Back in 1965, Bruce Milligan was a 5-foot-10 high school freshman in Islip, Long Island, eagerly looking forward to playing basketball. But one afternoon his brother dragged him to a practice of the school's fencing team and, after only one session, he recalls, "I forgot all about basketball."
So much so that his entire life, in the 27 years since that first exposure, has revolved around fencing and the coaching of fencing. He's done well in both. For seven years he coached the fencing team at Vassar College and was named Coach of the Year in 1988 by the Middle Atlantic Collegiate Fencing Association. He is the reigning Middle Atlantic Fencing Champion and also won the 1991 Maryland Division Championships, both events sanctioned by the United States Fencing Association.
Currently a computer game designer with MicroProse Inc. in Hunt Valley, he can be found on Wednesday evenings giving lessons in the company cafeteria. In his spare time he is either training for a fencing tournament, fencing in a bout or editing American Fencing magazine.
Over chicken and snow peas at a restaurant near his office we talked of epees, foils and the swashbuckling life.
Q: That first day at Islip High School must have really impressed you.
A: I liked the appeal of myself against another person, of one will trying to dominate another. Even if you don't know what you're doing it's still a question of you defeating someone by pretty much convincing them that you're better.
Q: You make it sound psychological.
A: I remember one of my fencers complaining before a tournament, "Coach, he's better than I am." My attitude was "you don't have to be better, you just have to win." The first thing I teach my teams, if you act like you're going to win, at the very minimum your opponent has to think maybe you know something he doesn't know and maybe he should be afraid of you.
Q: What kind of equipment do you need?
A: You need a mask to protect your head, a jacket to protect your body. There are three weapons: the foil, a light, flexible weapon. The real dueling sword was most akin to what we call the epee, which has a very heavy, triangular blade. Then we have the saber. You can score by hitting someone with the side of a saber, not just the point as with the epee and the foil.
Q: What skills are required?
A: First, you have to be patient. In every other sport you're taught to be on your toes. In fencing that's completely wrong. Your weight should be centered on your feet. You don't step normally, you shuffle sideways to present a smaller target. You don't begin movements by leaning into them.
Q: It sounds like boxing.
A: The modern sport of boxing was developed from fencing in the 18th century. Too many people were dying in duels. If you look at boxers, their footwork is very similar to ours.
Q: What are the physical demands?
A: In a typical tournament, you may face 20 opponents. They are six-minute bouts, but it is not a sport where you can rest. What I used to do to beginners who thought it might be easy, I put them in the en garde position for 60 seconds knowing full well they wouldn't be able to stay. The mental strains of fencing equal or exceed the physical strains, because there is a person over there with a weapon in his hand and he's trying to hit you. You're not really afraid of getting hurt. Your greatest fear is of being humiliated.
Q: Is it dangerous?
A: It's hard to get around the fact that what you're learning as a fencer, in theory, is the best way to kill someone with a steel weapon. So we take extreme precautions. The points are all blunted. But the danger is when a blade breaks. It usually happens in the middle of going back and forth. People do die occasionally, but more likely at high levels because they are so quick and so strong they can't stop themselves. The most notable incident happened in the 1980 finals in the Olympics. The world champion got killed by someone whose blade went through his mask and into his eye and pierced his brain. The newer weapons hardly ever break, and snap cleanly near the hand.
Q: Why fencing? It can't be the money or the fame.
A: No. Most people don't fence to win a medal. You're not necessarily trying to prove that you're better than someone else. You're trying to prove you're as good as you can be.
Q: It seems you're describing more than a sport.
A: This isn't a sport, this is our religion. This is our path to self-realization. You find out about yourself in this sport, you find out about other people and about human nature. We don't fence for medals. We certainly don't fence for money. In Europe if you win a tournament you might win a Volvo or a Mercedes. If I win a tournament I'll get a bottle of Martinelli's sparkling apple cider.
Q: Can you go to a tournament and not win and come home feeling you have achieved?
A: Yes, sure. Last year at the national championships I was 26th. I felt I should have been at minimum in the top 20. But it was the best I'd ever done in Division 1 in the foil and I felt pretty good about it.
Q: How would you sell this game to another 14-year-old who wants to go out for basketball?
A: One thing I would say is when you're 23 you'll probably be over the hill for basketball. But you can fence as long as you can walk. I'm 41. I'm better than I've ever been.