It had been about 40 minutes or so of hanging out with Will Lehr when I decided to stab him.
Well, not quite.
I’d gone to the Lehr’s Island residence — a second home for the family of Will, his father Bill and mother Sui Zee — to learn about fencing. A sophomore at New York University, Will is on the school’s fencing team.
As a student at Ward Melville High School, he was one of the top fencers on Long Island, putting together winning streaks of 25-0 and 37-0 for his team, which racked up numerous championships.
Sitting at the kitchen table one morning last week, the tall, perfectly fit 19-year-old athlete said he’s studying public policy and economics at NYU with an ambition for a career in government, either in elected office or “something bureaucratic,” with no emphasis on the negative association of the word.
He worked this past summer in the office of the New York City Comptroller, and saw, he said, how policy can be developed to benefit citizens. He spoke of the migrant crisis as something to deal with, to make the city a better place. “I like to contribute,” he said.
He’s also completely up to date on Island issues, speaking about the development of the Comprehensive Plan and commenting on Reporter letters to the editor on several subjects. Registered to vote here, he said, “We’re all worried about water.”
FINDING HIS WAY TO FENCING
His father Bill is one of the Island’s greatest athletes, representing the Island in the wheelchair competition of the 10K every year, and a marathoner at Boston and other venues and two Olympic Games. Sui Zee was a pathologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center (she now is at NYU Langone). Will was enrolled in Shelter Island School in kindergarten and 2nd grade, but the commute for Sui to Stony Brook was getting more and more wearing, so they bought a second home nearer the hospital.
He was introduced to fencing through school when in the 5th grade he picked up an epee, a long slender sword, one of three weapons that constitute the sport, the others being the foil and the sabre. For Will, wielding the epee for the first time was love at first lunge. Asked what sparks his passion for the sport, he said, “I love the one-on-one competition.”
Although it’s a team sport, like tennis, the athlete is on his/her own. In fact, tennis is a close second to fencing for him as a sport he pursues. “I like if you make a mistake, in tennis or fencing, that it’s on you and no one else,” he said. “But if you win, that’s really rewarding.” The other similarity is it’s a physical contest, but “they’re both really 80% mental,” Will said, speaking of the intense focus that’s required, and adjusting competitive strategies on the fly. “It’s physical chess.”
And then there’s the gear — the all-white uniform of long socks, short pants called “knickers,” an undershirt to protect the arm that wields the sword, the thick coat and the “mask,” which is more like a helmet. When he first saw the gear up close, Will said, “It looked really cool. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”
SPORT AND ART
An ancient sport emerging from combat, refined by Roman gladiatorial schools, modern sword fighting emerged, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, when it was supported in England by Henry VIII, who granted commissions to fencing masters to teach the sport.
“The Italians,” according to the encyclopedia, “discovered the effectiveness of the dexterous use of the point rather than the edge of the sword. By the end of the 16th century, their lighter weapon, the rapier, and a simple, nimble, and controlled fencing style, emphasizing skill and speed rather than force, had spread throughout Europe … the lunge was developed and adopted, and fencing became established as an art.”
It’s still an elitist sport, Will acknowledged, but that’s changing. “There’s more diversity now, and in high school, anyone can join the team.”
He considers himself lucky to have attended Ward Melville with its superior program. “We had great coaching,” he said. “At a lot of other schools the coach is an English teacher who has no idea what fencing is.”
Asked what specific areas of the body a fencer has to concentrate on, Will said, “The entire body. A lot of weight training,” and exercises to increase mobility and stamina.
TAKING UP THE SWORD
Out on the deck, Will gave me an epee, which felt light but sturdy, perfectly balanced in my hand. The grip is like picking up a pistol; the hand fits neatly behind the guard. At the end of the sword is a half-inch tip that retracts when hitting a surface.
The epee is hooked up electrically to respond when the tip hits a surface, scoring a point for the fencer. “Used to be,” Will said, with a sly smile, “you scored a point by drawing first blood. Won’t happen today.”
The mask fit comfortably over my head, but was instantly disorienting looking through the fine mesh. “You’ll get used to it,” Will said, and he was right.
For a tall, broad-shouldered young man, Will was extraordinarily light on his feet, knees bending, bouncing on his toes, his swift movements fluid, graceful, and as he approached me, epee poised, it was like looking at a jump-cut edit in a film — he was 8 feet from me, now nearly on top of me, less than a second and he was gone, bouncing easily back at 8 feet, and then close in, weaving, and gone again.
It was decided that Lauren Cribbs, a friend of Will’s, would take a photo of me scoring a point. She took it, but when I told her to stop laughing, she wouldn’t listen to me.
With just a few lunges and watching my opponent do his here-and-gone conjuring act with a sword in his hand, I understood what Will had said earlier, about one of the gifts his sport gives him, besides fun, and the joy of doing something well is “pressure. Learning how to deal with it, how to use it, and overcome it.”