En garde: Frontier’s Mackin on the fence

  • Sam Mackin stands with Marx Fencing Academy coach Carlos Bruno during a tournament.

  • Sam Mackin fencing at Summer Nationals Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year. Contributed Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 12/6/2019 8:57:11 PM
Modified: 12/6/2019 11:05:00 PM

It’s easy to go with the norm. Kids want to fit in with everyone else, whether it’s wearing the trendiest clothes, having the newest technology or liking the “in” thing.

In sports, most kids play the popular ones: football, basketball and baseball. They’re the ones everyone else is playing.

It’s a lot harder to go against the norm. That’s exactly what Hadley’s Sam Mackin did, however. While he still played soccer and basketball growing up, Mackin’s interests now lie solely in a sport not played by the typical American teenager.

When Mackin stares down his opponent now, he doesn’t see someone trying to stop him from getting to the rim or dribbling to the net. Instead, what he sees is a thin, one- to two-pound silver sword pointing at him, held by an opponent wearing a cotton or nylon suit and mask covering the rest of their body.

Now in his senior year at Frontier Regional School, Mackin gave up the sports he’s been playing his entire life to put his sole focus on earning a fencing scholarship in college.

“I’ve always been brought up to try things that life has to offer,” Mackin said. “My parents always said I should be constantly exploring different things. This is one I tried and I fell in love with it.” 

When you trace back Mackin’s family history, it’s easy to see why he fell for the sport of fencing. He was born in Malmö, Sweden, where he lived until he was five years old. 

His godfather, Orvar Jönsson ​​​​​​, who is a close friend of his dad’s, is a big name in the Swedish fencing community. He served as one of the country’s national team coaches, and competed in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, winning a gold medal in Montreal in 1976 with the Swedish National Team.

Sam’s father, Sean Mackin, played basketball professionally in Europe and coached teams over there, eventually meeting Jönsson​​​​​​. With Jönsson’s influence, Sean introduced his kids to fencing to see if they would like it. Mackin’s sisters, Kaitlyn and Hannah, didn’t take to the sport, but he quickly fell in love with it at the age of 15.

“It’s all across the board really rewarding,” Sam said. “It’s a single sport, not a team sport, so you find out a lot about yourself along the way. There’s mental struggles with effort and keeping concentration during matches. It’s taught me a lot about myself and I’ve gotten better with that. My dad’s been my biggest influence. He’s the one that got me into the sport. He’s helped me drive to the tournaments, he’s given me a lot of feedback.”

Fencing can be traced back hundreds of years to Spain, and it shifted from a military training exercise to a sport in the mid-18th century. Though not a mainstream sport in the United States, it has been contested at the Olympics every year since the first modern games in Athens in 1896.

It may seem insane to compare a sport that involves a sword to other American events, but Mackin sees them as having similar principles and concepts.

“It seems almost medieval, like you’re fighting with swords when you first approach it,” Mackin began. “I thought it was pretty cool. I’ve always been a fan of history and Game of Thrones and that kind of stuff. The more I got into it, the more I realized that it was like basketball and soccer but with blades instead of balls. You have all these different tactics and strategies. You have coaches giving you feedback and teammates helping you out. The only difference is what you’re playing with.”

After taking a liking to it, his parents took him to the Riverside Fencing Club in Hadley to really give the sport a go. 

It took one day of practice under coach Taro Yamashita for Mackin to realize the sport was something he wanted to pursue long term.

“I went there one day and asked the owner of the club that we were looking to get into it,” Mackin said. “I wanted to see what it is and that’s how I got into it.”

In fencing, points at tournaments are earned by striking your opponent above the waist with either the tip or blade of your sword. 

Mackin needed to get the basics down before he was ready to start competing. He needed to learn how to parry — a basic defense technique — how to lunge, the flesh attacking method and many other attacking styles. He also needed to learn different blade angles and ways to earn points.

It took a little while to get used to having someone point a sword at him, even though it’s lightweight. But now it doesn’t even phase Mackin.

“It’s a little bit scary at first, then it’s just a one-on-one in basketball or soccer,” he said. “You get used to it. It doesn’t hurt unless someone really strong punches it into you.”

Growing up playing team sports, one of the bigger adjustments for Mackin was switching over to a largely individual sport. Though fencing is a one-on-one match, there are still ways to turn it into a team event, where four athletes from two teams compete to have a higher point total at the conclusion. 

Mackin enjoys the individual part of the sport, as he welcomes the pressure of having the results weigh completely on his shoulders.

“What drew me was the individual aspect,” Mackin said. “I had never done an individual sport before and I was interested in that. I thought it was a great change. With team sports, there’s a lot of great things. You get to support each other and you get to win as a team and everybody is making each other better. In an individual sport, you have to have the motivation to get better, you have to be the one pushing yourself to get better every day.

“What surprised me most about it was it’s an individual sport, there’s a lot of friendships made with people at tournaments,” he continued. “When I watch professional matches, they’ll hug people because they train with them and work with them. It’s a match between friends. I get to meet a lot of great people. International competitions, I get to meet people from around the world.”

As he’s progressed, it’s turned into a near year-round sport. The fencing season runs from the late fall to the middle of the spring, with Mackin spending most of the offseason training. 

He made the switch from Hadley to train in Concord with Marx Fencing Academy this year, making the hour and a half trip two or three times a week.

“It’s a lot of conditioning, skill work and implementing new skills in practice bouts,” Mackin said of his practice habits. “I bout with all teammates, go over stuff with coach once or twice a week. At home, I put it into practice with footwork and conditioning.”

After tournaments, he sends the videos to Jönsson, who offers him feedback and pointers which have helped him develop his craft. 

“It’s really important to me,” Mackin said. “It feels like I always have someone there to talk to. He’s really experienced, he pick up on things we don't recognize. It’s really great and I feel very lucky to have that opportunity. I feel the same way about the sport in general. It’s not something a lot of people do or can do and I take that to heart.” 

Standing at 6-foot-3, Mackin said he tries to emulate French fencer Yannick Borel, who uses his size and strength to his advantage. 

Mackin often watches his videos and studies them to learn tips and tricks he can apply himself.

“You always have to have skill to really get high up,” Mackin said. “The pros, all of them are at high skill levels. I always watch them to learn.” 

The more Mackin got into the sport, the faster he progressed. He began going to different tournaments around the Northeast, testing his skills against some of the tougher competition in New England. 

Now, he travels around the country to compete in tournaments. Fencers are put into groups based on their skill — ‘A’ being the highest. Mackin currently has a ‘C’ rating, hoping to bump up to the ‘B’ group soon. 

“I had the opportunity to win my ‘B’ rating at a couple tournaments,” Mackin said, “but I went against better competitors and lost.” 

Mackin gave up soccer at Frontier in the fall and basketball in the winter to train year-round in hopes of getting a scholarship.

He met with Abdel Salem, the fencing coach at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., at a match in Milwaukee this fall, and hopes to fence there next fall.

Last month, he had a meeting at Congressman Jim McGovern’s office, as he is one of 30 people hoping for a nomination to one of the military service academies.

“I knew if I wanted to play in college, I wouldn’t be able to play D1 or D2 soccer,” Mackin said. “Just focused on fencing. I make this push now and work hard and maybe I’ll be able to make it to a college team.”

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