Fencing: The cost of competing can be prohibitive

Nolan Williams, Quinn Crum and Aahil Cunningham-Snelson
Photos by Charles Hallman

Over 4,500 fencers from around the country and some from as far as Japan visited Minneapolis for 10 days July 2-11. Inside three Minneapolis Convention Center exhibit halls with a combined square footage of 277,200, fencers as young as seven and as old as in their 80s—average age was 20—competed in pool matches for the 2022 USA Fencing National Championships.  

The sport of fencing first developed in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries. It is more than the dueling swords such as seen in movies. There are actually three disciplined combat sports: foil, epee and saber, each using a different kind of weapon and having a different set of rules.

It’s not a sport typically associated with Blacks, although fencing has had its share of outstanding Black fencers over the years. These include Ruth White, the first Black to win a US national fencing title (1969); Sharon Monplasir, a two-time Pan American gold medalist (1987, 1991); Errin Smart, the first U.S. Black female to medal in Olympic fencing (2008) and a five-time US Division I National champion; and Nikki Franke, a two-time Olympian, two-time U.S. women’s foil champ who started the Temple women’s fencing team and developed a winning program from scratch.

After a quick tutorial by a USA Fencing spokesperson, the MSR literally walked the MCC rooms of fencing matches, watching and waiting to see if anyone was Black. We found several. The consensus among them is that the sport they love isn’t very diverse, but it could be.

“It’s very, very expensive,” 24-year-old Quinn Crum explained. Now living and working in California, the Connecticut native offered her best estimates of what it cost her to be a fencer:  “Each blade is like $200,” said Crum. 

“Each piece of equipment is around $150 to $200, and then you have to pay your own costs and tournaments.” Her Minneapolis trip? “I would probably say like $1500 or $2000.”

“It’s not the cheapest [sport],” added Aljinee Snelson of Dallas. Her 16-year-old son Aahil Cunningham-Snelson has competed in fencing (saber) for seven years. He told us after a preliminary match, “It is my first nationals. I did Junior Olympics, but it’s been a while.” 

“He’s done well in several tournaments,” said parent Wayne Thornhill of Charlotte, North Carolina who was about to watch his son Kwasi, age 16, compete in his match. “He’s been in the nationals the last three years.” 

Nolan Williams of New Jersey now attends Ohio State. “I’ve been fencing since I was seven years old,” he recalled. “I started fencing because my private school had a poster for fencing…and I thought I was going to be a ninja. So I tried it… I ended up sticking with it.”

Quinn remembered seeing a fencing demonstration at her grade school when she was six, and she told her mother that’s what she wanted to do. “I actually am coming back now after a two-year break,” said the 2019 Columbia University grad now working as a talent manager.

Andrea Wilkinson of Dallas said that fencing has helped her 15-year-old son, a fencer for three years, become a better student. “This has helped a lot of him to grow and become much more mature,” she said. 

“I’m actually excited that he chose to participate in this…but you don’t see many people like us at all. And when we see each other, we gravitate toward one another.”

“This is important that others see us in the game,” concluded Thornhill of fencing’s need for more Blacks. “It’s also exposure for African American kids.”