has been one of its most popular activities and was UCSC’s strongest athletic program for many years.
Most of today’s fencers at UCSC do not know all the details of the program’s extensive history, but they do know that the team was good â€“ really good.
“Fencing used to be huge here,” senior Andrew Kleinerman, president of the fencing club, said. “I think it was considered almost a rite of passage to go through the fencing program.”
From all accounts, the success of yesteryear’s fencing program was due to Charles Selberg, who helped lead the Slugs to greatness and make the sport one of the most impacted P.E. classes on campus.
Selberg, who is one of only three American men to win gold at the World Masters Foil Championships in Europe, and author of the widely-read text “Foil”, came to Santa Cruz in 1966 and, by the time he left in 1982, shaped the program into one of the best recreational fencing programs in the country.
“From a teaching point of view, I couldn’t have been happier,” Selberg said. “I was like a pig in mud at Santa Cruz. There was a general student movement away from P.E. and into martial arts. All of a sudden fencing was in and I was reaping the benefits of it.”
In only a few short years, the fencing program became one of the most popular programs on campus, according to director of club sports Kevin “Skippy” Givens.
“Fencing was a very big part of the UC Santa Cruz experience,” Givens said. “It was set up so that if you had attended UCSC and didn’t attend a fencing class, you were missing out on something. It went along with the counterculture of the school, and it was counterculture in terms of sports.”
After having about 10 students in his second year at UCSC, by 1968 over 100 people would show up for Friday afternoon fencing classes.
“UCSC had had only a few years of Charlie and he already had a reputation [when I got there],” former Slug fencer Jonathan Holtz, now a local physical therapist, recalled of his freshman year in 1972. “Huge numbers would show up to fence and even people from off-campus would come up to fence.”
Selberg credits much of his fencing program’s popularity to a change in the way of thinking during the 1960s and ’70s.
“Vietnam had triggered a lot of intellectual speculation on the nature of life and Santa Cruz was right in the forefront of all that,” Selberg said. “It offers a chance for the individual to develop skills that are both mental and physical because fencing is a game where you’re really studying mind over matter. Students really liked the idea of physical education that had some real mental content to it.”
While Selberg talks modestly of his success at UCSC, former students like Angela Dracott, now a national fencing champion in Australia, are quick to praise not only his ability as a fencer, but his impact as a teacher as well.
“He was the main reason for why we all loved fencing,” Dracott wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press. “He is a fencing master, but he truly had a magical way of teaching that was waking my body up. I remember thinking, ‘Now I understand what P.E. means. This truly is a physical education.’”
Courtney Blackburn, a protÃ©gÃ© of Selberg’s, has made a career teaching the western martial art of fencing along with the eastern martial art of Tai Chi. Today he instructs the fencing classes at UCSC. Much of what Blackburn teaches in his classes can be attributed to what Selberg taught him in his years as a Slug.
“I’ve had senseis, gurus, and a lot of different teachers from different avenues,” Blackburn said. “But here I met Charles and I found that you can relate to him in a way that I can’t even relate to my own dad.”
Although Selberg had succeeded in creating a buzz around fencing on campus, it was that very popularity that ultimately led to the club’s demise.
The program’s success created a new and unforeseen set of complications for the club, starting with the push from the university’s athletic department to have the club join the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which the university had just joined.
“We could have gone NCAA because we were winning everything,” Selberg said of the dilemma. “We just produced tremendously beautiful fencers out of Santa Cruz. [But joining the NCAA] would have meant going to recruitment. Our fencing teams were all volunteers â€“ nobody was recruited or had any obligations to fence competitively for Santa Cruz. It was all homegrown. Students were born and raised right on campus.”
Selberg argued that becoming a varsity sport would undermine the club’s goals of inclusion and physical education, but he realized that he could not persuade the administration and ended up resigning in protest.
“In effect they told me that you go NCAA or you’re out,” Selberg said. “So I thought OK, that’s good enough for me, I’m out.”
With that, Selberg permanently left Santa Cruz. The program was turned over to Delmar Calvert, a former Olympic and Pan American coach, and recreational fencing was turned into a varsity sport.
Calvert, a talented coach who could teach the sport with either hand, maintained the club’s success for several years at the varsity level. But in 1992, the club found itself on the wrong end of a series of budget cuts, and lost its varsity status, leaving the program as a poorly funded and demoralized recreational club.
“There were so few athletic programs that offered fencing,” Givens said of the decision to cut fencing, a choice he admitted was difficult for the university to come to. “I don’t think there were any other programs [in the state] that were DIII, so it didn’t really fit in with the offerings at UCSC anymore.”
Today’s Slug fencers have been more than dedicated to keeping the club alive and recently gained Tier 1 status on campus, a classification that provides more funding to help offset the costs of tournaments and the upkeep of equipment. Still, the club struggles to keep going and relies mostly on the students themselves to teach the new generations of Slug fencers the art form and sport of what is often described by its participants as “physical chess.”
“It’s really on the shoulders of the experienced club members to advertise, organize, train, and to run all the aspects of the club,” Kleinerman said. “I’m decently qualified, but I know enough to know that we should have an actual coach.”
Though UCSC fencing has suffered some tremendous losses in the past decade, it has been able to take some small steps toward reviving the program. In fact, UCSC finished third in the Northern California Intercollegiate Fencing League Cup last year.
According to club treasurer Amanda Primes, the team’s lack of funding has been one of the biggest challenges to regaining the status it enjoyed for so long, as the club is unable to advertise and travel to larger tournaments. Despite all the hurdles, the club nearly doubled its membership last year and saw many of its own fencers take home medals during the season.
Even with its new and modest success, it is clear this isn’t the same program it once was.
“Times have changed and it’s not necessarily a good thing,” Givens said. “They are less flexible in intercollegiate athletics. It’s more restrictive and more defined. Sports need to reflect the needs of the student body. Things come and go in the context of athletics and it seems like fencing is on its way out.”
Selberg, 77, is now retired and lives in Ashland, Oregon. He has watched the club that he started so many years ago slowly fade into obscurity, which he believes has a lot to do with a change in philosophy regarding sports as competitive rather than an art form meant to educate and promote both mental and physical strength.
“Our program was strictly aimed at being recreational,” Selberg said. “It was recreation with a lifetime objective involved so that when [students] left college, they would have fencing to do until they were 90 years old.”
Selberg said he still fences today and has no intention of stopping anytime soon. This speaks to his own teaching philosophy, which is more about training the mind than it is looking to a mindless workout to win a fencing match. He explained that even with old age, you can become a better fencer because you get smart as you get old, and at the end of the day, it’s smarts that will win in fencing.
Selberg still hopes there may be a revival of the vivacious kind of club that he once headed, with support for a true physical education and a focus going back to the kind of intellectual recreation that he emphasized so strongly.
“I love that campus and I still do,” he said, “but after a while, I just begin to sound like sour grapes. If money is the bottom line in education, then what happens to education? The focus should be education and we should be able to afford it. And boy, we really had a run at a real education.”