17-year-old whiz kid takes a stab at the national fencing scene

March 24, 2005

Two faceless opponents stare each other down from behind dark masks. Swords are poised gracefully yet powerfully in their hands; they are ready to strike at a whisper of motion. Andrew Gardner is the shorter of the two. He calms his breathing. Sweat pours beneath the layers of gear he wears.

“Ready? Fence.”

Foils flash, and loud beeps indicating hits fill the air over the sound of metal on metal and stomping feet. The bout is over in seconds — they usually are. Andrew scored the points his team needed for this tournament, but it was frustrating work. His opponent was a beginning fencer twice his age, and he was wearing a chest-protector beneath his gear, which, although legal, made it difficult for Andrew to score a point. His foil was bouncing off the plastic underneath his opponent’s jacket too fast to register a hit.

“Men don’t usually wear chest protectors,” Andrew says off the strip, a long, narrow area where fencers must remain during a bout.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in St. Louis. Andrew usually fences with his club in Kansas City on Sundays, but this week he’s competing in a small team tournament as a favor to another fencer. Besides, it’s good practice. He’s heading to a national tournament in Denver later this week.

In addition to being a competitive foil fencer, Andrew is a 17-year-old Hickman High School junior who plans to go to MIT, study architecture and live in Europe when he’s done. He’s nearly fluent in French thanks to his time spent with a tutor every Saturday, and he’s taking more Advanced Placement (AP) courses at Hickman than any other kid he knows. He’s also into documentary films, nonfiction and international red wines. “I don’t like California reds,” he says. (His mother lived in France for a while and lets him have a glass of wine with dinner sometimes.)

His nonfencing uniform is jeans and a T-shirt. But even if you met him on a day when he’s wearing his Nike swoosh T-shirt that reads “Child Labor,” you might find him to be the most sophisticated teenager you’ve ever met.

His mother recently said to him: “Andrew,” — and she always starts with an AN-drew, emphasis on the first syllable — “you can’t take four AP courses, continue taking French lessons and train for fencing. You have to give something up.”

“Fine,” he said, teeth clenched, “I’ll give up dating.”

At least, that’s what he tells her. Besides, there’s no time to worry about girls right now. He has fencing to worry about.

Lessons from afar

Five years ago Andrew started playing around with his mother’s fencing gear. She had fenced in college and had recently taken up the foil again. His interest piqued, Andrew decided to take a fencing class through the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department. Andrew’s first instructor was a blind woman from Bahrain named Day Al-Mohamed. Thanks to his brutal bouts with Day and fencing without glasses (his did not fit under his fencing mask), Andrew learned a lesson that’s tough to grasp for many beginning fencers — you can’t always watch the foil.

Before long, Andrew was fencing with the local club at Dexter’s Gym. He learned quickly and outgrew Columbia’s fencing scene within a year. He needed a new coach, and at his first tournament, he found one. After a bout with a fencer from the Kansas City Fencing Center, Andrew’s parents spoke with his opponent’s coach, Emilia Ivanova, a seven-time Bulgarian national champion in women’s foil and former coach of their national team. That was three years ago. Emi has been Andrew’s coach ever since.

Under Emi’s tutelage, Andrew has become more competitive. He travels to tournaments all over the country several times a year. At the North American Cup in Denver, he might have the opportunity to move up in the ranks of fencing. He occasionally fumes over missed opportunities earlier this year to move up from being a D fencer to a C. (A is the highest.) Perhaps this tournament will be different.

The first day started off cold in Denver, but as the weather warmed up outside the huge downtown convention center, so did Andrew. He stabbed his way through a pool of six other foil fencers and remained undefeated. Next, the competing fencers were ranked and assigned opponents for the direct elimination round.

For a sport that still seems exclusive in the Midwest, there’s a surprising diversity represented at the tournament. Forget your image of fencing as an elitist sport for James Bond types. An Indian expatriate-Brit-slash-Ph.D. student and the epee fencer from Toronto whom he coaches fit in as well as anyone else. There’s just no such thing as a typical fencer. Even the elite fencers come in all shapes and sizes. Aside from fitness, the only advantageous attribute is height. (Long arms equal a long reach.)

“I’m 5’ 9”-ish,” Andrew says. The “ish” stands for not quite.

Despite the diverse crowd, Andrew will face a familiar fencer in his first direct elimination bout that afternoon. The opponent is Daniel Bass, a fellow Missourian from St. Louis, and Andrew is not happy about the matchup because they both know each other’s tricks.

All in the family

Andrew’s family has become a fencing family. Both parents usually travel with him to regional and national tournaments. Both drive him to Kansas City on Sundays for his training. Both like to talk fencing just as much as their son.

“It’s very psychological,” Andrew says on one of many Sunday sojourns to train with Emi.

“It’s like chess,” his mother, Noor Azizan-Gardner, says quickly. She is sitting in the passenger seat of her car next to Pete.

Peter Gardner is Andrew’s father. Andrew calls him Pete, never Dad, and has for as long as he can remember. But Mom is always Mom, never Noor. Every Sunday the three of them drive to the fencing club’s rented-out space in an Overland Park synagogue. Although he is 17, Gardner never drives on these trips. He hasn’t found time to get his driver’s license yet.

Pete, Noor and Andrew form an interesting family. Ashish Premkumar, Andrew’s oldest friend, calls them an intellectual family, even though his own parents are just as educated as Andrew’s. Pete is a professor emeritus of anthropology at MU and perhaps the closest thing Columbia has to a real-life Indiana Jones. He’s full of amazing tales involving polar bears, poisonous snakes and cholera. Noor directs MU’s diversity initiative and grew up on three different continents. “They’re really a multicultural family,” Ashish says.

The Gardners are like a second family to Ashish, and Andrew is like a brother. They got him into interesting books and films such as Dune and A Clockwork Orange at a fairly young age. Ashish and Andrew go to different high schools now, but they still get together to talk music and movies like most teenagers. The difference is that they’ll discuss a documentary they saw at Ragtag Cinemacafé instead of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Ashish says they’ve been talking about existentialism lately.

High school juniors who gab about philosophy? Don’t these guys ever just talk about girls?

Yes. Andrew might have a bourgeois air about him, but not all the time. His room is a mess. He eats Twizzlers and McDonald’s. He smarts off to his mom. He complains about homework.

He’s a normal high school kid, and some things go in and out of his head pretty quickly. Andrew lost his elimination match to the St. Louis fencer his first day at the tournament, which ended his fencing for the day. He said he was disappointed, but after the match he sat down to chat with the man he’d just spent the last 10 minutes trying to skewer. Despite elimination, Andrew still finished 19th for the day. He usually fences better on the second day, anyway.

Andrew used to try to squeeze in some homework between matches, but Emi doesn’t allow it anymore. On the second day of the North American Cup, Andrew is doing homework at 6:30 a.m., but he leaves it behind at the hotel half an hour later. Fencing is a sport that requires athletes to keep their heads in the game.

If skill is the yin of fencing, strategy is the yang. This cerebral aspect of the sport appeals to Andrew’s intellectual side. He loves to talk about following opponents’ moves and how inexperienced fencers are difficult to face in a bout because their lack of strategy makes them completely unpredictable.

Directing, or refereeing, at his own club and local events has further informed Andrew’s strategy. Even though fencers are wired to an electronic scoring system, foil fencing is not as simple as hitting your opponent. Foil fencers can only score a point when they have right of way. Directors must learn all of the subtleties and vagaries of the rules that govern fencing.

“The director is God,” Andrew says. He is articulate and confident when he directs and seems to enjoy being in charge.

That second morning of the tournament, Andrew seems to be in charge of every bout on the strip — this time as a fencer. He’s in a new pool of seven fencers and doing well so far.

In his fourth match, Andrew faces a C fencer several inches shorter than him. What this fencer lacks in reach he makes up for in skill and strategy, and Andrew loses by three points. He’s exasperated, but it’s temporary. He cordially shakes hands with his opponent at the end of the bout, per fencing etiquette.

Andrew comes out of the pools with only one loss and is subsequently ranked in the top 20 for the elimination rounds. Through a twist of fate, he’ll face a fencer from his own club if he makes it to the second round.

First, he has to beat a fencer from Texas who didn’t do very well in the pools that morning. Peter and Noor think it will be an easy win, and all three of them seem more worried about Andrew facing his club-mate, Gene Shmurak, in the next match. Like the bout with the St. Louis fencer the day before, Andrew and Gene know each other’s strategies very well and regard the pairing as a disaster.

But the low-ranked Texan who Andrew should have easily picked off turns out to be a tough opponent. On the sidelines, Pete and Noor wonder how he managed to do so poorly in the morning pools. Andrew loses the match, and this year’s North American Cup is over for him. It’s the earliest he’s ever been eliminated from a national tournament, but he’s in good spirits and even forgoes an early lunch to stick around and support Gene.

“C’est la vie,” Noor says.

On the way out of the venue, the Gardners run into Mr. Wade, the father of a fellow fencer Andrew made friends with the day before. Mr. Wade is a kindly gentleman from northern California who wears a driving cap all the time. His son is still in the tournament, so the Gardners wish him luck. He wishes them safe travels in return. It’s a typically warm exchange of pleasantries in a sport that has its roots in killing people with a sword.

“See you at summer nationals!” the Gardners say as they smile and wave goodbye.