En Guarde: Lessons From the Fencing Strip
I was never an athletic child. I always had various bodily complaints: asthma, joint problems, allergies, and I found it way too easy to pass on physical exertion due to these issues. Strangely enough; however, one of my long-standing complaints ushered me in to the world of sports and exercise.
I had always had pain and weakness in my hands and wrists. When I was 14, I had a carpal tunnel release done on the right hand after a nerve conduction test revealed a substantial decrease in nerve function. I had a hard road back from the surgery and I needed rehab beyond physical therapy. I had always loved the Monkees (RIP Davy Jones, my first crush) and was particularly enamoured of the episode where they fenced. (Okay, so maybe I was also influenced by Cary Elwes in tight pants in The Princess Bride. Back to the story…)
So in my 14-year-old brain, I came up with the following:
play with swords + strengthen my hand + get to hit people + hot guys in tight pants + mask to hide bad hair day = “mom…I want to try fencing”
Luckily, she agreed. I began to train at Salle Pouj, run by Gerard Poujardieu, a French fencer with a sharp wit and a tongue to match. My years training with Pouj were amazing. He knew how to support me and encourage me at the same time (translation: a swift kick in the butt). I learned what my body was capable of as I began to gather medals and I learned what my mind is capable of as I worked to overcome fear and pain. Here are just a few of the lessons I learned on the strips of the salle.
The big day had arrived. All of the fencing gear that I had ordered had come in. Pouj was going through each item, describing it and inventorying it. When he was through, he picked up a patch from his desk and showed my mom and I where it needed to be placed on the shoulder of my jacket. “KTB?,” my mom asked, “What does that stand for?” With partially chagrined look (yes partial, if you had known Pouj, you would know that he would never be fully chagrined about ANYTHING), he replied, “Kill the Bastards.” My pacifist-leaning mom looked shocked. I grinned.
He went on to explain that it meant to not do anything half way, to commit to your actions. In a lesson, he would say “through the spine,” meaning not to hesitate or back off. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Sometimes when I doubt myself, I can be heard muttering, “KTB” under my breath.
If you’re in a battle, it is a battle against yourself
Fencing is a bit deceptive. You face off across a thin strip, mano y mano, waving swords in each other’s faces. It would seem clear that your opponent is the masked person on the other end of the strip. I soon learned that my true opponent was myself. Each bout I strove to be better than I was before, regardless of who held the other weapon. They were almost inconsequential.
The true battle was in my mind. Against my own fears. My own voice telling me I couldn’t do it. I discovered that if I worked to win the battle in my head, the one on the strip usually worked out in my favor.
Sometimes, you simply cannot prepare enough
I ended up being pretty good at fencing. I frequently placed in the top 3 in the state for my division. One year, Pouj convinced me to compete in the Junior Olympics. I was confronted with the reality that Texas is not the fencing center of the country (I mean, who knew?). I trained hard for that competition, but it was not enough. I faced three left-handed in a row, and I had very little experience with the topsy-turvy world of fencing against lefties. All those fancy moves? Yeah, they don’t work anymore.
It was a hard lesson to learn. I had gone from being near the top to being inconsequential, a mere blip on the screen as my opponents continued to advance. I realized I had to let it go. Some situations are not winnable no matter how much you prepare.
Size doesn’t matter
Okay, get your head out of the gutter. We are talking about when I was in high school, after all.
As you may be able to tell from my photos, I am rather vertically challenged. Fencing is a great equalizer amongst athletes of all sizes. I routinely beat men who topped me by a foot and were much stronger. I learned to become confident in my body and feel strong and powerful, regardless of my pants size. How big you feel is so much more important than how big you are.
Don’t be too predictable
There was one particular pattern Pouj taught me that I really liked. It worked well with my height and my unexpected strength (in fact, I routinely disarmed Pouj with this particular move, which was no small feat!). As you can imagine, I used this sequence a lot. Too much, as it turns out, as my opponents began to anticipate its use. I had grown too comfortable, too predictable.
For my next trick, I taught myself to beat one rhythm with my left hand on my back leg while I fenced to an entirely different drummer. That kept them guessing:)
Analyze the slow and trust instinct when the speed picks up
In a lesson, Pouj would have me analyze and practice a move over and over, first in slow motion and then at speed. This was comfortable to me, as I like to think and stay in my brain-space. I did well, until the day of my first bout came. I tried to think through every attack and plan every counter-attack. The problem? I was still analyzing the initial attack and my opponent would be on his second.
I had to learn to trust my instincts. Believe that the body knew what to do.
If you hold on too tightly, you lose your ability to move
I fenced with what was called a French grip (which Pouj insisted on, go figure). The grip was a singular piece of metal, about a quarter of an inch on each rectangular side. My instinct when I first held the weapon was to grasp the hold tightly in a fist, especially because the 2 1/2 pound weight of the foil was quite a burden for my rehabbing hand. Pouj shook his head at me. “No, no. Not like that at all.” He pinched the grip between my thumb and forefinger and coached the other fingers to lightly wrap around. He explained that this limited grip was where all of my movement and control came from. If I was to hold on too tightly, I would not be able to move. By letting go, I gained more strength.
Hmmm…I think that lesson wasn’t fully mastered in the salle. Maybe that’s why I’ve had to repeat it.
And, finally, don’t drink too much water before putting on all of the safety and scoring gear for a bout
Pretty self explanatory.
In memory of Pouj, who taught me more than he ever knew.