Caleb McIntosh’s foray into fencing started as many good stories do — with a crush on a girl.
“I was 12 and there was this girl I had a huge crush on, that I was friends with, and she wanted to do fencing,” McIntosh says.
Now, after 15 years and one provincial fencing gold medal, McIntosh realizes his priorities quickly shifted away from his childhood sweetheart.
“I got more into the fencing,” he admits.
McIntosh, a fourth-year double major in Biology and English at UVic, is now the president of UVic’s Fencing Club and recently won his first gold medal at the B.C. Provincial Championships in Richmond, B.C.
His opponent, Giorgi Gelashvili, defeated him two years ago in the semi-finals of the competition, but McIntosh rallied from an early 6-1 deficit to beat Gelashvili 15-8.
“I’ve won a lot of medals at provincials [but] this was sort of the last event I’d never won,” McIntosh explains. “It’s kind of my white whale.”
And like Ahab, McIntosh faced many difficulties throughout his journey. Struggling with health issues, McIntosh’s repeated efforts to win the gold medal had always ended in failure. It was McIntosh’s tenth trip to the championships and his third to the final, but he had never clinched first place in any of his previous attempts.
“I always get a little crazy in my head before a tournament,” McIntosh says, “but this time I changed my psychological approach to just feeling like there are a certain amount of tournaments you’re going to go to and a certain amount of deviation in your performance.”
“Sometimes you’re going to win, and sometimes you’re going to lose, and so you just have to go and try your best and see.”
The day didn’t start out well for McIntosh, who lost a few matches in his early round-robin matches. He started the knockout portion of the tournament competing against some of the highest ranked opponents, but managed to fight his way back to the final where he finally clinched his white-whale-win against Gelashvili.
He admits the victory was an emotional one — not least because of the memories of his late coach and father figure Dr. Nan-sang Ho.
Ho and his wife founded the UVic Fencing Club in 1980, volunteering their time to train the hundreds of UVic fencers that preceded McIntosh (some of whom became Olympians in the sport). Ho passed away in 2015, but McIntosh was thinking of nobody else when he won the provincial gold.
“I got a little choked up,” McIntosh says. “I always remember him when I fence.”
It was Ho who originally brought McIntosh to UVic to train with the Fencing Club. McIntosh eventually started studying at the university, and became the club’s president after that. Now, with the gold under his belt and with September fast approaching, McIntosh is already looking ahead and thinking about new recruits for the club.
“First of all, ‘have you ever wanted to try fencing?’ is what I ask people and generally a lot of people say ‘yes,’” McIntosh says. “My pitch is, a lot of the time, that this is one of the best, cheapest ways to try it, it’s a great way to get to know new people if you’re an incoming student, [and] it’s a great chance to try something new.”
It might seem like a peculiar extra-curricular activity, but even if students only know the art of fencing from pop-culture portrayals in film and TV (like the scene in the James Bond film Die Another Day, where Madonna and Pierce Brosnan take up epees and duel), McIntosh recommends giving the sport a go.
“I think it’s really fun. That’s the big thing . . . it looks super cool, it’s exciting, you’ve got all the romance and the history and stuff,” McIntosh says. “I feel like it’s also a good, accessible sport for everybody. You don’t have to have years of playing basketball or whatever. You don’t have to be a particularly athletic person. It’s a good sport for — and hopefully I can say this because I am one — nerds.”
Anyone is welcome, McIntosh says, whether you’re a complete beginner to the sport or if you are a multi-award-winning millionaire recording artist and cultural icon who has acted as a fencer in a blockbuster movie.
“I have never seen Madonna at our fencing club,” he laughs. “But if she ever wants to come out, I’m totally good with it.”