On the Fence: Lawyers take a stab at an age-old sport

Suzy Fanning is unabashedly enthusiastic about her new passion.

Lets go stab somebody, she invites in a cheerful and charming English accent. I think theres some saber swinging in your future.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, a senior tournament for fencers over 40 is under way at Salle dEtroit, home of the Underground Fencing Organization located unobtrusively in a Livonia industrial park. In a large back room, more than a dozen fencers, dressed in white knickers and jackets and concealed behind black mesh masks, face off against each other on six narrow strips. The slapping sound of feet advancing and retreating along the strips is constant, as are the swatting of the thin swords known as foils and the buzzers that go off whenever a touch is registered.

Ready, fence, order the bout judges.

Its a world I had no clue existed, says Fanning, who took up fencing six months ago after her 10-year-old daughter Hannah started taking classes.

The sport has allowed Fanning and her daughter to share an interest.

I cant play on a soccer team with her or do gymnastics with her, says Fanning, but I can fence with her.

Fanning also has found that the sport appeals to the lawyer in her.

After all, every lawyer enjoys a good fight, she says.

If you were going to write a brief while fighting with a sword, it would be like fencing, says Fanning. Its a mental and physical challenge all the time. Its all on you, how you want to combat your opponent.

Fencing relies on physical and mental ability, reaction time and bursts of aggression coupled with anticipation and strategy. You have to be flexible, dexterous and nimble while at the same time trying to think two moves ahead. Some call the sport a physical form of chess on speed.

In any given bout, you might not be the better player, but if you can outsmart your opponent, you can win the day, says Fanning.

Its warm behind the mask. Through the mesh, your adversary is a cross-hatched target. The white jacket is stiff, heavy canvas that takes some getting used to. You hold the foil firmly between thumb and forefinger, tip pointed daringly at your foes chest. Footwork you quickly figure out is key as you advance on your opponent. Suddenly, you lunge, but end up short. Your rival ripostes the attack and comes back at you. You cannot retreat fast enough.

Its more important to make your moves correctly rather than quickly, advises Ben Schleis, who with Amy Webster owns and operates the fencing club.

Wayne County attorney Elizabeth Kocab is accomplished enough to move correctly as well as quickly a deadly combination. Her footwork is rapid and experienced.  Her lunge is sure, her ripostes deft.

My hand does a lot of the thinking for me, says Kocab.

The General Counsel for the Wayne County Circuit Court has been fencing since high school and was an All-American fencer at the University of Detroit. In 1972, she made the Under-20 world championship team that competed in Madrid. More recently, in 2006, she made the Veterans world championship in Bath, England.

Kocab found fencing when her parents encouraged her to take up a sport. To explain her attraction to fencing, she wryly confesses to having a penchant for Errol Flynn movies. But she also appreciates the diverse qualities fencing embodies.

Theres a classical finesse to fencing, she says. Theres an element of grace coupled with aggression.

Fencing and law are very analogous, says Kocab. Except, she admits, the law sometimes does not lend itself to grace.

Kocab competes almost exclusively with the epee, in which an opponents entire body is a target and points are awarded to whichever fencer touches their opponent first.

Epee, she says, allows for greater creativity.

When her children, Andy and Annemarie, were younger, Kocab let fencing fall to the side. Then when she encouraged her daughter to try it in high school, the decision eventually led to Kocab returning to the sport after a 10-year hiatus.

At some point my daughter came to me and said, look, youre watching me too much. You need to fence, recalls Kocab.

Her daughter is now captain of the fencing team at Wellesley and Kocab is fencing with Salle dEtroit, entering tournaments again. Just recently, she won a tournament where she defeated an energetic 22-year-old opponent in the semifinals. She describes the bout as a case of experience and technique overcoming youthful athleticism.

Even as Fanning and Kocab came to fencing along different paths, the two entered the legal field from diverse ambitions.

Fanning is a born litigator. She was never equivocal about it. She was studying to be a barrister in Bristol when L.A. Law came to England. Fanning was hooked. At the encouragement of a friend in the States, Fanning enrolled in Wayne State University Law School.

It was the adventure of my life, says Fanning. I came over at 21, cried every day for a year, and never looked back.

She says coming to America has allowed her to pursue whatever opportunities she chooses.

Kocab, on the other hand, intended to pursue a career in academia and earned a masters in Chinese language and literature from the University of Indiana. But when she discovered she had little talent in languages, she returned to Detroit, unsure what might be next in her career path.

I had this vision that I would go to Europe and be this top fencer, she recalls.

But her fencing coach, Richard Perry, saw that path as a dead end and urged her instead go to law school. He steered her to the University of Detroit School of Law. She started working with the court in 1981.

Both Fanning and Kocab have found the community of fencing enthusiasts to be supportive and encouraging.

Fencers tend to be an eclectic, open-minded group, says Kocab. Its a very comfortable and welcoming experience.

The senior tournament is drawing to a close. Two fencers face each other. They raise their foils in a salute. The adjudicator raises his hand.

Ready, fence.

By Brian Cox.

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