By Helen Tuman
Nalin Desai isn’t your typical freshman. He is a dedicated fencer on the UC Santa Cruz club fencing team who recently qualified for the fencing National Championships this summer, in his hometown of San Jose.
Fencing gained popularity in Europe in the middle ages, but has since become associated with the flashy kind of fencing seen in movies today.
“Movie fencing is all noise, all show,” Desai said. “Real fencing is never like that … I didn’t fall into fencing because I read ‘The Three Musketeers.’”
Throughout his youth, Desai tried all kinds of sports including basketball, soccer and baseball. Still, nothing really fit him, until he discovered a fencing studio a block away from his house. Desai, then age 14, decided he would go in and see what it was all about. Immediately, he was hooked. He began practicing after school twice a week, and as his performance improved, his practice schedule began to fill his days. In high school he was going to practice for at least two hours a day, six days a week, sometimes seven if there was a competition he was preparing for.
Desai now practices four days a week for two hours with the UCSC club fencing team, and occasionally with Salle Santa Cruz, the local fencing club.
“Since he left [for college], he has a better understanding of the game, because he coaches too,” said Aleski Murugin, Desai’s club coach from San Jose. “He’s wiser, he’s smarter and his game has improved because of the new understanding.”
Because UCSC’s fencing team does not have an official coach, Desai often takes a teaching role at practice.
“He is extremely adept at teaching and coaching more novice fencers,” fencing club president Robert Finer said. “He is more than willing to help out fellow teammates in improving their technique.”
Desai’s specialty is foil fencing, one of three subdivisions based on the type of blade: épée, foil and sabre. All evolved from court nobility and involve different rules and styles. In lieu of armor, fencers are required to completely cover their body with protective material, from socks and knickers to a Kevlar jacket and mask. But the sport is as much mental as physical.
“You need to be physically fit and your mind has to be sharp,” Desai said.
Because a fencer has only a sword, they must concentrate on offense and defense and must be prepared to switch back and forth quickly.
To be a successful foil fencer, one must have strong legs and pinpoint accuracy.
When Desai is at the peak of his training cycle for a competition, he will perform a drill where he tries to hit a small point on a wall 100 times in a row, and if he misses, he starts over.
In the most recent collegiate tournament in Davis, Desai placed first in the advanced foil event. In addition, he qualified for the fencing National Championships in San Jose this summer, and is also going to Junior Qualifiers in three divisions: individual, team and 1A.