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The Age of USA Fencing Division 1 National Champions 1997-2016

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The Masters

The recent 2017 Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia generated a lot of discussion about the ages of Masters Champions and the role golf’s young guns have on the game. Prior to the Masters, speculation centered on who might win this year’s tournament as the last two champions and three of the previous six were in their twenties.

The ages of Masters Champions appear to go in cycles as illustrated in the accompanying graph. Since 1934 there have been four periods where the average age of Masters champions rose above the long term average, which is 32.6 years, and three periods where it declined. This prompted us to think about fencing and the impact of age on the performance of the sport’s elite athletes.

Age & Excellence

The constraining factor for a number of sports, particularly sports in which flexibility and strength are required, is age. However, both experience and skill are typically gained after years of practice, so it is generally thought that older athletes may be more successful in performing sports where these aspects prevail. Since little information has been published in recent times about the impact of age on success across the different gender-weapons categories in fencing, we conducted two statistical studies to establish whether any relationship exists between age and excellence in the six gender weapon categories, namely men’s epee, men’s foil, men’s saber, women’s epee, women’s foil and women’s saber:

  1. USFA National Fencing Champions 1997-2016, and
  2. Senior World Fencing Champions (1920-2015) and Olympians (1896-2016).

The relationship between age and USFA national fencing champions for the past twenty years is addressed in this post. Results from the second study will be posted in the next few weeks.

Data used in the analysis is derived from the USFA and International Fencing Federation (FIE) websites. The individual champions for which date-of-birth data was derived are listed in the table at the end of the post. Data is available for the 20 year period, 1997-2016 for all weapons except women’s saber which had its first Division 1 championship in 1998.

For the statisticians, the significance of differences between the mean age of each gender-weapon group was analyzed using a one-way ANOVA technique (Analysis of Variance), whereas the relationship between the age of champions and the year of success was assessed using Spearman rank correlation. The interquartile range, (IQR) represents the range from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile, or middle 50% of a data set. The IQR can be more effective that the average because it shows the dispersion range, in this case, in years, rather than just one number.

Findings

The average age of men champions in the past 20 years was significantly different, with that of epee champions (27.8 years, IQR 24.3-29.8 years) being always greater than that of men’s foil champions (20.9 years, IQR 18.0-23.0 years) and men’s saber champions (23.8 years, IQR 20.0-26.6 years). The only difference not reaching statistical significance was that between men’s foil and men’s saber champions.

There was no statistically significant difference between women’s epee champions (21.3 years, IQR 17.9-24.8 years), women’s foil champions (21.2 years, IQR 19.2-23.8 years) and women’s saber champions (21.5 years, IQR 17.8-23.3 years) as illustrated in the accompanying table.

The Age and Interquartile Range of USA Fencing Division 1 National Champions 1997-2016

 Men's EpeeMen's FoilMen's SaberWomen's EpeeWomen's FoilWomen's Saber
Average Age27.820.923.821.321.221.5
Interquartile Range24.3-29.818.0-23.020.2-26.617.9-24.819.2-23.817.8-23.3
n202020202019
Spearman's Rho0.0301-0.30380.51430.409-0.07370.007
P-value0.89980.19290.02030.07330.75750.9766
Source: National Fencing Club Rankings based on an analysis of USFA and FIE data.

The distribution of ages for each gender-weapon category is highlighted in the box-and-whisker plots below. It shows the significant difference in the average age of men’s epee champions and the similarity of ages for the other gender-weapon categories. Each gender-weapon has a box-and-whisker plot, the height of which represents the numerical range of years (minimum and maximum values). The “boxes” represent the 25th through the 75th percentile. This type of chart enables the reader to make quick comparisons among the different gender-weapons categories.

This graph tells us that the range of ages for men’s epee have been quite large, extending from 17.6 years on the low end to 52 years on the high end. Scrolling over the box-and-whisker plot for Men’s Epee highlights the data set: Men’s Epee 17.6-52, 24.3-29.8   The middle half (mid-spread) of fencers ages were between 24.3 and 29.8 years. The graph also illustrates the similarity in ages between the women’s groups.

Interestingly, a rather different trend was noticed when the age of champions of the different weapons were plotted against time. Specifically, a statistically significant and positive correlation was found between the age of men’s saber champions and time with a Spearman rho of 0.5143 and a P-value of 0.0203. In all other gender-weapons, no association was found between the age of champions and time.

For a point of comparison, the median age of Formula 1 championship winners over a 65 year period (1950-2014) was 31 years, IQR 28-34 years, Tour de France winners (28 years, IQR 27-30 years), alpine ski world cup winners (25 years, IQR 23-28 years) and Wimbledon winners (24 years, IQR 22-27 years)¹. Other researchers have found that the mean age of peak performance for Olympic track and field was 26 years and for swimming, 21 years. Interestingly, the age of performance peak of grandmaster chess players was much higher at 31 years, giving credence to the existence of certain performance gain with ageing in those sports requiring skill and ability.

The results of this analysis attest to the fact that the age of USFA Division 1 men’s epee champions are significantly different (older) that either men’s foil or men’s saber champions. In addition, the age of saber champions has grown over the past 20 years. In all other gender-weapon categories there was no association between age and time.

USA Fencing Division 1 National Champions 1997-2016

 Men's EpeeMen's FoilMen's SaberWomen's EpeeWomen's FoilWomen's Saber
2016Jack BradfordThomas DudeyJeff SpearFrancesca BassaMargaret LuKamali Thompson
2015Jason PryorSam MoelisJeff SpearKelley HurleyMargaret LuSage Palmedo
2014Yeisser RamirezRace ImbodenEli DershwitzMargherita Guzzi VincentiMargaret LuCelina Merza
2013Alexander TsinisMiles Chamley-WatsonAleksander OchockiKelley HurleyNzingha PrescodEliza Stone
2012Alexander TsinisGerek MeinhardtJames WilliamsCourtney HurleyDoris WilletteFrancesca Russo
2011Soren ThompsonRace ImbodenTimothy MorehouseCourtney HurleyMargaret LuDaria Schneider
2010Weston S. KelseyAlexander MassialasTimothy MorehouseCourtney HurleyMargaret LuEmily Jacobson
2009Benjamin UngarDavid WilletteBryan CheneySusannah ScanlanLee KieferIbtihaj Muhammad
2008Weston S. KelseyGerek MeinhardtIvan LeeCourtney HurleyErinn SmartRebecca Ward
2007Cody M. MatternGerek MeinhardtTimothy HagamenCourtney HurleyErinn SmartRebecca Ward
2006Weston S. KelseyAndras HoranyiIvan LeeKelley HurleyEmily CrossSada Jacobson
2005Benjamin J. SolomonJed DupreeIvan LeeMaya LawrenceHanna ThompsonRebecca Ward
2004Cody M. MatternDan KellnerKeeth SmartKelley HurleyErinn SmartSada Jacobson
2003John A. MoreauJon TiomkinIvan LeeStephanie EimIris ZimmermanChristine Becker
2002Weston S. KelseyJed DupreeKeeth SmartKerry WaltonErinn SmartCaitlin Thompson
2001Eric J. HansenSean McClainIvan LeeJulia LeszkoIris ZimmermanSada Jacobson
2000Chris O'LoughlinCliff BayerAkhnaten Spencer-ElStephanie EimFelicia ZimmermanChristina Crane
1999Tamir BloomJon TiomkinAkhnaten Spencer-ElArlene StevensFelicia ZimmermanNicole Mustilli
1998Tamir BloomCliff BayerPatrick DurkanArlene StevensErinn SmartKelly Williams
1997Jon NormileCliff BayerTerrence LaskerJessica BurkeIris Zimmerman
Source: USFA

 

¹ Sanchis-Gomar F, Matiuzzi C, Lippi G. The age of the champion as a major determinant of (personalized) performance in different sports disciplines. J Lab Precis Med 2017; 2:6.

7 Responses to "The Age of USA Fencing Division 1 National Champions 1997-2016"
  1. Michele Carey says:

    I’d be curious to see what the graphs would look like if you did it for the top 16.

  2. JKS says:

    Interesting analysis and comparisons.

    The men’s sabre data seems largely driven by repeat winners, especially Ivan, as well as Keeth, Akhi, and Tim, who each won twice, being very similar in age. You could find a similar correlation in other weapons if you analyzed one generation at a time (especially both Men’s and Women’s Foil, by the looks of it. For example, the Zimmermans, Erin, Hanna, and Emily analyzed separately from Lee, Margaret, Doris, and Nzingha). An ANCOVA could probably differentiate those ‘generations’ with a high degree of confidence. Given a longer time frame, I wonder whether you’d see these cycles more clearly.

    Also, a bonferroni correction, which is appropriate given the repeated exploratory testing, renders the MS correlation non-significant (p = 0.12, based only on the six regressions since you didn’t report the p-values for the ANOVA).

    • Ross says:

      Jeff: You make some excellent points. We had planned to use 30-40 years of data but found the data messy and problematic. Historical fencing data is notoriously “dirty” and much of it is missing. Resorting to Facebook to get birthdates of champions 30 to 40 years ago is fraught with risk! It seems that data collection and analysis for our niche sport is always on the back-burner.

      • JKS says:

        I was talking with Andrew Fischl about this today, and he suggested looking at the age when a champion first won over time. That would help get around the issue of repeat winners getting older and help determine whether fencers are rising to the top earlier or later than previously. Could be interesting.

        • Ross says:

          Jeff: When we exclude repeat winners and only include their first win, the correlation with time breaks down for saber champions (Spearman rho =0.391 and P-value 0.2, however the ANOVA reveals statistical significance between epee and foil (P=0.009). Keep an eye out for our post on Overall World Cup Winners (No.1 World Ranked Year End 1972-2016) and the relationship with age, weight and height! The saber and epee ladies carry a few more pounds and that’s statistically significant!

  3. Joe Hoffman says:

    The amazing athleticism and technique of John Moreau are as obvious on the graph as they are in person.

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