The last month has been a very fruitful period for Wilton epee fencer Ian Sanders.

The Wilton High rising senior reached the highest rating for an epee fencer on June 18, and two weeks later had his best finish ever at the USA Fencing Association’s national championships.

Competing in the Men’s Division 1-A competition at nationals, he finished 23rd out of a field of 149. He was 4-2 in pool play, and won two matches in the elimination round before losing to the 13th seed in the round of 64.

“I was pretty happy because I did well. I did better than I thought I would do,” he said. “I thought I would get knocked out in (the second) round.”

Nearly 4,000 competitors competed in 90 events at the USA Fencing Nationals and July Challenge, held June 29-July 8 at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas. The world’s largest fencing tournament, it featured competitors ranging in age from eight to over 80, dueling in all three disciplines — epee, foil and saber.

Sanders qualified in two epee classes. At the USA Fencing Nationals, for U.S. competitors only, he competed in the Men’s Division 1-A. In the July Challenge, which is also open to non-U.S. fencers, he competed in the Juniors division.

The tournaments provided an opportunity for up-and-coming fencers to compete against many of the best fencers in the country — and Sanders didn’t waste his chance.

“I’ve definitely been improving. It’s hard. You’re facing some of the best people in the country. The competition is very steep,” he said. “You try as hard as you can. You gotta fight. Sometimes you get people that are going for bids in the Olympics, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

His big win at nationals came in the round of 64, when he rallied for a 15-14 win over Ryan Connor, a rising college sophomore who fences NCAA Division I for Brown University. He had lost to Connor in their only previous encounter.

Sanders trailed the entire match, and was down a point going into the third three-minute period.

“My coach, Andrey Chushko, told me what to do and I just knew what I had to do. And this was just to wait until (Connor) finished his action and I would counterattack,” said Sanders, who pulled out the win in the final 30 seconds. “It was probably one of my best results. That was a hard win. That was one of the hardest bouts I’ve ever fenced.”

In the round of 32, he was eliminated by Matthew Comes from Bothell, Wash., a former Division 3 national champion. Comers, who is 6’5” and had a decided advantage in terms of his reach, eventually finished ninth in the tourney.

In the July Challenge for Juniors, Sanders placed 91st out of 221 competitors.

This was the second year in a row Sanders qualified for nationals. A year ago he competed in Divisions 2 and 3, with limited success.

Since then, he has come into his own, with a series of successes in 2016.

In January, Sanders won a gold medal at one of the largest national cadet men’s epee tournaments, the Capitol Clash in Washington, D.C., and competed in the Junior Olympics in Cleveland, Ohio.

He won a silver medal at a Boston Fencing Club RJCC regional competition in April.

This spring, he won silver again at the Connecticut High School Fencing Championship and was named a Connecticut All-State Athlete by the Connecticut High School Fencing Association.

On June 18, he earned his ‘A’ rating at the Pomme de Terre, a large regional A4 tournament in Boston, Mass., placing eighth out of 108 fencers in the Senior Men’s class.

“That was a big deal for me because it was right before the national tournament,” said Sanders, who had come up just short of the ‘A’ rating at several competitions this past winter and spring.

Sanders got his first taste of fencing when he was seven- or eight-years old, when he tried a fencing camp. Although plastic swords and swashbuckling swordplay had been a part of his childhood, at first he didn’t enjoy actual fencing.

“I didn’t have much fun the first time,” he said.

A few years later, he gave it another try when he was in middle school, joining the Wilton Fencing Academy. The second time was the charm.

“Suddenly it was fun. I was doing soccer before then, and I liked that, too, but I found I was good at fencing and I enjoyed it. And Wilton Fencing Academy helped me pursue what I liked and when that came to an end, I said I don’t want to really lose this,” he said.

After the Wilton academy closed, Sanders searched for a new program to continue his fencing, and found Stamford Fencing Academy three or four years ago.

His new coach, Andrey Chushko, pushed Sanders to work harder at the sport, and also got him to enter competitions for the first time.

“He started training me so I had to do more athletically, so I was working out more and actually building my skills,” said Sanders. “And I started going to competitions and I began to get results.”

He now practices at Stamford four times a week, and during this year has gone to competitions nearly every weekend. While not a member of a WHS team, he is “doing the work” and “going through the same defeats and feeling the same feelings” as other student-athletes, he said.

Fencing is one of the original nine sports to be competed at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and it is one of only four sports that has been featured at every Olympics since then.

The epee and foil are both thrusting weapons, with the epee heavier than the foil. In both disciplines, competitors score points by striking an opponent with the tip of the sword. In the foil, only strikes to the opponent’s torso count as point, while in epee, points are scored by strikes to any part of the body.
And in epee, if both opponents make a strike at the same time, both score a point — making for exciting, fast-paced matches.

Fencing’s popularity has been growing, said Sanders, with more clubs in the area and more kids trying it out. At Wilton High, there is a small fencing club, and another accomplished fencer in Liam Smith, a recent WHS graduate.

It’s a little smaller than we would hope. We would like it to grow but it’s hard finding new people in the town that fence,” said Sanders of the WHS club. “But it is around here. Although it seems small and it seems like not a lot of people do it, you come to these events and for each category there’s up to 300 people, and you add that up with three weapons and then you multiply it for boys and girls, and suddenly you’ve got 3,000, 4,000 people in the event.”

Because the fencing community is so small, Sanders has gotten to know, and occasionally compete against, Olympic-level fencers. And that provides him hope that he can someday reach that pinnacle.

“I dream of it. Some of my compatriots are fencing at that level,” he said. “The sport is small enough that you know Olympians. Maybe one day I can go to the Olympics. Who knows? I know some of the people I’ve fenced and talked to, they are going. But it’s a hard journey.”

The close-knit nature of fencing also creates friendships with fencers from all the country, he said.

“You really build bonds with the other fencers. There’s no hard feelings. At the end of the day you’re competitors. Even though they may be from New York City or they might be from Ohio, wherever they come from, you don’t feel hard against them, because you’re all teammates in that sense.”

Sanders said that patience and mental agility are the most important components of being a fencer.

“Patience is one of the biggest things because you have to not get discouraged. The thing about fencing is when you lose it’s all your fault. There’s nobody else you can blame,” he said. “Some days it feels like you can beat an Olympian and other days you lose to someone who’s fenced for six months and is not very good. It does take some strength and I know I came out of some tournaments saying, ’wow, I’m so bad’. Then you go into others and win it, and you say,’ wow I’m the greatest, I’m going to the Olympics’.

“It also takes mental agility. It’s something you have to put your mind to, to say you want to do it,” he continued. “When you put on the mask, you kind of enter a different mindset. You have to be ready to fence.”

In addition to progressing up the ranks nationally, Sanders has plans to compete on the collegiate level after he leaves Wilton High, whether it’s Division I, II or III, or at the club level. And he now knows that fencing will be sport he will continue to enjoy the rest of his life.

“It’s really an enjoyable experience. It’s really something I’ve gotten to love,” he said. “This sport has become so important to me, I really can’t imagine life without it.”