Author: Paul DeVere | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Maybe for Una Jackson it should be touché. According to the USFA, she’s number one in the United States in her category. USFA? That would be the United States Fencing Association. Jackson, who measures in at a charming five feet even, is in first place (as of December 2011) in the association’s Veteran 70+ Women’s Saber division.
Yes, saber (or sabre, if you prefer), one of those wicked looking things you might have seen in the1968 remake of the movie, Charge of the Light Brigade, where Trevor Howard (or was it John Gielgud?) rides into the cannon of the Russians, attempting to slice heads and other body parts of the enemy (and, of course, failing). While today’s fencing saber isn’t quite as nasty, the idea is the same. You score points for any touch on your opponent from the waist up, including the arms and head.
“They only let women start to do the saber in the 1980s, because they (USFA) thought it was too violent,” Jackson, who is 74, explained with a laugh. She remembered a situation in a regional match in Atlanta where she was paired with a young college kid. “They can hit your sleeve and your mask. Because I’m short, they tend to jump up in the air. I don’t like fencing men, which you have to do in open competition. One time I watched this kid fence—he was in college. He was like six feet tall. He would run down the strip, jump in the air and whack. So I get out there and I see him coming, and I turn my head. He said, ‘Don’t ever do that. You could get hurt.’ I said, ‘It was just the thought you running at me.’ Of course he was right. It was pretty scary.”
While being a competitive fencer at 74 is a bit unusual, what is even more so is that Jackson took up the sport just a little over three years ago. Why fencing? Jackson said, “I must have seen it (a match) when I was younger, because I talked about it, about wanting to do it. After my husband (Fred) died, it was kind of on the list of things I wanted to do. I wanted to sky dive, I wanted to do more traveling, and I wanted to fence,” Jackson said.
Jackson did sky dive when she was 70 and thought about taking it up more seriously, but the $6,000 entry fee for equipment and training was a bit daunting. The “more travel” wish list has taken her to walking the Great Wall in China, riding the Palace on Wheels (an extraordinary train) through India, and to a hot air balloon safari in Kenya. Her “more travel” wish, and fencing, also took her to Croatia in 2010 for the 50th World Fencing Championship. While she admits it wasn’t her finest performance, she made the cut and walked away with an eighth place medal. “That’s what you want to do—make the cut,” Jackson explained.
In 2008 she saw someone fencing on television. It wasn’t a match, just a brief glimpse. However, that was enough to immediately get her to her computer and check out the local fencing scene. She found the Savannah Fencing Club and called. “I didn’t tell him how old I was. He said, ‘It’s a sport, you have to be in condition.’ I told him I work out at the gym every other night faithfully, I play tennis and I’m still running. He said, ‘You’ll be fine. Come watch us.’ That was January ’08. I watched and said to myself, I can do that.” And she did. She travels from her home in Shipyard to Savannah twice a week to fence at the club and to learn. Occasionally she spends a week in Atlanta for more intense training.
In fencing, there are three weapons: the epee, the foil and the saber. Jackson began with the foil. Her foil coach, Stewart Johnson said, “Una is the exception to the rule. Most people start when they’re young. But she’s got a lot of desire to do well. She’s been the oldest student I’ve had. It’s really a good sport for people her age. It’s low impact and works well for them. We’d love to see a whole crowd (of seniors) come out.”
Jackson’s saber coach, Charles Williams, who began fencing as a young teen, said he had never taught someone over 70. “She’s very much her own character. She’s got so much ability for someone her age. She just doesn’t always realize it,” he said with a smile. “Saber is all distance, footwork and timing. Una’s got the physical capability of really taking it to them. She’s taking on something people half her age wouldn’t even consider.”
Williams made the distinction between epee and foil, and saber. “Saber is flashier and quicker. Touches are very quick. When you hit your opponent in foil or epee you have to hit them for a certain amount of time and with a certain amount of strength. You have to make a penetrating blow. With the saber, it’s completely different. It’s just a light flick of the wrists. In saber, when they say ‘fence’ somebody ‘dies’ right away” Williams said.
“When I took the (fencing) lessons, I had one goal: to enter a competition—just one, to say I competed. That was April of ’08. In September, I entered my first competition. I did a terrible job. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I had a lot of fun. Then, in January they had the North American Cup, the NAC. It was going to be in Atlanta. Some of the students from SCAD wanted to go, but nobody had any money. Because they belonged to the SCAD fencing team, the school paid the entry fee. So I said, ‘Tell you what. We’ll pile everyone in my station wagon and we’ll drive to Atlanta.’”
Jackson’s intention was just to be the students’ chauffeur. “But they said I should compete. There were three guys and another girl and myself.”
Jackson was doubtful but decided to enter. “In the competition, I got a medal, but nobody else did!” Jackson gave a self-depreciating laugh. “They gave out eight national medals. I came in last, eighth place, but I came home with a medal.”
When Jackson isn’t off fencing, she’s a volunteer for Hospice of the Lowcountry and works with Deep Well. Next on her list? She’d like to learn to fly and go solo when she’s 80. For now, however, maybe another medal will do.