It was an Olympic dream come true—only it happened by accident. After stumbling upon the sport of fencing in high school, and then rediscovering it a decade later in graduate school, IEEE Member James Docherty [below, right] found himself on the support staff for the fencing competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
There he served as an armorer, ensuring that the fencers’ equipment met regulations and solving technical problems that occurred during matches. Armorers also help maintain the fencing equipment and the electronic scoring system.
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Docherty, 34, is a senior engineer at Hyperdrive Innovation, in Sunderland, England, which develops powertrain systems for electric, hybrid, and conventional vehicles. He is set to earn his Ph.D. in electrical and electronic engineering in microelectronic systems next month from Newcastle University, in England.
His engineering expertise got him interested in the technical side of the sport, such as using wireless technology to keep score. When a fencer’s sword tip or blade touches the opponent, an electric circuit is closed or opened, depending on the weapon—a foil, épée, or saber. That triggers a signal sent wirelessly by a radio transmitter in the fencer’s mask, indicating to the referee that the fencer has hit his opponent.
He joined the British Fencing Guild of Armourers and worked as an armorer at the national championships leading up to the Olympics.
“I was the only IEEE member on the 24-member armory, but there were a half dozen fencers with electrical engineering backgrounds,” he says. “Being an armorer is very much about logical thinking, understanding circuits, solving problems, and fixing the equipment on the spot.”
At the Olympics, Docherty managed to watch some of the matches despite working 14-hour days. He got to see two of his fencing idols—Peter Joppich, a four-time individual world champion from Germany, and Yuki Ota, a two-time Olympic silver medalist from Japan—face each other. “Watching them was a highlight of the games,” he says. “When the athletes were competing, it was a rocking atmosphere. Every hit was met with a deafening roar.”
Docherty returned to fencing himself in 2009 while earning his master’s degree. Within two weeks, he was competing in the British Universities and Colleges Sport league, which is equivalent to the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association. He spent two nights a week practicing with the university team and more than a dozen days competing during the academic year, except when a torn tendon last year kept him out for seven months. Once he graduates, he’ll continue fencing competitively, he says, but for his own U.K.-wide ranking.
“Someone once described fencing as a game of physical chess,” he says. “Both engineering and fencing require you to plan a couple of moves ahead.”
He says fencing has returned the favor for all his hard work by helping him relax and think more clearly. “When I put on the mask, I can shut off everything else,” he says. “It’s a different kind of thinking and so physically demanding that it fires off my endorphins. I’ve actually had a few good engineering ideas on the way home from fencing.”
Eleven years ago, IEEE Senior Member Frank Gekat was just another dad taking his two kids to archery class. One day, rather than sit on the sidelines, he decided to try a bow and arrow himself. He was surprised to find he not only enjoyed it but also was really good at it.
Today, Gekat, 56, averages an hour of practice a day. He participates in competitions, too—about 16 a year for two different national archery organizations: the German Archery Association and the German Shooting Sport Federation. His three-member team has won two German Championship Master Class competitions for archers age 45 and older. He is the top-ranked archer in the 55 and older class for Germany’s North Rhine–Westphalia region, in western Germany.
Gekat uses a recurve bow, the type favored in the Olympics. It comes with a sight and stabilization system for steadier aim and better accuracy. Its two limb tips curve away from the archer when drawn, giving the shot greater power and speed. Gekat’s model, the American-made Hoyt Formula RX, weighs 3 kilograms and requires a pulling force of 24 kg on the bow—comparable to the force required of Olympic archers.
“The stabilization dampens the micromovements, or involuntary trembling, of the archer during the final aiming and controls the movement of the bow immediately after the release,” he says. “The bow provides the best compromise between technical support and pure ancient archery.”
He’s motivated more by the meditative aspects of the sport than the competitive ones.
“With engineering, particularly in research and development, it’s difficult to stop thinking about the problems you’re facing. And sometimes you really should stop,” says Gekat, director of development at Selex ES, a product and service provider in telecommunications, weather radar, and meteorological sensors, in Neuss, Germany.
“Archery requires concentration. It helps me shut my mind off from everything else going on,” he says. “Afterward, my mind is completely blank.” He often finds, he adds, that the solution to an engineering problem comes to him when driving home after practice or a competition.
“It might even happen while I’m shooting,” he says, “but if I don’t concentrate on the task at hand, I risk losing my arrow.”
And they cost up to US $30 apiece. A professional-level bow of carbon foam composite runs about $2000. It can propel the aluminum-and-carbon-fiber composite arrows up to 90 meters—nearly the length of a European football field.
“The sport helps me meet people who have nothing to do with my job,” he adds. But engineers are unavoidable. “There are several in my club, and we’re always discussing ways to improve the technical aspects of the equipment. We can’t help it.”
Top: James Docherty; Bottom: Malte Gekat