Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Fencing Terror


I’m enjoying a cheerful fencing morning. First, FencingBear left me a book recommendation motivated by my post on fencing and training. Although my fencing library has been growing exponentially this year, I’m looking forward to her recommendation particularly as it is something I would never have found by myself.

And then I just saw GreyEpee's droll post from July 17 in which he recites an incident in which someone asked him “Did you fence?” because of his fencing t-shirt, presuming, he no longer does so. I had an experience at a tournament this year that was an interesting counterpoint. I was chatting with a fencing parent who looked longingly at the piste and said, “I’d really like to fence but I’m 47.” As there was quite a gaggle of veteran fencers older than that there, two of whom are coaches with C ratings, I didn’t know what to say except that he should try it.

As for age and physical endeavor, when my wife and I returned from Boston several years ago, I had the opportunity to ski again with an 83 year-old maternal uncle who was also a ski instructor. He put me to shame that first day touring a few of Alta’s more physically demanding routes. And he continued to ski and teach skiing up until the last six months of his life. The relationship between age and physical capacity is much more complex than most people, including many physicians, realize. My experience with my uncle was a not-so-gentle reminder of what diligence, persistence (coupled with enthusiasm and love for an endeavor) can achieve.

On the other side, I’ve had the good fortune to watch two organizations being born during the last few months. One is a high tech start-up on whose board I’ve served for the last few years and the other is the University of Utah Fencing Club. The former has just become profitable without venture capital, no mean accomplishment, particularly in this economy, while the latter is just beginning. My experience of both reminds me just how much diligence and persistence is required to give birth to an organization and that all too often a real achievement can only be appreciated in retrospect. The U of U club looks to me like they just might start something important and lasting. I’m looking forward to fencing with them again this weekend.

The Gray Epee’s post also reminded me of what I fear most in fencing. At another tournament, my coach, in describing another fencer who appeared to be fit and in his thirties, said, “He’s been fencing for about twenty years and he still fences the same way.” That’s my fencing terror.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Memory from a Lonely Afternoon in Scotland


The wind has a frosty bite with occasional slashes of rain. I’m on a low hill, in the woods of northern Scotland and I’ve just smeared some baby chicken parts on to the heavy leather gauntlet on my right hand which I’ve stretched out.

But it’s coming for me, not the gauntlet as far as I can tell. Accipiter Gentilis, a Northern Goshawk, has a wing span nearly as wide as I am tall, and I’m tall. This one is brown and the slow flex of the wings as it flies toward me conveys perfected strength. The tucked talons could tear me apart.

The idea is simple. I’m supposed to hold out my arm, allow the great goshawk to perch on my wrist for which it then receives its baby chicken snack. It feels a little more like a test of courage. I’m reminded of the evening in the mews in “The Once and Future King.”

No doubt the falconer, who’s standing somewhere behind me, is bemused.

More than anything, though, the thing that’s overwhelming are the raptor’s eyes. They’re set on me, perceptive beyond human comprehension, unblinking, perfectly remorseless. It is a creature perfectly itself. It defines a special kind of beauty.

Now, a few years later, that memory returns. That is how I want to fence, with such effortless focus and concentration. A very good friend and colleague, Mark Watkins, wrote in an email recently that he thought competitive sports are particularly important after you leave your twenties. He’s right of course. I think it expresses a fundamental human attribute and psychological tool. The trick is to use that aspect of ourselves sensibly, constructively, even with generosity and affection.

At the last moment, the goshawk weaved elegantly, dove a little below, then swooped up, stalling, to land on my wrist. And have a snack.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fencing and Training


Since our advanced fencing camp I’ve stepped up both my training and my fencing. I’ve also started reading James well regarded “Strength Training for Fencers” which, so far is illuminating. Example: connective tissue develops one seventh as fast as muscle tissue which is one of the reasons that strength training needs to proceed at a proper pace and why injuries are such a real danger as you seek to increase strength.

All of which alludes to an interesting point. Literature is rife with fencing and sword fighting of all kinds. Archetypical heroes with little or no experience or training regularly trounce evil villains presumably hampered by their years of practice. Rarely, if ever, is the necessity of training given it’s due or even any attention. The two obvious reasons are that most writers aren’t fencers and, more importantly, training is singularly undramatic. A story about Ralph who trains harder and more effectively than Fred then triumphs over him in the grand Pris de Fer tournament in Wiley, Oklahoma isn’t particularly interesting.

But training, for all kinds of reasons, is fundamental to the sport and it must have always been so. Further it isn’t enough to have trained once. It’s a continuing essential. Fencing isn’t riding a bicycle.

There are a few counter examples of course. When Horatio expresses his concern after Hamlet accepts the king’s request that he fence Laertes, Hamlet replies, “…since he went into France I have been in continual practice. I shall win at the odds.” Shakespeare knew a bit about fencing it seems.

I’d love to read something fictional about fencing in which training, in all its complexity, with all its nuances, is given its proper role.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Fencing Mystery: What to Think About When You Fence


You hook up to the reel, plug in your weapon, take a few steps down the piste, salute your opponent and the director. The masks go down, you go on guard. Ready. Fence.

And then what? What do you think about? What should you think about? Sometimes for me it goes like this:

“I know this person. We fenced before and I watched him in one of the pool bouts today. He’s fencing pretty much the same way. He moves in and out of distance a little but his real attack is always a ballestra followed by a lunge deceiving in six to finish in four. So I’ll act like I don’t know that and at the end of the his attack I’ll defeat it by closing the line in four, counter attacking in six.”

Or maybe it goes like this:

“I know this person. He’s a lot better than me. His hand touches are incredibly accurate. He will almost certainly beat me, but my goal has to be to fence the very best I can against him, no matter the score. (Bless you Johan Harmenberg). So, is my stance the best it can be? Are my advances smooth enough? I need to be a little lower. I need to make sure my forearm and hand are right. I don’t want to give him a hand touch. How’s my grip?”

And it goes on. There are more themes and variations. I’ve won bouts with both of the above inner conversations. But they are very different. The first is tactical while the second is focused almost purely on technique.

In the issue of American Fencing I just received, one of the articles provides a well reasoned and supported analysis stating that fencers do better when they think about what they want to achieve, not the technical aspects of how to achieve it. I buy that, sometimes. Yet there are times when thinking about a few technical issues starts you down the right trail of solving the complex mystery of how to win.

Indeed, every bout is a mystery. It more than helps to be a be a bit like Sherlock Holmes or Daryl Zero. The two “obs” (observation and objectivity) are as important in Fencing as in any endeavor I can think of.

There are so many possible things to think about. Even the number of perfectly correct ones is uncountably infinite (George Cantor’s famous diagonal proof applies). But you can think of only a few. How do you choose? Especially, when the person hidden behind the mask is a stranger. Every bout is a new and different mystery.

And then there are the bouts, sometimes even 15 point DEs, when you finish, perhaps you win, and your coach comes up and asks “So how did you do that?” And you realize you have no idea at all what you were thinking.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Fencers on the Roof (with apologies to Jean Giono)


We’re still at it. June was an eventful month, the most intensive period being our club’s five day “Advanced Fencing Camp,” which was held at the University of Utah. It was a tad intensive. The first day was a lot of “fun work” (read “relentless conditioning”) which revealed how much I need to step up my daily conditioning to be in proper shape. It was just tough enough that I wondered each day whether I’d make it through the next. But I was compensated with numerous high points: substantive, formal bouts with the best fencers in the club, humbling and surprising bouts with new fencers, a fantastic stretching session, and a couple of fun, close-fought team competitions. My favorite moment may have been watching Lynn’s fierce concentration as she faced a very capable woman from the U of U club. Needless to say, I learned a lot, was inspired yet again, and came away with a “I survived Advance Fencing Camp” t-shirt with “I love fun work” printed on the back.

The following Saturday was the Last Chance Tournament at the Utah Valley Club in Orem. I did well enough (11th ) in a field with several A level fencers but came away feeling I could have won one more DE bout if I’d been a little more clever. I wasn’t too surprised as the camp, besides being physically intense, had given me numerous issues to work on and consider. My game has been disrupted. Time to take a step.

And now it’s July. Our club takes a break, partly because of Nationals. But we’re still at it. Robert, Lynn and have been fencing on the roof in the mornings which has been particularly good fun and we’re off this afternoon to fence with the U of U club. The news from Nationals is particularly good. One clubmate, Dylan Nollner, was first in Division 1A and 11th in men’s epee over all. Another, Gabriele Macdonald, was 16th in Y14 men’s epee. And Tatijana Stewart is national champion in Y10 epee. She destroyed me more than once during our camp. Last and far from least, our coach, Kenny Nopens, was awarded the Coaches Medal. Wicked cool.

And I see in the news that roof top fencing is becoming fashionable: Morehouse London Rooftop