Women in Fencing with Linda Strachan & Pierre Harper
Over the course of the next 18 months, we’re going to be diving into the stories and lives of the people involved with Commonwealth Fencing, both past and present in a series of interviews titled “Commonwealth Stories". We’re kicking off our first Commonwealth Story with a pair of multi-medal winning English fencers, Pierre Harper and Linda Strachan.
Pierre and Linda represented England in Men’s and Women’s Foil respectively, with Pierre competing in, and winning, three consecutive individual and team titles (1978, 1982, 1986), and Linda competing in, and medalling, at six consecutive championships (1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002).
In 2005, Pierre and Linda went on to set up internationally successful foil club Newham Swords, whose current home is UEL Sportsdock – the venue for CFC & CVFC 2022.
CFC22: Hi both, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, and for helping us to launch the Commonwealth Stories project. Diving straight in, and starting at the beginning… how did you both get involved in fencing? Where did you start, and what was it that got you hooked?
PH: My mother took me to Edmonton Fencing club when I was 7. I got instantly hooked because I loved the idea of swordfighting, and I never looked back!
LS: I started fencing slightly through chance, actually. It was an after school club I was part of when I was 11, but I was actually part of the table tennis club (at the time fencing and table tennis were sharing the hall). Unbeknownst to me, the fencing coach had noticed my quick reactions whilst playing table tennis and suggested I try out fencing. I decided to give it a go and absolutely loved it. Putting on all the fencing gear and duelling my friends was my hook and, like Pierre, I never looked back!
CFC22: That’s amazing that you started off like so many other fencers in our community before going on to achieve so much success! Moving on to your successes then, what was your first Commonwealth event, and what was it like as an experience? Were there any standout memories?
PH: My first Commonwealth championships was in 1978 in Glasgow, Scotland. As a team, we stayed in an active nunnery – which is also where the event was held! The nuns living there had done such a good job cleaning the floor that it was like fencing on an ice rink, the floor was so slippery! It was a great Commonwealths for me, I won both the Individual and Team events at my first championships.
LS: My first was in 1982 in Barnstaple, England – the first time that England hosted the Commonwealth Championships. I think it was my favourite/best Commonwealths as we stayed in a lovely hotel (Staunton Sands, it was right on the beach). It was also where I won my first Commonwealth gold, in the teams, and where I first got to know Pierre!
Linda and the England Women's Foil team in Whistler, Canada in 1994!
Pierre on the podium in Cardiff, Wales in 1986 - a 3-time consecutive Men's Foil champion
CFC22: You both really have had a lot of success at Commonwealth championships. Pierre, what was it like defending both your individual and team titles in the 1982 Championships in Barnstaple? Was it a special moment retaining both titles on home ground?
PH: It was an absolute honour to defend my titles and to win double gold for England on home turf and the team spirit was fantastic.
CFC22: I can only imagine! Team spirit is such a big part of the Commonwealth Fencing Championships and has led to so many amazing memories for so many fencers. What are your best/strongest memories from your Commonwealth championships experiences?
LS: My strongest memories include the 1994 Commonwealths in Whistler, Canada, as the accommodation was amazing and the venue was at the top of a mountain range. We had to get a ski lift up to, and down from, the venue and were able to catch a glimpse of black and brown bears on the way. We also had to try and wear sunglasses under our fencing masks as the glare from the mountains made it hard to see your opponent!
Another strong memory for me was the 2002 Commonwealths in Australia, where I not only fenced in my last Commonwealths and last fencing tournament of my career, but was also awarded the "Significant Performance Award" by Helen Smith (President of the Commonwealth Fencing Federation). This award was for "longstanding commitment to Fencing in the Commonwealth as an outstanding role model, athlete and leader". I was always able to hide my emotions during my fencing career but I didn't manage it when I got this Award. Great memories!
PH: For me, my strongest memories include my last Commonwealths in 1986 where I won the double Gold for England for the third consecutive time, but my best memories are from 1982 in Barnstaple, where the team spirit was fantastic and I first met Linda.
SPotlight on... women in fencing
CFC22: Linda, you are an exceptionally gifted women's foilist and were recognised, as you mentioned, by the Commonwealth Fencing Federation for your longstanding commitment to fencing. As a part of this, you've been a part of the generation that experienced the advent of international competitive women’s fencing across all three weapons. When you were in the heyday of your international career, women’s epee and sabre simply didn’t exist on the international stage. Now we have Olympic and Commonwealth medals being awarded to women in all three weapons in both individual and team events, and a push from the FIE to increase the representation of women in the organisation. How have you seen women’s fencing change, both domestically in the UK and internationally, over the course of your career?
Linda being lifted by her England teammates after scoring the winning hit in the final of the team event vs. Scotland. This was Linda's last appearance at a major championships.
LS: When I first started competing in Senior Domestic Opens (in the 1980s), women either fenced Foil or Epee (with a number of foilists also fencing in epee events). There were also a number of women's epeeists who had started their fencing careers as foilists but later switched to Epee.
This all changed once women were given the chance to fence at all three weapons, both domestically and internationally. I saw fewer female fencers doubling up in another weapon and more specialising in one weapon (which inevitably meant that their standard of performance in that weapon improved). On the international scene, the biggest change that I have seen since retiring, is that more and more female fencers are training in a professional capacity, and competing in a lot more international competitions all over the world. By comparison, I competed in around 7 World Cups (mostly held in Europe) whilst holding down a full time job in order to afford to do it.
I have also seen a great many changes in the number of women involved in the fencing world, as coaches and referees. At the beginning of my fencing career, I never saw any female coaches or referees at all. I now see a lot more domestically and internationally (I in fact was an active FIE foil and epee referee for many years) but there is still a way to go, particularly in the coaching world, before we see equal representation by men and women.
CFC22: Absolutely, I think we can all agree that the steps forward we’ve taken so far have been incredibly positive. And I agree that we need to really drive forward to make sure that we are promoting the skills of the phenomenal female referees and coaches (amongst others) coming up through the ranks now. In fact, on coaching, since retiring from competition, you both went on to set up Newham Swords and now train in the venue that CFC2022 will be in. Can you tell us a little about the Newham Swords story? Can we expect to see any Newham fencers competing on home turf in 2022?
PH: We started Newham Swords in 2005 and have been running it for fifteen years. In that time, we have produced thirty-five club fencers who have represented GB at cadet, junior and senior level, managed to win every single major national title at cadet, junior, U23 and senior level, taken titles at various age groups at the EYCs, BYCs and various LPJS competitions, and medalled on the World stage. We are also extremely proud of the fact that our Club has recently been awarded British Fencing's Performance Club of the Year and Young Athlete of the Year.
LS: Some of this success includes medals won at Cadet and Junior Commonwealths. In fact, ten of our fencers have already won seven golds, two silvers and five bronze medals at past Cadet and Junior Commonwealth Games but not at Senior Commonwealths. It would be great to add some Senior Commonwealth medals to our list of successes, which may be possible if Teagan Williams-Stewart (our reigning National Senior Women's Foil Champion and GB U20 Number One) or any of our successful Newham Swords Women's Foil Squad gains selection for England, for the 2022 Senior Commonwealth Fencing Championships.
CFC22: Fantastic! Your club has such a great story and has achieved so much in a relatively short period of time. I can’t wait to cheer on Teagan and others in London in 2022 (impartially of course). So, just to round off with a quickfire question, what are you looking forward to most about CFC & CVFC 2022? We know that we can’t wait to see you there!
Both: For both of use it will be meeting up with friends we used to compete against and who are now in coaching, especially our friends in Australia and Canada! Can’t wait to see everyone there!
The Newham Swords Junior Elite Squad who topped the 2019 LPJS rankings as the most successful club! Some future Commonwealth champions in the mix? We sure think so!