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Alone at the top

Matt Mooney | Wednesday, March 3, 2004

For over a year now, the super-sized numeral atop Grace Hall has remained an illuminated fixture in the night sky of Notre Dame. It serves as a beacon of achievement, proclaiming to the Irish faithful that one of their teams is the best in its field.But despite the notoriety of igniting the No. 1 and maintaining a spot atop the polls, the exploits of the Notre Dame fencing team have gone largely unnoticed. The lack of attention gets frustrating for seniors like Danielle Davis. “I think sometimes people don’t understand the sport that well,” she said. “They take for granted how much work we put into it and how hard it is to be the national champion in fencing.”Freshman foilist Frankie Bontempo hoped that coming to a school with a track record of success like Notre Dame would provide him with a more knowledgeable fencing environment. “I figured that most people would make an effort to go out and watch just because it’s like a big dynasty that we have,” he said. “The fencing team is always really, really good, so I kind of expected that more people would have gone to see it or know a little bit more about it.”Even the more knowledgeable fans like senior Sarah Fournie do not have much of a grasp beyond the basics. “I know that there are three kinds: epee, foil and saber,” she said. “They’re hooked up to these electric wires so that every time they get touched it makes a light go off. [I know] slightly more than average, just from knowing [the manager].”What makes this general lack of awareness even more perplexing is the popularity of the fencing elective included in the physical education program. “It was one of those things [I’d] never tried and being from the West Coast fencing isn’t that big of a thing,” sophomore Dan Carey said. “It was a new challenge [but] I loved every minute of it.” However, Carey said the appeal soon wore off, saying, “[I follow it] a little bit, just the articles that I read and just through The Observer basically.”The lack of exposure to fencing appears to be one of the biggest hurdles in overcoming various preconceptions. Bontempo felt some enthusiasm sprouting among his friends who came to watch the Irish fence in their lone home bout of the season on Jan. 31. “I thought people were really surprised about what they saw,” he said. “Once they saw it, they were all pretty excited about what was going on once they started to actually understand it a little bit.” But even fencing at home was not enough to stimulate a fencing revival.Another factor working against the fencers is that their sport does not have a substantial following in America compared with other sports. Most fencers hone their skills at private clubs, outside of the public eye. And most of what the public eye ever sees is dramatized in Hollywood. “I think it is an interesting sport,” Keough junior Joe Harmon said, “but more in James Bond [Die Another Day] it was kinda cool.”However, the lack of choreographed stunts is not indicative of the team’s performance. This year, the fencers again posted a very successful regular season campaign. The women carried the torch this time as they finished with a perfect 26-0 mark, only slightly better than the 24-1 men’s team. The undefeated regular season is the first for the women since the 1994-95 season, a team which also won the national championship. Though the men dropped out of the top spot in the rankings after their only loss to St. John’s, the women still retain their No. 1 ranking.But Irish fencing, despite all of its success, still remains in the shadows. The Irish would have a chance to emerge from that darkness as they host the Midwest Fencing Conference Championships at the Joyce Center on Saturday; however, the hosts will be without a large student contingent to help kick off their postseason bid for a repeat title, as the student body will be gone on spring break. But for these fencers, going alone is the way it has always been.

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