Taking a Stab at a Double Life

Peter Souders combines championship-level fencing with graduate studies in mechanical engineering
Peter Souders--in student gear and fencing gear
Peter Souders: student and fencer. The feeling that his professors gave him was that “there was no reason I couldn’t be interested in both things and have success in both,” Souders said. Photo: Anna Miller
September 18, 2018

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When Peter Souders had the chance to try fencing when he was a boy, it was something of a no-brainer. “It seemed like, what could be a better sport for an eight-year-old kid than being allowed to hit your friends with a stick and not get in trouble?” he said.

Two decades later, Souders, a master’s student in the School of Engineering, is still getting away with hitting his friends, having parlayed it into a career as one of the best men’s saber fencers in the country. He was on USA Fencing’s Senior World Championship team in 2016, when the men’s saber team was ranked number one in the world. He went to Rio as a training partner for the 2016 Olympic team and is working toward a berth on the 2020 team.

Souders started competing nationally when he was thirteen, and continued as an undergraduate at Boston College, graduating in 2012 with a degree in physics.

Then, in the 2012-2013 season, he went to five international tournaments in Europe, and did so well that he decided to put off looking for a job to keep competing. “I had a bunch of people talk me into the idea I should give it a shot and see what I could do with it,” he said.

In a match, overthinking what the other person is doing is a problem. “Sometimes I lose the forest staring at all the trees,” Souders said. “I forget that fundamentally I am going around the world hitting people with sticks. And at some point, that needs to be a little bit silly and a little bit fun.” Photo: Anna MillerIn January 2014, he moved to Boston to train with David Sach at the Boston Fencing Club. (Sach also coaches the Tufts’ Women’s Fencing Team.) At the same time, Souders started looking at graduate schools in the area. Some of the schools he visited were only interested in his scholarly ambitions. But when he met with professors at Tufts, particularly engineering faculty William Messner and Jason Rife, they were not put off by his desire to split his time between fencing and academics.

“The feeling they gave me was, there was no reason I couldn’t be interested in both things and have success in both,” he said.

Even with a part-time academic load, it is hard to fit in four hours a day for training and lots of travel for tournaments. But he said his professors have been every bit as helpful as he could have hoped. They make time for him outside of class, and when he is jet-lagged after a tournament and nodding off in class, strategically wake him with a, “Hey, you’re not going to want to miss this part, stay with us.”

Once, the Pan American championships caused a major conflict with his graduate materials course, a small class with a just a handful of students where his absence would be noticeable. He sheepishly went to the professor, Mark Kachanov. “I had my official letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee saying please don’t kill this person for skipping your class,” Souders said. “His response was, ‘This is amazing and you should be so proud.’” In a show of support, the entire class agreed to meet on a different day so Souders could take part.

All that travel—from Senegal to Russia to South Korea—has netted him something besides jet lag. There was the supreme joy of standing on the podium at the World Cup in Tbilisi, Georgia, as the American national anthem played and he and his team received gold medals. And there is the subtler joy of seeing the common threads—the similar expressions, interests, and jokes—that people around the world share.

“We’re not as different as you might think,” Souders said. Everywhere he goes, people still bike to work, get on the subway, or wait in line at McDonald’s. “It doesn’t sink in until you go and you see it.”

He credits Tufts with letting him continue to have those experiences. “This school has been so helpful in making this two-part life work out as smoothly as it has,” Souders said.

And right now, those two parts are closer than ever. His independent project is a biomechanical study of how being a high-level fencer affects gait kinematics, i.e., how they walk. He created an image processing experiment to watch joint angles of fencers and non-athletes to see if fencers, who work one side of the body more than the other, exhibit asymmetry in their stride. “After all this time doing two things, suddenly they are one thing together,” he said.

He’s had plenty of fencing buddies to tap as test subjects, although it’s worth noting that fencing is really made up of three different sports with different movements, depending on the weapon. Épée and foil fencers use only the tip of the weapon, while saber fencers such as Souders can use a slashing motion. Saber is fast, aggressive, and calls for lots of fast-twitch muscle action—one or two explosive actions and then a break. Épée and foil require more endurance.

“Saber, because of the slashing, it’s really easy to hit somebody,” Souders said. “But every time you go after somebody you have to also figure out how they are not going to hit you.” That requires split-second decision making and a certain degree of psychology. “You have to get in your opponent’s head a bit,” he said.

Trying to get in your opponent’s head too much, though, can backfire. That’s when it’s good for Souder to think back to that eight-year-old kid.

“The easiest way to get caught up is overthinking what the other person is doing, and not think about the things you do well. Sometimes I lose the forest staring at all the trees,” Souders said. “I forget that fundamentally I am going around the world hitting people with sticks. And at some point, that needs to be a little bit silly and a little bit fun.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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