Monday, April 26, 2010

Fencing again

Afternoon light filters down from the high windows. The gymnasium is empty but for the club-mates and friends on the bleachers who’ve stayed to watch. I’m hyperaware, sensitive to so many contrasts. Everything is distant through the patina of my mask’s screen. But there is also immediacy and adrenalin. I’m facing my opponent alone on the piste. Then there are the contrasts of time. We’re fighting with swords, a continuous practice thousands of years old. But this is modern, dynamic sport fencing, liberated by new athleticism and innovation. And right now each instant has meaning. I’m down, 13 to 14. I wait, provoke an attack with an exposed shoulder, successfully parry and riposte in one gesture. I hear a muffled sound of cheering from some of my club-mates and university students. The score is tied. It’s the final match of the novice event.

How did I come to this? I’m a reluctant athlete in my fifties facing an eighteen year old who’s faster and a better fencer. I’ve never had anyone cheer for me in an athletic endeavor in my entire life and probably won’t again. I decide I’d better appreciate it.

That was on March 27th in a rural area called South Weber at the base of a canyon in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. It’s known for unusual high winds. All the trees arc to the west and the fences are bent or missing slats. In spite of recent residential development the place is still rugged and severe.

And I was there because after two years of classes with my wife and cousin, I’d finally tried competing at my cousin’s prompting. This was only my third tournament. I was also there because of my coach’s unending patience, diligence and gentle dedication to excellence in the sport. It is no surprise to me that one of the best fencers in the state is in our club and was accepted to Duke this year on a fencing scholarship.

I have discovered I’m in love with fencing. I love the diversity of the participants, from fierce six year-old foilists to the small set of veteran epeeists. I love the devotion of the local clubs.

So this entry is a thank you for those who’ve helped me find the sport, my coach and the local competitors, nearly all of whom are better than I.

Oh yes, I should mention, I lost the last point. It was timing. But both my cousin and I returned from the tournament with metals, something neither of us expected. As nice as that is, it’s not the important thing. The important thing is that, for the most part, I fenced as well as I could that day and even a few short weeks later I’m fencing better. My wife, my cousin and I celebrated that evening at a small restaurant in Salt Lake called the Paris Bistro. Dinner, a good red wine, beet salad and local Utah rack of lamb was excellent. We were late coming back and so ate dinner in our whites.