Fencing instructor brings passion, world championship pedigree to Quinnipiac

January 17, 2023

Sandra Marchant

Sandra Marchant was, by her own account, “the ultimate tomboy” growing up in Prospect, a spunky Star Wars fan who could turn any stick fight into a lightsaber duel.

Marchant was a born competitor and a rangy athlete, but soccer and softball couldn’t quite hold her interest. Basketball tryouts were a bore. Finally, at the age of 25, her parents’ accountant, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac named Edgar Sanchez who taught a 1-credit fencing course, introduced her to a sport that instantly felt like a calling.

“I know it sounds weird, but as soon as I held a weapon in my hand, it was like I could hear music in my head and the lights got brighter,” said Marchant, who in October helped the U.S. national team win gold in the Vet 50 Women’s Épée event at the Veteran World Fencing Championships in Zadar, Croatia. “I kid you not. I was like, ‘this is what I’m supposed to do.’”

After some initial needling from Sanchez about how she should consider taking up another sport, Marchant, who turns 52 in December, has since risen through the ranks to become one of the premier fencers in the country for her age group. Her crowning individual achievement came in 2014, when at age 43 she won the North American Cup in the Vet 40 division.

But just as gratifying to Marchant is converting neophytes into swashbuckling swordfighters like herself. For five years and counting, she’s taught the same 12-week course — now known as FLW 127 — she took at Quinnipiac. And she runs her own fencing school, Rogue Fencing Academy, in Woodbridge, a location she says was chosen deliberately to slash away the sport’s stuffy perception and make it more accessible to a diverse clientele.

While often portrayed in popular culture as a hobby of the haughty, Marchant is a staunch advocate for fencing’s fun side. “I get to stab my friends and not get in trouble — to me it’s like being a kid all day,” she said.

It is, of course, a bit more refined than that. Much like the choreographed duels seen on the big screen — as you might expect, movies like “The Princess Bride” are frequently quoted in Marchant’s class — fencing demands as much finesse as it does physicality.

In some variations, only one competitor is on the attack at once. Respectful gestures are written into the rules. When a bout is tied at 9-9 and the next touch will decide a victor, the fencers lift their masks and salute each other in an act of mutual admiration known as “la belle.”

Marchant recently wrapped the fall semester with a live sparring session in one of the studios in the Recreation and Wellness Center, administering a final exam of sorts: After eight weeks of practice and softer contact with a training version of the blade taught in class (known as a foil), the final four weeks were full go.

The students learn to set up the piste (the electronic scoring strip), don the lamé and direct their own spirited bouts as Marchant roves around the studio, encouraging them and dispensing further guidance.

“It should be educational, first and foremost. I don’t expect them to be great at it,” Marchant said. “When the next Olympics rolls around, they’re able to say, ‘Hey, I know what’s going on.’ And while they’re here they get to engage their brain and their bodies and forget about their more serious schoolwork for a little bit.”

“Coach” Sandra (never “Professor”) is a popular figure with her students, who seek out the elective course for a variety of reasons and are often hooked by a sport they previously knew little about. At the close of every semester, Marchant invites her charges to visit and even partake in some friendly combat while they’re still on campus. Many take her up on the offer.

“I wanted to take a cool swordfighting class,” said Maya Huggins, a senior film major. “I’d only ever taken academic courses, so I was like, ‘why not?’ I get to be a cool action hero. That was really the appeal. … [Coach Sandra] is really great about encouraging you to go for it and not be so hesitant.”

A married mom of three, Marchant said she plans to keep helping Team USA chase gold medals while continuing to teach at all levels. All these years after that fateful introduction, fencing continues to give her life such purpose. She wants to pay it forward.

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