In Recess

To Live and Die by the Sword

Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey's fencing experience carries over to the courtroom

Interview by Adam Faderewski

ABOVE: Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey has been fencing for over 15 years, including captaining her college team and dueling on the international stage. Today, she shares her love of fencing with high school and low-income students. Photo courtesy of Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey.

A MASK HIDES A FACE, and the only way to judge what method to use to counter your opponent is by reading his or her body language. Of course, you will have already researched your opponent, watching how he or she performs against others. What could easily be a description of a trial is actually quite similar to the strategy used when dueling an opponent with an epee. Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey, of Houston, followed in the footsteps of the famed Three Musketeers—Aramis, Athos, and Porthos. Over 15 years of fencing, she’s even competed in the Musketeers’ homeland of France (as well as many other nations around the world). While her competition days have slowed due to her workload, she still finds time to impart her love of fencing to low-income and high school students.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED IN FENCING? WHAT LED YOU TO CHOOSE FENCING?
I first became involved in fencing back in 2000 or 2001 when I was in fourth or fifth grade. What led me to choose fencing was the individual component of the sport. You live and die by the sword. It is just you out there and you really have to rely on yourself. But also I may have watched the Three Musketeers movie when I was a kid and that just looked really freaking cool.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN FENCING? OF THE THREE TYPES OF FENCING—EPEE, FOIL, AND SABRE—WHICH STYLE DO YOU PRACTICE?
I have been fencing for over 15 years now. I practice epee—the best of the three of course! I believe I decided on epee because there is much more freedom with the types of moves you can do. Also anywhere on the body is fair game so it makes the bout much more exciting and challenging. I tried foil early on but did not stick with it—no pun intended. When I tried epee, it just clicked.

WOULD YOU SAY THERE ARE SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES IN THE THREE OTHER THAN THE TYPE OF BLADE THAT IS USED?
Yes. For epee, you can hit anywhere on the body. For foil, you can only hit the chest area. For saber, you can only hit from the waist up. Also unlike epee and foil, you thrust and cut with the blade instead of using the point of the blade.

WHEN YOU FACE-OFF WITH AN OPPONENT IS THERE A SPECIFIC THING YOU’RE LOOKING FOR?
When I am facing off with an opponent, I do look for specific things. I watch to see how much they are moving around. Are they active on the strip or are they just standing there in one spot. Is their en garde stance accurate? That gives me a clue as to whether the opponent is a novice or an advanced fencer. Also I look to see how much they leave their body wide open for a touch. If they are waving their blade around a lot, it probably means they are only guarding their upper body—which means I can make a lunge down low for the leg or foot since they will be caught by surprise.

Body language is crucial because the masks hide our facial expressions so you really have to zero in on movement.


Above: Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey scores a hit with the point of her epee into her opponent’s torso. Photo courtesy of Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey.

DO YOU STUDY YOUR OPPOSITION BEFORE YOU FACE THEM? IF SO, HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT DOING THAT?
Oh, yes! I usually watch tapes of the opponents from prior competitions or I watch them live at competitions as well. I research their competition results. This tactic is very similar to what we litigators do before a hearing, depositions, or trial. We study our opposing counsel. Just like the legal arena, fencing is a mental game.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS IN FENCING? WHERE HAVE YOU COMPETED?
One of my proudest achievements in fencing was winning the gold medal in a Division I team event at Summer National Championships in 2009—one of the toughest events at the competition. We were up against a slew of incredibly challenging players. We were behind in the final bout of the gold medal match. I was worn out from hours of competition, but somehow I found the strength to fight and come back from behind and win. I was so proud of myself for tapping into that mental toughness. Further, it was the first team event with me as captain, so I had a huge responsibility on my shoulders to lead my team and lead my team to victory. I was afraid at first to be in a leadership position, but I then realized that it was a natural fit for me to be a leader. Another significant milestone for me that day. My team was an amazing group of women. We all supported each other. We all came together on that day as a team and pulled it out. We worked together to achieve a goal. Indescribable feeling.

I feel as though I have competed all over the world! I feel incredibly lucky to have had the type of exposure at such a young age. I have competed in France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, South Korea, Azerbaijan, Canada, U.S., Slovakia, Ireland, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Turkey.

Above: Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey captained her Division I fencing team to a Summer National Championship in 2009. Photo courtesy of Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey.

YOU TEACH FENCING AS WELL. HOW OFTEN DO YOU TEACH AND IS THERE A SPECIFIC AGE GROUP OR TEAM THAT YOU DO THAT WITH?
I try to teach twice a month if I can on the weekends at the local clubs. There are also fencing clinics in which I participate via Zoom. I work specifically with high school students and specifically low-income students in inner-city neighborhoods. Many low-income students cannot afford the high cost of fencing so it is important to make sure fencing is accessible to everyone. We have donated some old equipment and uniforms in the past. I give them mentorship advice for career paths as well. I may be biased, but it is a natural transition from fencer to litigator. TBJ

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