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The story of a fencing champion between music, chemistry and an Olympic gold

By Egle Damini / LUZ
Daughter of the poet Giulio Camber, born in Trieste in 1926, Irene Camber was the first Italian woman to win the Olympics as a fencer. She held a foil for the first time at the age of eight, after her mother unsuccessfully attempted to enrol her and her sister Juliet in artistic gymnastics.

Little Camber, however, preferred to follow the footsteps of her brother, who with much less enthusiasm was dragged to fencing training.

Irene Camber began an adventure that would have changed her life: she immediately showed that she was born to wield the foil and in 1940, she won her first fencing competition in a regional tournament. Two years later, at just 16 years old, she reached the finals of the Italian national fencing championships.

Fencing was her passion but not her only goal. During high school years, Irene Camber studied piano and graduated from the conservatory; after high school, she enrolled in Industrial Chemistry at the University of Padua. Obviously, she graduated, the first woman in the history of the university.

After graduating, Irene Camber began to teach and decided to start fencing once more. In 1952, she was in Helsinki for the Olympics. The day of the competition Camber followed the assaults of the opponents, took notice on their assaults so that she managed to pass the first rounds without particular difficulty, while all her team members were eliminated one by one.

We are in the post-war period and the organization of the games was quite rudimentary, so exemplified by how Irene Camber remembered a lunch on a competition day:

When lunchtime arrived, I asked the cafeteria for a steak, they didn't give it to me because they were counted and the only one left was reserved for I don't know who. I ate an egg and an apple.

Almost at one o'clock in the night between July 27 and 28, the fencer from Trieste fought for the gold medal against the Hungarian Ilona Elek-Schacherer, the unbeatable left-handed fencer still considered today as the greatest foil player in the history of fencing.

After the first assaults, Camber hit Elek-Schacherer twice, defeating her. That day she took home a gold medal, the first of our female fencing.

Ilona immediately took off her mask, even before the judges' verdict, and congratulated me. From there, our friendship was born. Irene Camber

A fencing "Cinderella" story, as the newspapers of the time said, incredulous for this unexpected victory, Irene Camber returned to Trieste in triumph, on a convertible being followed by 300 Vespa scooters. After Helsinki, Irene got married, but the marriage did not hinder her career in the world of fencing.

In 1953, Camber won the individual world fencing title in Brussels, becoming one of the 10 Italian athletes that had ever won gold at both the Olympics and the World Championships.

In 1956, Irene Camber did not participate in the Melbourne Olympics because she was expecting her first child, but the following year, in Paris, she won the team world title.

Irene Camber laid her foil down definitively in 1964, 30 years after having wielded it for the first time.

Camber's successes in fencing, earned with unshakable constancy in training and won with great humility, were eventually recognized and praised by the Italian State. In 1953, she was awarded the title of Knight of the Italian Republic, once she finished her competitive career Irene Camber became commissioner for the female foil (a title she retained until 1972), in 1985 she received the gold star for sports merit.

Today, at 93, Irene Camber lives in Brianza with her family of 3 children and 8 grandchildren and continues to inspire generations of young fencers throughout Italy.

A sport full of romantic values

Fencing is in the collective imagination a "noble" sport: practiced in courts throughout Europe as a method of personal defence - and to defend one’s honour in duels, fencing, for its elegance in movements, the ceremonial before the duel and the respect for the label and the rules, retains a powerful romantic aura to this day.
Elegance aside, fencing is an extremely demanding sport, which requires flexibility, excellent reflexes, speed and motor coordination, as well as a tactical mind and good physical endurance. As in the case of Camber, to achieve high levels of performance in this sport, you have to train constantly and humbly, learn from your opponents and listen to your body, to improve your weaknesses or hide them from the opponent.

It is therefore not surprising that this process requires years of training, which is why fencing is a sport practiced from an early age, as in the case of Irene Camber.

As in all sports, the fencing training is not limited to the thin platform on which you duel. To get the most out of your body, you must also train in the gym and improve your strength, endurance and agility.

3 exercises to improve your fencing skills

What are the most popular exercises to improve your physical performance and be a better fencer? In male and female fencing, there has always been - even in Camber's times - the tendency to focus heavily on the strength of the quadriceps to improve endurance and power in movement. However, also the core and shoulders to improve stability and posture during the fencing position are important, just as much as the chest and arms to compensate for the imbalance caused by the use of the sword on a single arm as well as to give strength and power to the armed arm.
Therefore, the 3 proposed exercises to be associated with fencing training (which respectively stimulate agility, strength in the quadriceps and strength in the arms) are:

Speed Skaters

Standing with your legs slightly apart, lift one foot. Using your arms to help you balance, jump in the direction of the raised foot, while continuing to be facing forward. Try to jump as wide as possible and land on the opposite foot. To continue, regain balance and then launch in the opposite direction.
Throughout the exercise, you will jump from side to side. Every time you land, try to pull up the internal leg (that is, the one with which you jumped) Arms play a key role in giving you balance.

Horizontal Leg press

Sitting on the machine with your back and head resting against the padded support, place your feet on the footplate at a distance of about the width of your hip, making sure your heels are flat. The legs should form an angle of about 90 degrees to the knees.

Grasp the support handles, tighten the abdomen and push the platform away with your heel and forefoot. Heels should remain flat on the platform. During exhalation, stretch your legs and keep your head and back flat against the seat cushion. Extend with slow control rather than explosive movement.

Hold the position for the upper part of the movement. Do not block your knees and make sure they are not bent. During inhalation, return the footplate to the starting position by gradually bending your knees. Keep your feet and back flat all the time.

High Cable Crosses

Place the pulleys in a high position (above the head), select the resistance to be used and hold one pulley per hand.

Step forward in front of an imaginary straight line between the two pulleys as you pull your arms together in front of you. Your torso should be tilted slightly forward, keeping your back straight.

With a slight flexion on your elbows to prevent tendon stress, extend your arms sideways in a wide arc until you feel your chest stretch, breathing in. Throughout the movement, the arms and torso should remain stationary; the movement should only take place at the shoulder joint.

Return the arms to their original position by exhaling. Be sure to use the same arc of motion used to lower the weights. Hold the position for one second. Repeat the exercise as many times as recommended.

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