Mention swordplay as depicted on the silver screen and Columbia University fencer Ben Atkins will make a purist's grimace. Still, his own flair for drama is worthy of Errol Flynn. At the NCAA championships held March 27-31 at Wayne State University in Detroit, Atkins, a 21-year-old senior, not only led the underdog Lions to the team championship but also became the first collegiate fencer in 46 years to earn individual honors ir two weapons. After taking the foil title in 1991, Atkins triumphed in the èpèe at this year's NCAAs, a feat roughly equivalent to a boxer's winning one crown as a lightweight stick-and-move specialist and a second as a heavyweight KO artist.
Inspired—he will reluctantly admit—by The Three Musketeers, Atkins wanted to study fencing at age four, but the instructor who lived near his family's Greenwich Village apartment thought he was too young. "My dad told him. 'Give him a lesson, he'll get bored and you'll never see him again,' " Atkins recalls. But young Atkins, using a two-foot-long foil, was hooked. "It always seemed to me the complete sport, fast-paced and very competitive," he says. "It allows you to use your strength, your speed, your strategy."
And, in Atkins's case, your versatility. To score in the foil, a fencer must first parry an attack, then counter with an offensive move and touch the point of the blade on his opponent's torso. In èpèe, whoever strikes point-first on any part of an opponent's body earns a touch.
At 5'9", Atkins is short to fence èpèe, an event in which reach is crucial. But he compensates by jitterbugging along the 40-by 6-foot strip, luring his adversary off-balance and lunging in for a touch. "Tempo is so very important, the feeling that this is the right time to move," says Columbia coach Aladar Kogler. "That Ben has."
Kogler began teaching Atkins privately while Atkins was a junior at Stuyvesant High in New York City, and he encouraged him to diversify. Atkins won two national age-group titles in foil and the 1991 Junior Pan Ams in èpèe. Since coming to Columbia, he has fenced where Kogler has needed him most. In Detroit that was in the èpèe, and Atkins won the championship by vanquishing Christopher Klaus of Princeton 6-5, 1-5, 5-2 in the finals. That title gave Atkins a double that was last accomplished by New York University's Abraham Balk, who won both foil and èpèe in 1947.
The Lions entered the team competition as heavy underdogs. In what might be seen as method acting for swashbucklers, they had prepped by shearing their hair, growing goatees and fixing gold caps to their teeth. On March 31, the Columbia èpèe squad trailed 4-2 in bouts with Penn and needed to win three straight encounters to earn the overall team title. Atkins led the way with a come-from-behind win that triggered two more victories.
With an eye to making the '96 Olympic team, Atkins will concentrate on foil after college. A political science major, he plans to go to law school this fall, but for a while he thought about a career in film. Atkins has written three screenplays, none of which contains the words en garde. "The movies tend to demean the 'real sport' aspect of fencing," he says. "It's the most satisfying sport of them all when you win."