The V-shaped blade on Katie Vella’s sword has a blunt tip, but her focus is sharp. Vella, 16, is one of New Jersey’s top high school èpèe fencers and a regular at national competitions. As she thrusts her weapon against her opponent’s thick canvas uniform, the movable tip depresses and sends an electronic signal to a scoring box indicating a touch. Five touches and the young woman from Bridgewater wins the bout.
Dozens of amateurs like Vella will compete April 11 and 12 at the Cobra Fencing Club in Jersey City to qualify for July’s U.S. Fencing Association Summer National Championships in San Jose, California. As in the past, the USFA expects more fencers from New Jersey at the Summer Nationals than from any other state.
“It’s crazy,” says Vella, a junior at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge. “You fly all the way out to wherever, and you’re fencing this kid from the club down the road.”
How did the Garden State come to dominate American fencing? Location is key. Over the last century, many European coaches immigrated to the metropolitan area. Some—including top coaches from Italy and the former Soviet bloc—settled in New Jersey and opened private clubs here. New Jersey also has a unique high school scene, with 54 schools fielding varsity teams in five districts. It’s by far the nation’s largest, most competitive high school fencing program.
New Jersey’s individual high school champions in the three different fencing blades—èpèe, foil and saber—often are highly ranked national or international competitors, some of whom arrive as freshmen with years of experience. “New Jersey is known for its really tough high school program,” says Ross Monteith, 16, a junior at North Hunterdon High School who competes in foil. “Our foil squad finished second in the state the last two years, but our top foil fencer [senior Albert Zhang] competes at Cadet World Cup.”