On Becoming a Fencer
|John M. Nonna '66
Former Olympic Athlete
Partner, Patton Boggs LLP
At Regis I participated in Dramatics, Forensics and played Varsity Basketball. Regis did not have a fencing team or club back then. When I got to Princeton University as a freshman, I knew I wasn't going to make the basketball team. I attended a demonstration put on by the fencing team to recruit members. I was fascinated by the sport and joined the team. At that time, there were very few freshmen who joined the team who had fenced before so everyone had a chance to learn how to fence and make the team. It was the "survival of the fittest". I stayed with it and was on the All Ivy Team in 1969 and 1970 and All American in 1970. One of the highlights of my fencing career was defeating the world champion, Friedrich Wessel of Germany, at an international fencing tournament in New York in 1970. I also had the opportunity to represent the U.S. as a member for of the U.S. World University Games Fencing Team in 1970. I was hooked on the sport.
On The Different Weapons in Fencing
There are three different "weapon" events in fencing. My specialty was foil which was traditionally a practice weapon. It is lighter than the dueling sword— the epee, another fencing weapon. The third weapon is the saber which was traditionally a cavalry weapon.
Back around the time I competed in the 1970's and early 1980s, men competed in all three weapons but women competed in foil. Today, women compete in all three weapons and all three are Olympic events for women. Besides differences in the weight of the weapons, the targets are different. By targets, I mean the area of the body that the fencer must "hit" the weapon in order to score a point, known as a "touch"—whence the French term, touche. In foil, the target is the torso, where the thrusts will have a lethal effect—in practice, the purpose in a true sword fight was to deliver a lethal attack. In epee, the traditional dueling g the target is the whole body, because in a duel, the purpose was to simply draw blood. In epee and foil, the touch is scored with the point. In sabre, the sword would be sword would be wielded by a combatant on horseback. In sabre the target is from the waist up—where the person on a horse would be vulnerable. But, more importantly, the touch can be scored with the side of the blade and not only the point. Thus, sabre is a slashing weapon. While I concentrated in foil, I was a finalist in the National Championships in epee and competed internationally in epee. I also competed in the NCAAs in sabre and was an All American in sabre.
The 1972 Olympics
I was serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1972 when I qualified for the U.S. Olympic Fencing Team in foil. I was 23 years old. I was fortunate to be able to make the Olympic team since I did not fence in high school. These days, most Olympic team members have fenced since they were 10 years old. We did not have any programs of that sort back in the 1970s. Actually, it was not difficult travelling at that time. The entire team, all Olympic sports, assembled in Washington, DC and we took charter flights over to Munich Germany. I knew a fencer who competed in the 1936 Olympics who told me about sailing to Germany and practicing on board the ship.
The Olympics were a festive event. Security in the Olympic village was lax. We were able to bring friends in the village without any problem. Then terror struck. Terrorists took a number of Israeli athletes hostages. One of the hostages was the fencing coach, Andre Spitzer, whom I knew. The terrorists demanded to be given an airplane to take the hostages out of Germany. The terrorists were allowed to bring the hostages to the Munich airport. There, the German police tried to rescue them. All of the hostages and all of the terrorists were killed. I happened to be away from the Olympic Village when the hostage taking took place. The fencing events were over as were most of the events. The hostage taking took place with only a few days of competition in any sport remaining. At that point, the Olympics became a very sad event. The Closing Ceremonies were a memorial service and not very joyful. There was a real concern that the Olympics would not survive this tragedy
I did not win a medal at the Olympics. I was eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the Men's Foil individual event. Our team was eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the Team event but I had the best team record, In the team event, four fencers fence a match with each of four fencers on the opposing team for a total of sixteen matches.
Post 1972 Olympics
After the 1972 and the completion of my stint in the Naval Reserve in 1974, I returned to law school at NYU. I continued fencing and competing. Upon graduation, I became a law clerk for a judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. His chambers was in Western New York and the court was in Albany. Every three weeks we travelled to Albany for a two week session of the Court. It was difficult to train. I had to drive 50 miles each way to train at Cornell when were ere at home and did not have any time to fence in Albany. As a result I just missed making the 1976 Olympic team and was the alternative. I had to give up my spot on the 1975 Pan American Games team.
The 1980 Olympics
When I finished my clerkship, I began working in New York City and was able to train and compete regularly. I was in the 1979 Pan American Games team and won a bronze and silver medal. I qualified for the 1980 team but then politics again entered my Olympic experience. President Carter decided that the U.S. would boycott the 1980 Olympics because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The boycott was very controversial and the U.S. Government strong armed the Olympic Committee into boycotting the Olympics.
Olympic athletes did not believe in using sports for political or foreign policy purposes. The Olympic boycott was a failure. It did not get the Russians to leave Afghanistan and in retaliation, as discussed below, the Russians retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Each sport's federation was allowed to select a sports competition as a substitute. The U.S. Fencing Association came up with a brilliant idea. The U.S. Olympic Fencing Team travelled to China to compete with the Chinese team in 4 cities—Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanking and Shanghai. It was a memorable trip but no substitute for the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. I was more experienced and seasoned in 1980 and hoping for a better result.
After the 1980 Oympics
I stopped competing in 1981 but was selected as a referee for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The Russians retaliated against the U.S. for boycotting Moscow in 1980 but the Chinese team appeared for the first time in many years and the Olympics were a success.
I have fenced in a few alumni/varsity fencing meets at Princeton since retiring from competition but haven't fenced much. I found it difficult to fence for fun after having done so competitively.
My experience at Regis helped me to handle pressure and competitive situations. While Regis was not so much a competitive environment physically (except for making the basketball team), it certainly was a competitive environment intellectually . A significant aspect of fencing and any sport, is the ability to focus on a goal and withstand stress and self-doubt. Regis did teach me to overcome those doubts, and understand that one can achieve success by focusing and working hard. One of the impediments to doing better as a fencer on the international level is that at the time I competed, fencing was an amateur sport here in the U.S. Most of our competitors â€“the fencers from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well as Western European countries like France, Italy and Germany were professional fencers who were in the military or were physical education instructors. Nowadays more American fencers after college have sponsors and can devote more time to training without having to hold down a full time job. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my years as a competitor and balancing my sports "career" with my full time job as a lawyer, husband and father (for the latter part of my career).
As for Regis, it was the defining period of my life. At Regis, I learned and developed the values that I live by. Since retiring as a fencer, I have devoted most of my free time to public service and pro bono representation. My best friends are my Regis friends with whom I still keep in contact.