Renny and Lenny

This photo was taken soon after I resumed fencing. After competing as a high school and college fencer, I had been away from the sport for nearly three decades, and within a month after getting back, I wondered why I had ever left.

Here is a more recent image, from the time I began practicing as a left-handed fencer. It has been a difficult experiment, as I’ve had to convince my legs that yes, I really do want the left to take the lead, and the right simply must provide the power.

Yesterday, I had a little fun with my transition.

My club conducts two week-long summer camps for student fencers, and this past week I helped our coach run the show (one benefit of my recent career change is the ability to say yes to myself more often). I enjoyed working with the youths — people who believe the coming generation is a collection of smartphone-addicted zombies need to spend time in the places young people want to go — and found that explaining and demonstrating our drills made me appreciate the importance of proper technique.

The final day of camp consisted of an in-house tournament, an opportunity to test the skills worked on during the week. Due to lack of lames for saber, we decided to forgo electronic scoring equipment for that weapon. I was suddenly inspired, and couldn’t resist making a proposal — “Why don’t I fence saber as both a lefty and a righty, to see which is my better hand?”

(Momentary aside for any Inigo Montoya fans who might be reading this — no, fencing rules do not allow you to switch hands in the middle of a bout. If you’re injured during a tournament and the on-site medical staff certifies you cannot continue competing with the hand you’ve been using, it is possible you could continue with the other, although it’s hard to imagine that same staff agreeing to let an injured fencer compete.)

Perhaps sensing a wavering of my transition, our coach was completely against my proposition. But after seeing the overwhelming enthusiasm of our campers to the idea, she had little choice but to acquiesce.

Two entries were made on the tournament whiteboard, and I volunteered my names be entered as Ken R and and Ken L. (Perhaps, in keeping with the tradition of this blog, it should have been Keigh Ahr and Keigh El.) But another coach then suggested that Kenny — only members of my fencing club call me Kenny, and they will always call me Kenny — should compete as Renny and Lenny. The suggestion was too brilliantly adorkable to do otherwise than win the day.

The results were not surprising. Renny and Lenny were closely matched, both winning two bouts and losing two others. However, Lenny was able to score one more touch in his losing bouts than did Renny, and surrendered one less touch in the bouts he won, giving Lenny a +3 indicator that bested Renny’s +1. “It’s time for Renny to retire,” our coach proclaimed at the end of the tournament, and I’m fine with that, because I’m getting used to the idea of being a little sinister when I fence.

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The Spirit of Competing

The latest poem from Matt has nothing to do with fencing, but it does express how I feel about the sport. Victory provides a special kind of exhilaration, and I’m curious to know what earning a rating feels like, but I never want the desire to win jeopardize the thrill of pulling a gray meal cage over my face and approaching my opponent, weapons in our hands.

Left?

The masked man in the picture is me, testing a theory about my unusual motor skills.

When I picked up a foil for the first time in my teens, I used my right hand, as that’s side I use for most activities. Through high school and college I continued fencing as a righty, and when I returned to the sport after a three-decade absence I defaulted to my right again.

However… I’m not completely right-handed. When I eat or brush my teeth, I’ve always used my left hand. It wasn’t until I met my ever-observant wife that I understood this oddity. “Your gross motor skill — hand and arm dexterity — is on your right side,” she explained, “while your fine motor skill, finger dexterity, is on your left.” Makes sense to me, and sounds a lot better than you’re a freak.

Soon after resuming my fencing career, my coach saw me writing with my left hand, and made a suggestion: “You should fence as a lefty.” I always parried her suggestion with the fact I am entirely right-footed. Roll a ball towards me, and I’ll always kick it with my right foot — that’s the gross motor skill at work. And with balance being an important component of fencing, I considered leading with my right leg of paramount importance.

Thing is, finger coordination in fencing is important for point control. The disengage, in which you drop your blade under an opponent’s attempted parry, is most effective when executed with the fingers, rather than wrist or arm.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided there was nothing to lose by trying. Borrowing a glove and foil from the club, I started fencing as a lefty.

The feeling was as awkward as I expected.

At times I found myself advancing by moving my right foot first, which when fencing as a lefty is behind your body — the motion made me lurch forward, like pushing a wheelbarrow with its front tire stuck in the mud. Each lunge was an argument with my body, an attempt to convince dormant muscles that it was perfectly all right to stretch.

Yet despite these discomforts, I felt my sense of distance to my opponent was somewhat enhanced, which I had not expected as I am right-eye dominant. I also had a better awareness of the tip of my blade — the heightened finger dexterity did seem to make a difference.

At this point, I fence far better with my right hand, and I’m not thrilled by the prospect of buying an almost entire new set of equipment. (If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see a covered zipper channel on the left side of my lame, the gray covering for my torso used for electronic scoring. For safety reasons, fencing regulations require jackets and lames to be zippered either in the back or on the fencer’s non-weapon arm. I can continue using my current gear for practice, but should I enter competitions as a lefty, I’ll need appropriate gear.) But I’m intrigued enough by what I’ve observed these last two weeks to continue this experiment.

Castle

Like most martial arts, fencing is a mano a mano contest — the sport does have team events, but they are composed of a series of individual bouts. Group competitions are rare, but every few months at the club, we have a good game of Castle.

It’s kind of like dodge ball, with weapons. Two teams gather at opposite ends of the floor, each behind a line designating their castle boundary. Fencers can stay inside the safety of their castle, or go outside to battle their foe, but can’t cross the other team’s boundary. Foil target area is in effect, with a catch — if your arm or leg is struck, that off-target blow renders that limb useless. If your weapon arm’s hit, you fence with the other arm; if a leg is hit, you can’t move it. An on-target hit, or losing both arms or both legs, knocks you out. It’s a game of timing, awareness, and teamwork; too much aggression can leave you open to a blindside attack, while an overly cautious approach can imperil your teammates and leave you the sole survivor against three opponents.

The holidays, when schools are on break and workplaces have all but shut down, are a good time to break from the routine of drills and practice at the fencing club. This past Monday we played a half-dozen or so games of Castle, and I felt like a kid in recess. Highlight of the evening for me came when I was left with one teammate, with two remaining on the other side. My teammate traded parries with one of our foes, as I eased into position on her flank. As the other opponent closed in, I reacted instinctively, striking the first and then pivoting to parry the attack of the second, and landing the riposte to end the battle. Bada-bing, baby!

A lot of men my age take up golf to challenge themselves. I choose to get my kicks by stabbing people. I’d be worried, if I weren’t having such a good time.

Escrime d’Halloween 

On October 21, Sara Kass will be hosting the 18th Escrime d’Halloween youth fencing tournament. The pre-registration numbers for this year’s event have exceeded expectations, which is a mixed blessing for Kass.

“I’m already at over 150 entries, and 120 athletes. This is an amazing comment of the growth in youth fencing!” said the owner and head coach of Cyrano’s Place fencing club in Lakewood Ohio. Both numbers (an athlete can enter multiple events) are well over fifty percent higher than last year’s, an increase which Kass attributed in part to the US national team earning four medals at last summer’s Rio Olympics. “I’m going to be running 10 strips [the 14 meter long and 2 meter wide playing field for fencing], which is 3 more than I needed last year.” Typically an energetic woman who speaks rapidly as if racing to her next appointment, her pace suddenly slows. “A hundred entries, maybe 125. That’s what I expected. But I’m at 150. And we’re still two weeks out.”

Yet when asked to recall the first youth tournament her club attended, Kass resumes her rapid-fire rhythm. “There was a fencing club in Indiana that had a bunch of youth fencers, as did Cyrano’s. We discussed having a tournament, and they agreed to host and have us travel. They found us a cottage house, where our kids camped overnight in sleeping bags.. There were maybe 30 fencers. It was an amazing weekend — I remember the smiles on the kids’ faces, as they learned some wonderful lessons about competition and camaraderie. It was very much a developmental event, and still is. The following year, was my turn to host. The club in Indiana did not want to host again, so the Escrime [the French word for fencing] became our annual event.”

Kass has built a strong youth fencing program over the last two and a half decades. “Other clubs have kids, but we have the greatest numbers, specifically 12 years and unders. It’s fun to watch kids start in youth events, and go on to college programs. But even the kids who don’t stay with the sport, and get into other things — they take with them life lessons from fencing. Like how there’s always someone coming after you in some way, and you have to decide how to deal with them. The fencing mentality is to adapt, keep going forward, do what’s right. I enjoy knowing when kids walk out my club’s door, they are better citizens because of fencing.”

And as one of few female fencing coaches in Ohio, Kass particularly enjoys seeing her young women realize their potential. “Men have athletic advantages over women — they’re typically bigger, faster, and stronger, but women can negate those advantages through strategy. So I jokingly tell my female students, ‘when you’re in grammar school, boys are there. When you’re in middle school, they’re there to compete with, and when you’re in high school, they’re there to compete with and beat. When you’re older, I’ll tell you about college.’”

One Touch

I’d look up the last time I wrote about fencing, but I don’t have room in my life for any more regret. So I’ll just go ahead and talk about a recent night at the club, an unusually successful evening, during which, for the first and quite possibly the last time, I defeated my coach.

We played a game of one-touch, which, as the name suggests, involves a running series of matches to a single score. There were a half-dozen fencers that evening, all adults (the kids will come back when schools come back in session). Our bouts began with the score tied at 14 (elimination bouts in tournaments go to 15 touches), and since we had some fencers with competition ratings, competitors were deducted a point for each level they had attained; an unrated fencer in a bout against a fencer with the next highest rating, E, would begin with a 14-13 advantage.

I drew the opening bout of our competition, and faced our coach, who also happens to be our club’s best competitor. With her D rating, I had a 14-12 advantage, meaning I needed to get her once before she scored her third. A difficult task, but hardly impossible; in our competitive bouts, I’ve earned one touch for ever four or five surrendered. But this was a different game, and coach always plays to win (as do I, but at a much lower rate of success). I’d have to catch her making a mistake, and when she made it I’d have to score, because there wouldn’t be another opportunity.

Our bout began, and I retreated on her approach, stepping forward a few times to break up her rhythm. She needs three, and all I need is one. I lunged out of distance, to see if she’d overextend herself on the riposte, but she was too good of a competitor to take the bait. Just one. I retreated, letting her advance…

And then it was there. My brain didn’t register the thought, but my vision combined with instinct and experience recognized that she had come in too close and left an opening on her right.  I pounced, disengaging under her blade, extending my arm wide, and leading the point of my blade to her right shoulder, on the edge of her target area. It was an action based not on any decision on strategy, not something I thought about, but more accurately something I felt.

The scoring machine to my right buzzed, but I didn’t know if I had landed on target (green light), or off (white light). I looked over — green light.

Some fencers claim that yelling or celebrating on strip is inappropriate. I don’t agree with that opinion, but still feel compelled to apologize after showing my excitement over a successful attack, especially during practice. But to knock out my coach, on the first bout, the first touch, of the competition, and win without relying on my handicap: YEEEEEEAAAAAAAAH!

I would lose my next bout to an unrated fencer, and over the course of that evening I probably lost more bouts than I won. But I did defeat every other competitor at least once that evening, defeating another D and an E. When the competition came to its end, we all agreed that the event was not only a load of fun but also an effective simulation of a close tournament bout. And for me, it was a rare opportunity to celebrate success. I’m not going to beat coach very often; I faced her three other times that evening, and never came close to scoring against her again. But for one evening, I could honestly say I beat everyone. Winning isn’t everything, but it certainly is a lot more fun than losing, and I had enough fun that evening to carry me through a lot of tough bouts to come.

Competing

Been five months since my last post about fencing. Going to practice consistently, once or twice a week; being at the club, surrounded by people who have the same passion for the sport as I do — very invigorating. Haven’t been competing or refereeing in tournaments since that post in September, which is not entirely surprising since organized competitions aren’t the reason I got back into this sport. Thoroughly enjoy competing and officiating at the club; still trying to find my comfort zone at tournaments.

Asked my coach the other day about goals for the coming year, and she replied that my mental approach to the game needs to catch up with my physical abilities. I know what I’m supposed to do on strip, and I’ve accomplished enough to know I can be competitive — finding that comfort zone has been my biggest challenge. To be as relaxed and focused during fencing as I am when bowling — they’re two very different sports (nobody’s coming at you with a weapon when you’re bowling), but there’s a serenity that can be found in each.

Best

Another fencing tournament today, with a twist — competed in two events, foil and saber. Results were equivalent (one victory in each of the pools, followed by a swift exit in the DEs), but I scored many more touches in saber, losing a couple pool bouts by one. Most of my foil pool bouts were a hot mess, one miss after another; attack-no counter-yes, attack is parried riposte is no remise touche. Half of my misses hit, might have one another bout or two, improved my seeding in the DE.

Wife asked how it went when I got home. About the same, I replied in my best sardonic tone. “Well, did you do your best?” Told her that was a hard question to answer, not just today but any day. It’s difficult to know what your best looks like, not easy to separate desire and ambition from reasonable expectation. All those whiffs — yeah, shouldn’t have been so many of those. Effort was there, so was the strategy, but the execution was lacking. Guess I didn’t do my best, come to think of it; need to work on that point control when practicing at the club.

“Did you have fun?” Now that was much easier to answer. Hell yes. Feeling the life energy of competition coursing through every cell of my body, a euphoria of passion; I doubt any other activity could provide me with such thrills.

Bronze

img_0005Another fencing tournament today, and a first — I “won” a bronze medal in saber. The award comes with quotation marks as there were only three competitors, so from a different perspective I came in last. But at the end of the day they handed me a bronze, and it would have been inhospitable of me to refuse. Need to write a poem about this, on some day where I have a bit more energy.

Thoughtless

“Why don’t you ref foil in the morning, then fence sabre in the afternoon?”

Coach made that suggestion this week for today’s D and under. Tournaments lately have been frustrating experiences, and I’d already decided not to compete in today’s foil event. Officiating, on the other hand, is a great opportunity to be involved with the sport without feeling the pressure of one’s own expectations. Sabre? Been playing around with the weapon at practice for a while, even bought the electronics; competing at some point was in the plan, and coach’s suggestion this week was the motivation to take the next step.

And why not? With so little experience in the weapon, there was little reason to be frustrated, whatever the outcome. If I got shut out entirely, well, that should happen when facing opponents with far more experience. Hook in and let it fly; have some fun doing what you can, and let the results worry about themselves.

And those results, not surprisingly, were pretty positive. Reffing the foil went smoothly, with only a few calls made with more confidence in my voice than my eyes. And competing in sabre was a blast — scored the initial touch in my first pool bout, and actually won my second bout on a shutout (nailed this kid with an undercut to his hand for the first touch, and he never recovered). Decided after that victory to take a more strategic approach in the rest of my pool bout, and after three quick loses realized the folly of that approach. Compared to the other two weapons in fencing, sabre is notably faster, and success in the weapon is all about instinct and reaction — when you start thinking in a sabre bout, you’re in trouble. And by the time the pool bouts were over, I was tired of being in trouble.

Started the DEs against the guy who’d shut me out in my last pool bout. Let it fly, and see what happens. Suddenly I start scoring touches with no real idea what I’m doing, and at the break I’m up 8-6. Bout’s close the rest of the way, and at 14-all I catch a parry but can’t connect on the riposte, losing on the remise.

It was a wonderful afternoon of thoughtless fun. Resulting with the strong suspicion that, after several years of middling results and enduring frustration with foil, I may have finally found my weapon with sabre.