USFA national foil champion (1984); national epee champion (1982, ’83,’84, ’86).
NIWFA foil champion (1975,’77) for San Jose State. Assistant Director USFA Coaches College. Coach, Texas Fencing Academy.
Vincent Hurley, Stacey Johnson, Gay D’Asaro, purchased from the Helms Hall of Fame collection in Los Angeles
Stacey Johnson, Vincent Bradford, Gay Dasaro (Photo by Andy Shaw)
Vincent Bradford and Carla Mae Richards
by Betsy Pilkington
When the last touch was made, Vincent Senser took off her mask and glove. After saluting her opponent she strode to the folding chair where her gear lay piled on the seat, pushed it off and sat down. She stretched out her long legs, crossed them at the ankles, folded her arms at her waist and settled back for the first rime that day to relax . With that win, Vincent was assured of being a finalist in the January Olympic squad trials and, thus, strengthened her chance to qualify for the 1980 women’s Olympic fencing team.
For fourteen years Vincent has worked toward making the 1980 Olympic squad and going to Moscow. And now, with the uncertainty of the times, it appears that her dream may be denied. But for Vincent, even if she does not qualify to go, fencing has achieved a profound effect on her life and has, in fact, changed her life.
“As a kid. I was very shy and insecure,” she reflects. “I was tall and thin and had a long, lanky body, and I felt very self-conscious. Unfortunately, it seems that society has ‘said’ that it isn’t okay for a woman to have a big body or to be strong. I think that attitude has been changing, slowly, but because of it, many women have had a difficult time accepting their bodies, just as I did.
“When I started taking fencing I gained confidence in my body and learned that my body type was an advantage and not a disadvantage. I learned that it was beautiful and that it could do beautiful things. With time I got more and more confident. Fencing was a mode of seeing myself – seeing the good things about myself, bringing those things out, believing in those things. It’s unfortunate that more young women are not directed into athletics and in using the field of sports as an avenue of self expression. Fencing has been a way for me to get in touch with my body and with my emotions. Many women have never had that opportunity – or realized that they could make that opportunity.”
Today Vincent is a statuesque six feet tall and weighs about 130 pounds. She has indeed proven that her body type can be advantageous.
As a young girl growing up in Fort Worth, Vincent loved outdoor activities, and it was through her mother’s interest in horses that she began horseback riding. “For a while, “her mother recalls, “Vincent would not go with me to the stables. I enjoyed working the horses, but Vincent was bored with it. And then one day she decided that she wanted to learn to ride. ” So Sharon, Vincent’s mother, searched out a riding instructor, and Vincent began taking lessons. She became quite an accomplished rider and competed in many state equestrian competitions. Also during that time , Vincent met a fencer – a friend of her riding instructor.
“All I knew about fencing in those days was what I’d seen in The Mark of Zorro s- the flashy, black-caped masked man who rode around scraping the letter ‘Z’ on walls with his sword, It looked exciting and fun, and since I knew of a coach who was willing to teach, I decided to give fencing a try.”
So at eleven, Vincent began private lessons, started competing in novice tournaments and before she knew it, she had qualified for the junior state championship. By the time she was sixteen, she realized that fencing wasn’t just flashy swordplay, “In 1972 1 went to the junior national championship in Berkeley and placed second, At that time I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea of the level of this tournament. I have this memory of coming in second and all of these people congratulating me and making a big deal out of it. And I was told later that because I had placed second, I qualified for the junior world championship in Madrid. Well, I didn’t even know what that was. I was just excited that I could go to Spain!
“So there I was among some of the best fencers in the world , and I still didn’t really know what I was doing, I was a gut-level fencer. I’d close my eyes and win.” Vincent made the top sixteen, which was the best that the Americans had ever done in that tournament. “Again, I received lots of congratulations and recognition. So I thought, wow, if I can do this without even trying, what could I do if I try!”
At that point Vincent decided to get serious about her training. She was also becoming more confident through her success in fencing and wanted to share her experiences with others. In fact, Vincent had tried to organize team sports for girls in her high school because there were none. “In school I wanted to get some girl athletic teams organized. I dreamed of setting up a softball or track team that could compete interscholastically, like the boys’ teams. I took around a petition trying to get sponsorship and support for a girls’ team in any sport. But the school officials wouldn’t even consider it. They seemed to think sports and any type of athletics were for the boys only. The boys could play, and the girls could stay on the sidelines and cheer.
“Well, I really got discouraged , so my mother went to the coach and asked him if I could work out with the boys’ track team. He was hesitant but finally agreed, even though, as he indicated to my mother, he could lose his job over it. But at least he agreed, so I was happy.”
Vincent’s happiness, however, did not last long. She became the target for harassment and ridicule which she says she will never forget . “I was the only girl out there and all the boys really hated me for it, even though the coach segregated me and had me go over to a corner of the track to work out alone. But the boys were constantly giving me catcalls and heckling me. They said mean, vicious things that I would disregard today. But I was sixteen then and what they said really hurt.”
By then, no amount of harassment could discourage Vincent. She had learned through her success in fencing that she was capable of making her own decisions. She refused to discount her belief in herself, and she refused to accept the traditional role of the female in sports – and in society. “It was a painful time for Vincent,” Sharon recalls. “It was clear that the school system lacked the courage to allow the female students to develop as whole human beings, and finally it came to the point that Vincent had to make a choice.” So at the end of her sophomore year, Vincent dropped out of high school. At about that time she made another important decision. She had met a fencer at a tournament, and for both of them it was “love at first sight. ” Within weeks they were married and moved to Houston.
There Vincent designed her own educational program which included private classes in art and art history, music and French. She took the GED examination, received the equivalent of a high school diploma, and enrolled in a local junior college. And all the while she
continued her training. “I trained every day, hard, ” she says. “I worked out at Rice University and fenced with a club there in Houston.”
The training and the college courses were going well for Vincent, but her marriage was not. When she was eighteen she divorced her husband, moved to San Antonio and shared an apartment with another fencer, Stacey Johnson. The two young women had been close friends for several years and had dreamed of fencing together on a college team . And that ‘s exactly what they did. They both enrolled at San Jose State University, made their grades and made the fencing team.
While at San Jose State University, she and her teammates won the National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association team title an unprecedented four years in succession. In additi on to the NIWFA team titles, Vincent won individual honors in 1975, tied her teammates Stacey Johnson and Gay D’Asaro for the 1976 individual title, and again in 1977 Vincent won the individual championship.
She was All-American in women ‘s fencing each of her four years at San Jose State and, at the end of her senior year, she was voted “Athlete of the Year.” She was a member of the bronze medalist team in the 1979 Pan American Games, and currently she is ranked fourth in the nation.
What type of athlete becomes dedicated to one of the most minor of all sports practiced in this country ? “I think we get the romantics,” concludes Michael D’Asaro, coach of the San Jose State team and coach of America’s 1976 Olympic fencing team. “Those who need the limelight and who have to see their picture in the papers go into other sports. Here I get only the real individuals, the dedicated dreamers.”Seeking neither fame nor fortune, fencers must train as diligently as any athlete. Physically, fencing is demanding, requiring the polished skills of a ballet dancer, boxer, gymnast and sprinter. And all of these will work together only if they are guided by the mind of a chess player. As D’Asaro describes it, “Fencing is not simply body against body, but it is equally mind against mind. It is like playing chess with yourself as the pawn.
“There is a spiritual side to swordplay that is absent in other sports,” D’Asaro adds. “Every time you pick up a sword you are reliving a basic life and death trauma. Buried within our memories are moments from the past when survival of the individual and the species depended upon skill with a sword. Each time you grasp the weapon you discover something basic about yourself. Those who stay with fencing must have an enormous inner strength and vision.” Vincent Senser’s path to fencing predominance demonstrates just how that inner strength and vision sometime work.
“It was really tough,” Vincent recalls of her college days. “Stacey and I would go to school in the mornings, fence in the afternoons and work as waitresses at night. We needed the money to help pay expenses for travel to the important national and international tournaments, and to pay for room and board. All that pressure – trying to go to school, train and work – was constantly with me . I had also remarried, so it was pressure that my husband and I both felt. The time away from home for training, the time away from home for competitions and the time I needed for school didn’t exactly add up to an ideal situation for either one of us. There were many times when I asked myself,
‘Why am I doing this? ‘ ”
That, indeed, is an intriguing question and one that Vincent answers with unmistakable conviction. “I want to pursue something in my life that is challenging and intricate and infinitely variable. Fencing is always stimulating, and it continues to be a growth and a learning process with no limit as to how good you can get. It’s not the only sport which offers that aspect, but fencing was the sport that called to me .” So, ironically, the more challenging and demanding the sport became, the more dedicated Vincent became. And her inner strength continued to grow.
Women fence only with the foil – a long, rapier-like weapon thirty-four inches in length. The end of the weapon is taped and a thin wire extends down the blade and through the handle. There it is plugged into a cord that runs through the fencer’s uniform and out to a scoring device. A small electric button at the end of the foil activates lights when a touch is made . Five touches is a bout.Touches may be scored in foil competition only when the fencer is on the offensive and only when the hit is made on
the upper torso (front and back).
The fencing bout takes place on a strip, a long copper area on the floor that is about six feet wide and a little less
than thirty-three feet long, Action on the strip is incredibly fast and it is impossible for the untrained eye to catch all of
the touches. So the lights are absolutely essential, and a director is on hand to call the bout. A padded vest, gloves and a wire mesh mask protect the fencer during a bout.
What makes a good fencer? “I’m good because I have good timing and fast hands and feet along with a quick mind. I’m also aggressive and hungry. I win because I want to win. I want to win quickly with no fooling around . No fancy stuff It’s all business with me now. No longer a game .
“When I step out on the strip I watch my opponent carefully, I get set for the attack. I am tense and ready for anything, I watch her hands and her feet. And when she shifts her weight just a little bit incorrectly, I attack and lunge and attack and lunge again and again. I press the attack, always.
“I concentrate and focus my attention on a single goal.My mind never wanders. Never, When my opponent comes out onto the strip, I see nothing else . I don’t hate her and I don’t like her. She is just a target for my foil. I see where I am going to hit her and I move. I make the kill. Then I do it again. When I’ve done it five times I take off my mask and salute, It’s over, If I’ve won, I’m happy. And most of the time I’m happy.”
Stacey says that fencing Vincent is like going against a steel wall. “She’s a natural athlete. She is solid and she does everything well. She can mix up her attack in a match. And you can’t make a mistake with her, or she’s got you. You must fence flawlessly, and you must want to beat her very badly,”
To prepare for a tournament as important as the Olympic squad trials requires a tremendous amount of training. “I really think the physical part of training is easier than the mental preparation. Jogging at least three miles a day is something I do automatically. It’s a natural thing for me now. I’ve done it for so long that my body needs it to relax.”In addition to running, Vincent spends at least four hours a week working out with weights. And each day she practices her moves by fencing either her coach or her teammates. “I’ve trained for so long now that it has become a routine – something I don’t think about. I just do it. There are days, though, especially when it’s beautiful outside and my husband and our friends are going to the beach or to the mountains, that I find it very difficult to make myself go to the gym alone. I think fencing has really taught me the importance of discipline.
Stacey and I both have talked about that because, like I said, there are many times when we’ve had to decline invitations in order to train. It isn’t easy, but whether you’re working to be a writer or an artist or an athlete, you’ve got to learn discipline. It’s rewarding, though, because if you do something every day for a long time and devote time and do it whether you ‘re feeling good or lousy and you put yourself through things, you’re bound to go through all the layers. And by that, I mean that you find out who you really are because you learn all the different layers of yourself – emotionally, physically and mentally. That knowledge gives me a sense of power and control over myself that leads to a feeling of confidence that is hard to describe. But it’s there, and I am able to use it in every kind of relationship I have and in every area of my life – whether it be in sports or work or my home life.”
Though Vincent finds that feeling of power hard to describe, it is clearly manifested to her friends and colleagues, “She is open and direct ,”says a friend, “and she is willing to share her beliefs . She also has the guts to stand behind those beliefs.”
What Vincent does to prepare mentally for a tournament depends on its importance. “In some,” she says, “where the competition isn’t all that stiff, I really don’t have to think about it too much ahead oftime . I just go out and do my natural thing and my opponents can’t stop me. But in the big tournaments, and especially when I reach the finals, I can’t be so casual about it because everybody is smart and good. It gets to be a mind game – one where quick decisions must develop into intrinsic, gut-level reactions. Once I’m on the strip, there ‘s no time to decide, ‘Okay, this is what I’ll do next.’ I’ve got to know what I want
to do well enough that I don’t consciously have to think about it.
“To get to that point, I must plan my strategy beforehand. For a tournament as important as the squad trials. I begin planning months in advance, I basically know
who my opponents are, so I begin getting ready mentally by spending some time analyzing their various styles . I write down what I want to concentrate on and what I need to do to counteract different moves, types of attack and so on, I’ll pick up on the middle of a bout and I see myself moving and hitting them over and over again, practicing in my mind. As the tournament gets closer, I do a routine in the mornings, when I wake up. I think about the strategies I’ve written down and the moves I’ve visualized. My goal is to be able to think about those bouts and be confident enough and relaxed enough that I can drift off to sleep again.
“The last few days before a big tournament are definitely the most difficult, By then, I’m tired of thinking about it and training for it. I’m ready to get on with it and put the planning into action. When I walk out on the strip I think about the way I look physically to my opponent. In other words, I want to physically portray that I am confident And I also want the director to know that. After the bout, if I’ve done something particularly exciting or particularly well, I dwell on that and try to capture that feeling and use it later on in the day.”
There are times for Vincent when the planning and the training do not materialize into winning. How does it feel to have worked that hard to reach a goal and by one touch here, one bout there, the goal is out of reach? “Defeat at this level,” Vincent responds, “is the worst type of defeat because I know that I’ve defeated myself. I’ve let
my head get in the way,and I’ve let emotions like anger and fear end up controlling me instead of me controlling them. If directed in the right way, those emotions can be quite useful and extremely powerful. They can be assets but only if I’m using my power to direct them.
“Even defeat, though, can be useful – a very valuable learning experience and one that carries over into every aspect of my life. I have learned that in any type of confrontation, the most important thing in the long run is the betterment of self. I’ve learned that through fencing because I have learned defeat. It’s one of the most difficult things to learn how to take. I’ve taken many defeats, and I’ve had to walk away from tournaments saying to myself, ‘Well, losing doesn’t mean that I’m less of a person.’ Those times have made me think about who I really am and what does fencing – or anything – really matter compared to my own personal growth.”
Handling defeat isn’t the only experience from fencing which has contributed to Vincent’s personal growth. Gaining confidence, learning the importance of discipline, controlling and directing her emotions, setting and pursuing goals are all valuable lessons. And those lessons, Vincent says, have also carried over into her personal life. “Fencing has provided an avenue of self expression which will always be with me. I think it really, really makes you know yourself, and it teaches you a great deal about life. It’s a way to check our reality. Everyday life is nebulous, and it’s often difficult to check out what’s real. With fencing, everything is defined. There is nothing nebulous about facing someone on the strip. It’s me out there, only me, and I have to draw upon everything I have learned about myself.”
In confrontations off the strip, those lessons Vincent learned are equally valuable . “If I have a problem or if I have a confrontation, I use the same techniques I’ve used in fencing. I’ll practice in my mind, analyze the situation, and many times write down some points that are important, In school, for instance, I saw my instructors almost as I do my opponents. I would ask myself what the professors were trying to convey. how were they trying to do it, and what did they want to hear from me. And if I have to deal with a problem without warning, then my fighting and my bouting instincts are sparked. I won’t run awa from the problem. I’ll face it head-on . Call it guts or determination or,” she laughs, “call it stubbornness. But whatever it is, I won’t back down,”
Vincent Senser has dedicated the past fourteen years of her life in pursuit of a goal which now seems, through no fault of her own, out of reach. She has sacrificed time, effort and money for what at first was a dream and which, because of her inner strength and vision, was well on its way to becoming a reality. Thoughts of standing on a podium with a shining gold medal hanging around her neck and hearing the United States anthem played in her honor have helped to keep that strength viable.
So what was it like when Vincent heard that the United States government was threatening a boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow? Vincent remained silent for a moment, thinking about the question and looking around the San Jose State gymnasium at the other seventeen fencers who have worked long and hard, as she has, to fulfill the dream of going to Moscow. Her answer was slow, yet decisive. “It ‘s a disappointment, and it’s terribly frustrating .” She then added with a sigh, “And I’m willing to accept it. I came here today knowing that because of the boycott, I may never compete in the Olympic Games. But in terms of the politics involved. I believe that pulling out of the Olympics is one way to show our power in a peaceful way. That, of course. is more important than my own personal goals. I still want to make the team because it ‘s still just as important to know that I could have made it – to go as far as I can go . Ultimately, that’s what counts.”No matter what happens with the Olympics, and no matter what Vincent decides to do after that, one thing is sure : she will excel. For Vincent Senser is a winner. She is an Olympian.
San Jose State Team: Hope Konecny, Vinnie Bradford, Coach Mike D’Asaro, Stacey Johnson, Sharon Roper
Vinnie Bradford, Gay DAssaro and Stacey Johnson on the Queen Elizabeth II with Carl Borack, 1985