When Pascual Di Tella, a fencing phenom from Buenos Aires, talks about maneuvering his saber during a match, he falls into the lingua franca of the sport, an intricate terminology of attacks and defenses. “One point would be an attack on preparation, because my hand went faster,” he says, as if it’s the simplest mind game. “The other person is going to be more paranoid of this hand. He’s going to want to finish faster because he doesn’t want to get caught in preparation.” His explanation is precise, quick, like he is on the piste. “So, on the next point, I do fake attack preparation. I make him fall short because he’s reacting faster.”
Di Tella relaxes, breaks into a smile, satisfied with his hypothetical victory. Fencing is as much a game of wits and mental toughness as it is strength and agility. The sophomore political science major came to Duke’s top-ranked fencing program—the men’s team has made it to the NCAA final championships in twenty-six of the last twenty-eight years—to hone his skills for international competition. In 2013, he won the South American Junior Championship, and during his freshman year at Duke, he ranked third in the ACC and fifth in the NCAA for the saber. As a member of Argentina’s national team, he travels all over the globe for bouts.
“My favorite part of a match is when it’s tied at the last point,” he says. “So it’s at the point that whoever does that point wins. It makes me very nervous, but it’s kind of the reason why you do it.”
Competitive instincts come naturally to Di Tella. His father, mother, grandmother, aunt, and sister all competed in Olympic Games, representing Argentina in fencing and skiing. And he’s built for the sport: His height—6’3”—gives him an obvious advantage, as does his temperament. “You have to be aggressive mentally,” he says. “And it’s so fast. Like, if you were to watch it not knowing anything about fencing, you would just see two people running at each other.”
Being able to move swiftly with a calm mind is a skill he cultivates. “It’s kind of meditative. To control yourself, to control your emotion and your impulses,” he says. “You can’t ask yourself to win the point. You can ask yourself to do things to win the point.”
His manual dexterity and quick wrists are primed by his other talent: music. He plays the guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, and drums, and writes and records music in a mini recording studio in his dorm room. His band, Weekend Shirt, performs acoustic pieces and a crafted weave of synths, piano, drums, and vocals. The group’s lyrics can be haunting, especially when sung by Di Tella’s tremulous voice, full of melancholy and youthful longing.
While he admits it can be hard to balance everything, he has found that one interest often feeds another. To pump himself up for a fencing match, he’ll listen to his own music. And in return, fencing gives him the discipline to stay focused and calm when managing classes and music. “Routine helps you to become disciplined and also a perfectionist. I’m not a perfectionist, though,” he says, laughing. His foiled opponents surely would beg to differ.
Taylor is a Duke Magazine intern and a sophomore majoring in theater studies.