In the 13 modern Olympiads more than 160 gold medals have been won by the men and women fencers of the world. Most of this gold now hangs on the bemedaled chest of great European fencers. No American has ever won, and while there is some hope for an American win at Melbourne in 1956, it is only hope, for from France, Italy, and Hungary the champions keep coming.
In these fencing strongholds of Europe, there is some incentive—good instruction and good competition—for swordsmen of all ages and, for the very best, whopping prestige, free travel, jobs and other privileges. By contrast, swordplay in the U.S.—excluding the improbable antics often seen on the poop decks of Hollywood—is a rather quiet and modest pursuit. Except in Olympic years, there is no money to send an American team to the annual world championships. Even the best Americans are little known, and their rewards are little more than the recreation they can cut from the sport with their own blade. A virtual mantle of obscurity goes with every title.
A NEW "EXPLOSIVE FORCE"
The national saber champion now in obscurity happens to be an appliance salesman who is fairly well known in the flow of air-conditioning units and television sets around Philadelphia and who on the street, with his fencing bag hanging from his 6-foot 4, 210-pound frame, is often mistaken for a viola player. His name is Dick Dyer, and he is worth remembering, since a number of European fencing masters now teaching here consider him the best hope to win the first gold medal in fencing for America in 1956. Dyer, who pulled out of the' Penn State football line to give fencing a fling, has acquired more saber finesse in five years than most men do in ten. The exciting quality that the fencing masters see in Dyer's saber tempo can only be fully explained by a fencing master waving both arms; but roughly speaking, the masters see an "explosive force" which was sadly lacking in the cautious, too-nice style of his predecessors.
How much Dyer improves hereafter will depend somewhat on how much good competition he gets. He is, in any event, likely to stick at the sport because he is now literally married to it. His wife, Louise Dyer, is the country's second-ranking woman fencer. The Dyers met—where else?—at a fencing competition. As Louise Dyer recalls with candor: "I saw this big husky boy bulging out of a fencing jacket half his size, and thought, 'That poor jerk is certainly going to get all cut up.' "
They were married this fall, definitely refusing the offers of fencing friends to have crossed swords at the church. "You can imagine," Dyer explains, "after a few drinks at the reception, out come the swords and guests pair off. Pretty soon somebody's eyeball is rolling on the floor."
It is the Dyers' hope, of course, that they will both be on the 1956 team. Dick Dyer's selection is almost certain. His wife's depends on how well she does against the fluctuating competition in tryouts and meets this winter and next June. Expectant mothers are forever leaving the fencing ranks and returning, and the U.S. strength in women's foil rides somewhat on the birthrate in fencing families. Louise Dyer's chances also depend on how much practice she can get now that she has left the good competition in New York, her home, to live in Philadelphia, where few women fence, and none fences well.
The indifference of anyone to fencing at times grates on Dick Dyer, who cannot understand why the sport rates so poorly. "In Philadelphia," he fusses, "fencing rates the same as court tennis, where somebody runs around a court that cost $90 million trying to put a ball in a pig sty. In Mexico at the Pan-American Games, even little boys see our fencing bags and know us."
Until such times as women are enticed, or dragged out, to oppose her foil, Louise Dyer will fence the men available. Even this is not altogether simple. In Philadelphia the good instruction and competition lies on the far side of the men's lockers in the fencing room of the University of Pennsylvania, so Louise is led in blindfolded through halls of unclad men. Much of the practice of thrusting and lunging by Louise Dyer, Dick Dyer and a varied throng of students and professional men is against the padded chest of Fencing Master Lajos Csiszar, a short, bushy-browed Hungarian with the soft, kind eyes of a basset hound and the alacrity of a cat.
In the afternoons and into the evenings in the rhythm of the thrusts, lunges, feints, parries, ripostes and counterparries, Csiszar is gently barking, "Lunge! La! Head up like a queen, not a peasant. Lunge! Dance, dance! Be loose like basketball. Dance!" On weekends competitions in foil, epee or saber may go far into the night, the swordsmen impatient to be done with each touch, the judges tired and befuddled. With the bemused look of a Mad Hatter, weary bout directors try to untangle the strokes and tempo of an instant of saber play. A few questionable decisions and a few small fires of rage are lit in sporting souls. The clashes are harder, sparks fly from the blades, and the cuts that earlier were deft and exquisite are now more often bruising swats.
This fervor both cheers and saddens Master Csiszar, whose native Hungary now rules the fencing world. "There can be good fencers in America," notes Csiszar. "They are here in college, but they leave, they get jobs, they get married, they do not come back. It takes the love and confidence Dick Dyer has."
The importance of confidence, Dyer himself acknowledges. "Maybe the European tempo is faster," he observed recently, sizing up his chances, "but I'm not sitting here thinking the Europeans are better. Baron de Coubertin said the important thing is not winning but taking part. Well, that's hog-wash. The important thing is to take part and win."