Failure

Went to a local tournament yesterday to watch my friends fence. (Almost said team instead of friends. When I start entering competitions along with them, I’ll consider thinking of myself as their teammate.) A few of them were guys who are clearly ahead of me, judging by the results of our practice bouts — and those guys were gone fairly quickly. Watching them fall so easily, I was convinced that had I entered the tournament (as I had thought I might until last week), I most likely have lost every bout, and scored few if any touches.

You learn from failure, of that there is no doubt. But it does not follow that the more one fails, or the more spectacularly one fails, the more one learns. Some time in the near future, I will enter competitions like the one I saw yesterday, and I’m certain to have little success. I just want to develop my skills to the point where I can actually learn something from being squashed.

The Academy 3U

“Annie says we’re ahead,” Butch says, his voice excited like he’s at a birthday party and they’ve just brought out the cake.

“Really?” I say, with genuine surprise in my voice.

“Yeah. She said something about us being ‘plus 3’ and the Academy being ‘plus 1.’ Come see.”

Guess there’s no way I can avoid this now. I walk over to the bulletin board and read the tournament sheet:

NAME V V/M TS TR Ind
Francis Pine 4 1.0000 20 7 +13
Rex Ankiel 3 0.7500 19 8 +11
Annie Hutchsinon 3 0.7500 18 9 +9
Jane Harris 2 0.5000 15 14 +1
Wanda Jensen 2 0.5000 14 16 -2
Jenny Wagner 1 0.2500 7 18 -11
Benjamin Goodman 1 0.2500 12 16 -4
Bernard Scott 0 0.0000 7 20 -13

“I’m guessing the V stands for the number of bouts you won,” says Butch. Yes, V stands for victories. “They’ve got nine Vs, we’ve got seven.”

“But our indicator’s better,” Annie replies quickly. “Look over at the right, the plusses and minuses. You add them up, and we’re plus 3, and they’re only plus one.”

I can tell by the look on Bernie’s face that he has no idea what Annie’s talking about, so I step forward and explain the tournament sheet.

“V is your victories, and V/M is your victories per match — it’s a percentage, it only matters if there’s not an even number of bouts for each fencer. TS is touches scored, TR is touches received — those are your totals from all your bouts. That last column’s called the Indicator, and that’s just your touches scored minus your touches received. Looks like Annie and Rex have done really well in their bouts, so our Indicator scores are a little better.”

“So we’re winning?”

“Not really. The Indicator’s only significant as a tie-breaker. Victories are the most important, followed by the V/M. So the Academy’s ahead, 9 – 7.”

“You don’t think the Academy’s worried about their Indicator?” says Annie. “That’s all Coach Sarah’s talking about with her team, ‘your Indicator, your Indicator.’ We wind up with a better Indicator than they at the end of the today — I’ll be happy with that.”

The Academy 3T

There’s an odd pause in the air, as if the oxygen were temporarily sucked out of it, a moment before we hear Coach Sarah yell All right! We turn to see her walking swiftly, feet pounding into the green mat, a piece of paper waving above her head. “I have the results,” she says, walking towards the moving bulletin board.

The team rushes up behind her, but I stay back. I know the results already, know I’m in last place, I don’t need to see her sheet.

“Aren’t you going?” Kassie’s voice comes from behind me. I turn only so much as to confirm she’s actually there.

“Nah. Nothing there I don’t already know.”

“Won’t it show where your next bout is?”

“They’ll be sure to tell me anyway.”

“Why don’t you want to fence?”

Now I turn fully towards her. “Who said I don’t want to fence?”

“Nobody.”

I shake my head, smile with as much sarcasm as I can muster. “So why did you just accuse me of not wanting to fence?”

“Isn’t it true?”

“Kassie,” I say, walking towards her, “we’re at a fencing tournament — excuse me, ‘enhanced practice’, as Coach Dan says. Right?” Nod. “And I had to get up early on a Saturday to catch my ride with Mrs. Hutchinson, right?” Nod. “Do you think I’m a rational person?” Nod. “And wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that a rational person who goes out of their way to attend a fencing — whatever this is — wants to be there?”

Kassie doesn’t nod, or say anything. She looks scared. Fortunately the sound of Butch’s voice breaks the awkward silence that’s emerged.

The Academy 3S

Coach Dan is standing just ouside a circle with Butch, Rex, Annie and Kassie. I can’t make out what he’s saying as I approach, but it must have been funny because everyone’s laughing. He sees me approach, and with hands on his hips he raises his eyebrows in my direction.

“Lost,” I say. “5 – 1.”

Coach Dan nods. “How’d you get your touch?”

“Can’t remember. Does it matter?”

“Of course it does,” Coach Dan replies, now turning straight towards me. “Jane Harris has been fencing since she was nine, with all that experience she’s a lot better than you are now. She’s at Francis’ level, and you got one more touch against her that you did against him.”

“Guess I got lucky.”

“Luck?!” I think I got him excited. “Jane and Francis are too good to be beaten by luck, and you’re too intelligent to believe what you just said. Now think — what happened just before you got your touch?”

Stare at the ceiling. Should I close my eyes? Nah, I got this. “I attacked, and she parried, but her riposte was wide. I hit on the remise.”

Coach Dan nods. I expect him to ask what I learned from the bout, but he turns back to the circle.

I have to ask. “How’d you know Jane’s been fencing since she was nine?”

Coach Dan turns back to me quickly. “I don’t. But it sounded good,” as the team laughs again.

The Academy 3R

Back to en garde lines. Fence. Advance — WHOA, now Jane’s charging right at me!

Coach Sarah calls a halt as Jane rushes past me. “Flesch attack from the right is good.” I don’t know why they call it a flesch attack when you run at your opponent. Might be French for run or something. There’s a lot of French terms in fencing, cuz of the French being the ones who took the dueling tradition and made a sport out of it. I bet somebody at the Academy would know, they teach French there. They also teach French at Bark Bay, cuz of us being so close to Canada, but the Academy’s got better teachers, they’ve probably actually been to France.

That’s bout, finally. Jane and I salute, then meet in the middle to shake hands.

“That was the first time I did a flesch in competition,” Jane says. I nod. “I’ve done it in practice, but not during a real bout, against someone who knows what they’re doing.”

“Didn’t you just beat me 5 – 1?”

“It’s not the score that matters. You do some good things out there, Bernie, and I have to fence at my best to beat you. That’s why I enjoy fencing against worthy opponents like you, good fencers who force me to push myself, try new things.”

“Like that flesch attack?”

Jane smiles. She’s got a great smile. I’m about to ask her whether flesch was a Frech word, but then I realize I really don’t give a shit, so I say goodbye (“Don’t forget about Saturday,” she tells me) and head back to my team.

The Academy 3Q

Fence. Advance — whoa there, now Jane’s on the offensive. Retreat, retreat — Jane stops, gives me time to check my balance, little heavy on the front leg, shift your weight toward your back buttock boy — advance advance, Jane’s retreating — wait, now she’s shifting back and forth, back and forth, back and forth — her lunge comes suddenly, violently fast, and being both unprepared and slow there’s no hope I can parry. The best I can do is snap a mental picture of her perfectly executed attack, from the red tip of her foil pressed firmly against my right shoulder, up through the blade of her weapon angling down, its handle gripped in her right hand held high and to my left, down the length of her fully extended arm to her right shoulder held in line with her head (Keep the shoulder in, don’t lean forward, as Coach Dan constantly tells me), through the width of her body centered slightly towards her posterior and balanced by her left arm tossed fully back, her legs planted firmly on the green rubber mat, front foot pointed straight ahead and leg bent at the knee to form as close as any human can get to a perfect right angle, left leg trailing back long and straight, the foot landing neatly after propelling her forward.

The Academy 3P

Fence. You want some action, well here goes! Advance LUNGE, whatcha think of that Janie? Oh sure, parry-riposte, touch right, three-zero, back to the en garde line.

Fence.Advance — no I’m going to stop here, I did all the work last time, your turn now Miss Harris. Advance, now she’s rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. I’d be impressed by her balance and agility if I weren’t so annoyed in general. See what an advance does — quick! Ah, that got your attention. Retreating? Oh please, how passive-aggressive. OK then, let’s advance, beat the blade this time — still retreating — advance, beat the blade, lunge — missed, point of my foil sails past her left shoulder, AGAIN — parry-riposte, I catch her blade on my bell guard, we push against each other a moment, she steps back, I draw back and thurst — BINGO!

“Halt halt halt,” Coach Sarah calls impatiently. “Beat attack from the left is parried, riposted from the right is no — then I don’t know exactly what happened next, all I know is that we finally have an attack left, which is good, 3 – 1.”

There. Got my touch in. Could have done without the commentary, but I don’t care what Coach Sarah thinks, a touch is a touch.

The Academy 3O

There’s a part of me that wants to apologize immediately to Kassie, making her sit through my little diatribe. Well you asked what was bothering me — now you know.

Kassie’s looking at me with that uncomfortable gaze of hers, where her eyes are looking right at you like searchlights but you get the sense she doesn’t really see you. Her focus is somewhere else, and if you were to suddenly catch on fire she wouldn’t notice until she smelled the burning of your flesh.

Suddenly the spooky gaze goes away, and her eyes refocus. She finally speaks, in a voice that sounds afraid. “You need . . . a different strategy . . . if you want to win.”

“I’m open to suggestions,” I respond, turning back to the strip. Jane’s getting reconnected, and Coach Sarah catches my eye.

“You ready?” I shrug, and get up from my chair. As I pull my cord from the reel, I hear Coach Sarah walk up behind me.

“I can give you more time if you’d like.”

I don’t turn to her, keep focused on getting connected as I tell her that won’t be necessary.

“I don’t want you getting back on strip unless you’re ready.”

I laugh. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Ready to show some good energy?”

I finally turn to her. “Pardon?”

She looks at me the same way Coach Dan looks at me when he gets frustrated with me during practice. “I’ve seen targets with more life than what you showed earlier. I know this is just practice, but I know Daniel — Coach Dan — doesn’t want you to go through the motions. He wants this to be a learning experience for you guys, just as I want this to be a learning experience for my team. And there’s no way you’re going to learn if you’re asleep.

“So,” she says, leaning forward and widening her eyes at me ” — are you ready to fence?

OK then, if that’s the way you want to play it. “Sure,” I reply with a nod.

Running

Coach tells me to run 9 minutes, becuase that’s how lomg a 15-touch elimination bout runs (five-touch preliminaries are three minutes). You could argue with that reasoning, as there are breaks at the three minute marks and there’s all kinds of stops during any bout, but it’s good,conditioning advice nonetheless.

The track at my local comminity gym is 13.5 laps to the mile, on the moddle of three lanes. Used to do nine minute miles there when I was running 5Ks (bad knees put an end to that), so I’m making that my goal. Did a little more than 12 laps today, and wasn’t weezing at the end. Another couple weeks at that pace, then I can push for the 9 minute mile.

Equipment

Bought my first electrical foil and body cord last week. Ran me about $110. Got a lame a few months back for around $80, and my tunic, glove, mask, and practice foil set me back around $200 a year ago. So this hobby of mine has already cost me close to $400, and that’s not counting the instructional fees.

This makes me appreciate the dedication that fencing schools, especially the smaller ones, have to have for the sport. They must have to invest thousands in equipment, and hundreds of hours laundering tunics, mending gloves, repairing foils.