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.

Fun

Been a while since the last update on my fencing career, and while I could take the easy way out and blame my other blogging commitments and otherwise busy schedule — truth is, I’ve been avoiding the topic, because there hasn’t been much progress to report.

Entered two more tournnaments, both E events, since that last update in March. And while I’m well aware of my current ability level, and sensed I had caught some breaks in the March tournament that resulted in a finish above my level, I still expected to continue improving, to come away from the next two events with that same feeling of accomplishment.

Didn’t happen. If anything, felt like I took a step back, losing every pool bout (not scoring any touches in several), and scoring just a single DE victory between the tournaments. My attacks were desperate and spasmodic (think Daffy Duck with a sword), never gained control over distance or tempo; blade work was probably ineffective as well, but the reality was that the touches I surrendered were lost in the engagement before blade action came into effect. In March, felt like I knew what I was trying to do even when I didn’t execute well; since then, I’ve been fencing without a clue, searching rather than competing.

But I’ve got no thought of walking away from the sport this time. It’s hard to have fun when you’re facing another DFL finish, but I’m wondering now if not having fun is the cause, rather than the end result, of these disappointing results. Find it absurd to consider that I’m putting too much pressure on myself, but the reality is that I could feel the tension in my body from the moment of registration at those tournaments, never could get myself to relax. Lost sight of the reason I got back into fencing after a thirty-year absence, how when I’m on strip and trading steel with a competitor who’s trying to stab me with a pointy weapon, how in those moments I feel completely alive, how energy courses through every cell of my being like an energized grid. Not once, even during my lone victory, did I experience that sensation over those last two tournaments, and if that were to continue then I would consider it time to walk away.

So the plan going forward, is to reconnect with that spirit of excitement and energy, so that I’m registering for my next tournament in order to feed that hunger rather than to meet some arbitrary performance goal. 

A Cut to the Head of Hatred

Ibtihaj Muhammad. You could be seeing her name a lot in the coming months.

Muhammad is a member of the US national fencing team. Already a gold-medal winner at international tournaments, she will be competing in this summer’s Rio Olympics, and hopes to win a medal in sabre.

This picture helps explain why she’s not just another Olympian . . .

That scarf covering her head, my friends, is a hijab. Muhammad is Muslim, and in accordance with her faith wears a hijab at all times (except when confronted by ignorant conference security personnel), even when competing; the fact that fencers are completely covered in safety equipment, making the hijab neither a hindrance nor distraction, is actually one of the reasons fencing initially appealed to her. And this slender Muslim woman, with the thousand-kilowatt smile and fierce competitive desire, will be the first American to compete at the Olympics wearing a hijab — and will likely find herself in the middle of a volatile national conversation.

The United States of America is about to have a fierce, ugly, potentially violent debate about Islam. It will be sadly similar to our past battles over civil rights, communism, and slavery. A response to the massacres at San Bernardino and Fort Hood will be demanded, and the First Amendment of the Constitution will be recited like an ineffectual spell cast against our fears. The person who is likely to become one of just two people with any realistic chance at becoming our Commander in Chief next January has already advocated, without feeling the need for apology, a national register of Muslim Americans and closing our borders to Muslim visitors. We will be reminded of the time United States citizens were imprisoned for the crime of their ancestry, and argue over whether our government was right to apologize forty years later for that act. We will re-learn the definition of habeus corpus while recalling how The Great Emancipator rescinded that right.

And more than once, as our national political conventions close and we turn our attentioned towards the Rio Olympics, Muhammad will likely be asked to remove her hijab, for some bogus reason. We respect your religious practices, but . . . just don’t wear the hijab when you’re competing, or during performances of the Star Spangled Banner. It will prove your loyalty, demonstrate you’re not a threat, show respect for the victims of terrorism. It’s for the good of your religion, and your country — it’s just the right thing to do.

Don’t think those arguments are going to win her over:

I’ve never questioned myself as an American and my position here. This is my home. This is who I am. My family has always been here. We’re American by birth, and it’s a part of who I am and this is all that I know. So when I hear someone say something like, “We’re going to send Muslims back to their country,” it’s like, “Well, where am I going to go? I’m an American.”

Sabre fencers don’t defend, they attack, and I expect Ibtihaj Muhammad will confront our national fear of Islam like the sabre fencer she is. She’ll respond to pleas for “doing the right thing” with two quick steps forward, closing within striking distance before her inquisitors realize she’s even moved, slicing with her silver-thin blade straight to the head (in sabre, hitting the head is not only valid but expected and, judging by the reaction of most sabrists I know, welcomed) and striking with the fury of justice. And I also expect that she, in accordance with section t.87.3.a of the USA Fencing rulebook, will follow each of her upcoming bouts against fear, ignorance and hatred, by stepping back, taking off her mask, and saluting her opponent . . .

And flashing that thousand-kilowatt smile from beneath her red-white-and-blue hijab.

Towards a Balance of Light and Dark

As some of my followers have noticed, I’m drawn to bloggers who explore dark themes, especially in poetry. Yet I still appreciate writers who operate in the bright daylight of inspiration, such as Kristy, who blogs on A Renaissance Glow.

Her recent post, Bucking Niceness, explores how we often struggle with the light and dark impulses within us, and how we’re conditioned to distrust the dark, label it “evil,” suppress those feelings. To continually wear the nice mask, even at the expense of our integrity. Letting our dark impulses fester under the artificial light of a false face, until those impulses can no longer be held back and erupt in a spasm of violence.

What compels me about darkness is my growing awareness of its absolute necessity. My fencing coach talks often about “harnessing the beast” during competition; having the beast lead you to fly in rage against your opponent will probably result in a quick defeat, but letting the beast’s hunger drive you can dispel anxiety and inspire you to find the edge needed for victory. This harness is a metaphor for the balance between light and dark, and maintaining this balance has benefits that extend far beyond the fencing strip.

Our dark impulses, when properly understood, can complete us. Kristy expresses this thought much more eloquently, so I’ll let her have the last word:

It’s only in the dark that you truly feel and learn to trust your light.

Track Backing

Returning today to “A Lunge in the Dark,” the irregular but ongoing journal of my competitive fencing career. I’m not a rated fencer and am intending to write for a general audience, so veteran fencers may not find this very engaging, especially the parenthetical italicized explanations.

Had some success at a tournament last week. Focusing on wins and losses can be a frustrating trap for novice fencers like myself, but when viewed as a barometer of one’s skills, results can be a motivating factor.

This tournament was scheduled to be an E and Under, but due to last-minute cancellations and additions evolved into a D and Under. (Fencers earn ratings based on their performance in tournaments; everyone starts with a U, essentially meaning Unrated, and the first real rating is an E. The ratings then work up the alphabet all the way to A. Many tournaments are restricted based on rating; an D and Under tournament is limited to U, E, and D rated fencers.) Nineteen fencers total, six in my pool. As usual I started slow, getting shut out by my coach (a D) and scoring just a single touch in my next bout (pool bouts are over when one fencer scores five touches). Then my energy and focus picked up, and the competition eased — my first two pool opponents would end up in the top five, while my next two finished at the bottom. Got my first victory (always feels good to have the monkey jump off my back), and got to three touches in my next — more on that bout in a minute. Last pool bout was a fencer very similar to myself in age, experience, and skill; this was a bout I really wanted, and it pleased me to fence my best bout of the day, winning 5-3.

Two wins, three loses, with an indicator in the single digits. (The indicator is the difference between the number of touches a fencer scores and the number of touches scored against that fencer; with 14 touches in my favor and 20 against, that made my indicator -6. After the pool bouts, fencers are ranked based on their winning percentage, with the indicator breaking tied percentages, of which there will be many). I was pleased at my results, but not satisfied — that third loss should have been mine. On at least three occasions in that bout, I gave up a touch despite having priority — “Attack left is no, counter-attack right is yes.” (In foil fencing, the fencer who initiates an attack has right of way, or priority, over the other fencer; the other fencer must either parry, i.e. block, or avoid the initial attack in order to take priority before starting their own attack. A fencer who counter-attacks without priority is at risk of being touched, even if the counter-attack lands first). Each time, I saw what was happening — here I go, there he goes, it’s my touch — and each time, I whiffed. Did I start my attacks too close and have my point sail past the target? Did I flinch on seeing the counter-attack? Probably a little of both.

Had I executed properly on just two of those actions, I’d have turned a 5-3 loss into a win by the same score. Three wins, two losses, -2 indicator, and the ninth seed out of pools instead of thirteenth; lost my only direct elimination bout, or DE, to a fencer who earned his E that day (DE bouts go to fifteen touches). Coulda woulda shoulda . . . but at least I know what I did wrong, and was able to identify a skill I need to develop.

Ironically, this was nearly the same tournament I had competed in almost exactly a year before, with slightly better results (same number of wins and loses, but a better indicator). I remember feeling just as good then as I do now, with the same amount of enthusiasm for future tournaments. But a lot happened almost immediately after last year’s tournament — an injury, my mother’s death, managing her estate. Fencing at the club each week helped me get through those times, but competition simply wasn’t going to happen. Didn’t feel like I could breathe without effort until the beginning of this year, and with last week’s results, it feels like my fencing is finally back on the track I had been following a year ago. Of course, life could once again insert itself into that track; just hope whatever does show up is something I can overcome.

Ref

Started my 2016 fencing season yesterday by officiating a D and under tournament hosted at my club. (Fencers earn ratings based on their tournament results. Novices start with a U for unrated; the first earned rating is an E, and then proceed up the alphabet to A. Yesterday’s tournament was limited to D, E, and U fencers.) My calls weren’t all perfect, but my performance was more than competent.

Fencing in 2015

Made some progress in my fencing career last year, just not in the way I expected at the start of 2015.

Competed in tournaments in both of the first two months, and while the results weren’t much better, I could feel my judgement and execution improving. In the February tournament, I won two pool bouts and entered the DEs with an indicator that wasn’t in the negative double-digits, both firsts for me (yeah, I know those aren’t great accomplishments, but when you’re working your way up from the bottom you take whatever you can get). At the beginning of March, I was looking forward to competing in a few more tournaments in the spring, continuing to train over the summer, and finishing strong in fall tournaments.

Then life got in the way. A death in the family changed my priorities immediately, and an injury from a nasty fall during practice one evening (front heel slipped under me during a lunge, and my front leg didn’t stop until my body collapsed into a full split; no, I don’t have the flexibility for that) put an end to any thought of competing during the spring. By the time I returned to my club over the summer, any momentum I had gathered at the start of the year had completely dissipated. While I did get into two more tournaments in 2015, I never regained the enthusiasm for competition I’d felt earlier in the year.

However, I did make progress with my refereeing. Officiated in a few tournaments in the spring, and felt confident enough in my skills to apply for certification. Experienced more trouble than expected — completely froze up during the bouts where I was observed, and wasn’t able to pass all of my exams (may have to write another time about those exams) — but I feel that I can make a positive contribution to the sport by serving as a referee.

This time last year, I wrote that I didn’t want to set any fencing goals for 2015, only expecting to be surprised at the end of the year. I’m certainly surprised, as I no doubt will be again this time next year when I look back.