En garde with Julian Merchant

The senior fencer discusses competing as a saber at Penn, the training and dedication the sport involves, and how fencing has taken him all around the world.

Fencer Julian Merchant poses seated with his sword and mask in Hutchinson Gym.

On the fencing strip, Julian Merchant is at peace.


“It’s a really nice thing for me to kind of waste time with and just have fun,” says the senior architecture major, “and let loose [at practice] after school is done and after all the other stuff is over.”

A native of New Rochelle, New York, Merchant has been a fencer since he was 9 years old. He says he gave the sport a go on the encouragement of his karate sensei. After trying it out, he fell in love.

Merchant recently concluded his fencing career at Penn with a 153-103 record. He was a member of three Ivy League champion men’s fencing teams and was a two-time All-Ivy honoree.

He was awarded Second-Team All-Ivy recognition as a freshman after finishing the season with a 49-33 record and helping the Quakers reached their first-ever No. 1 national ranking. 

As a junior, he finished 35-22 and was bestowed First-Team All-Ivy recognition. During his senior season, he compiled a 31-22 record and earned his 150th win.

Penn Today met up with Merchant at the Tse Cheng Sports Center to chat about competing as a saber on the fencing team, the training the sport requires, his interest in architecture, and how fencing has taken him all around the world.

Julian Merchant, right, practices fencing with a teammate in Hutchinson Gym.


Why did your sensei recommend that you try fencing?

They’re both combat sports. I guess she noticed I was really quick on my feet and I had pretty good reflexes. She just wanted me to try it out and my mom was looking for more stuff for me to do as a young kid, so it was just one of the things that I tried out and it happened to stick moreso than karate did. 

What do you enjoy about the sport?

Probably the one thing that kept me in fencing this long is the people. I’ve met a lot of different people just traveling across the world doing international competitions and national competitions. There are a lot of people in the community that you find yourself with and keep you coming back to practice every day. And besides that, when I was younger, it was kind of the one thing that I could do really well, besides maybe basketball in terms of an athletic outlet. 

Where in the world has fencing taken you?

The last few years, I’ve traveled to places like Italy, and Russia, and Hungary, and Poland. In terms of national competitions, I’ve been to just about every interesting state you can think of. 


Julian Merchant, right, practices with a teammate at Hutchinson Gym.


You are a saber. What’s the difference between a foil, an epee, and a saber?

They’re mainly different in the weapons you use and the target area. With saber, the hitting area is above the belt and your arms, and you can hit with any part of the blade. With foil and epee, you have this button at the end of the weapon where you have to push it and complete the circuit. With foil, you only have the target area of the chest, and then with epee, everywhere is fair game but you have to stab your target. Those are kind of the main differences and then they also have right-of-way differences and different rules.

Do you feel any pain when you get hit with a blade?

Not really. We wear pretty thick layers of cotton jackets so we’re pretty protected. There are a few times where you get hit on your hand or you get hit and the blade kind of whips around your helmet and hits you in back of the head, but those are few and far between. It’s probably one of the safest sports, actually.

What is your training schedule?

Usually, we train from 3:30 to 6 p.m. five days a week. We have optional Saturday practices and we usually have competitions every weekend, especially in the spring semester. It’s a pretty intense schedule. We also do strength and conditioning training after practice two days a week.


Fencer Julian Merchant practices with a teammate in Hutchinson Gym.


Why did you choose architecture as a major?

I’ve been doing it since I was in high school and I’ve been around real estate development and adaptive reuse projects my whole life. I’ve always been interested in that, especially being from New York where a lot of generations of my family have been real estate owners and developers. I’ve always been interested in taking it to the next level and learning how to actually do some of these projects myself instead of having an architect take control of what you want to do. I feel like I have enough creative ideas to input on my own.

Do you know what you want to do when you graduate?

I want to either find an internship in an architecture firm, or find a job that hopefully leads to real estate development and leads to me having adaptive reuse projects where I find unused spaces and fix them up and build them up. Whether that is me working at an architecture firm or doing construction management, I don’t exactly know yet. I’m certainly looking for opportunities.


Fencer Julian Merchant poses standing with his sword and mask in Hutchinson Gym.