Switching blades…

…not switchblades, that’s a different thing.

International épée in Doha

International épée in Doha

“I think you will be a better épée fencer than you were sabre fencer.”

[Olympia Fencing Centre]

The different weapons and target areas [Olympia Fencing Centre]

My coach in Doha has said this a few times now in recent weeks. The first time he said it, I was hit by a mixture of emotions. There was the pleasure in the compliment, a rare thing among fencing coaches, a kind of latent regret that I was leaving my ‘favourite’ weapon behind, and finally a concern that if I had fenced épée to begin with, I might have progressed to the level I so desperately wanted to reach when I was younger.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realised that while me now might have the “potential to one day be a decent épéeist,” (as I said, compliments are hard earned) my younger self would have been (and on the few occasions I was forced to try, was) a terrible terrible terrible epee fencer.

I guess, at this stage, I should look at the various differences between the two blades (and ignore foil completely because I know absolutely nothing about it).

The various weapons come with distinct rules and techniques but also very definite mentalities that make someone suited to it or otherwise.

Sabre - it is the slashy one...

Sabre – it is the slashy one…

Sabre – my original choice – is the fastest weapon with a target area of anything above the waist. It is slashy (technical term) as well as pokey (also a technical term) although the point is rarely used. It is so quick that instead of three sections of three minutes during a fight to 15 with a one minute break after each bit, you just stop for a minute after someone reaches eight points as it would be unusual for a fight to last more than three minutes anyway.

Because of its speed, you pretty much have to decide what you are doing between hits and then just go for it. If you mess up the next few seconds are run on instinct until one or other of you lands a hit. You have to adapt quickly and there isn’t a lot of thinking time.

This last bit is why sabre was good for me as a teenager and into my early 20s. One of the reasons I crapped out of competitions is that I had a tendency to over-think everything to the point where I was basically a ball of stress with a sword.

At the same time my concentration span was such that my brain would wander off in search of entertainment elsewhere after (at most) half an hour of thinking about the same thing. It is why I would regularly get y ass kicked playing chess, even if I had been ahead for the first half hour, my mind would give up and I would do stupid stuff and get slain for it.

So the need to think fast in sustained bursts and the fact that there was little room to think the rest of the time, made sabre the perfect weapon.

In épée, I discovered, being impatient to attack, or dropping concentration, is rapidly punished by a far more focussed opponent.

IMG_9991Epee, by the way, is the slowest of the weapons. It is exclusively pokey and the target area is anywhere on the body. When I first made the switch I was pretty awful and getting my ass handed to me by people who had been fencing a matter of months.

Muscle memory meant that successful parries were followed by cut cheek (not a hit), when I got tired my blade drifted into a sabre en guarde position (very bad times), I forgot to think  about my legs which were suddenly target area and my distance was all out of whack (which it had always been, but in épée I had no idea how to compensate.)

It was awful and added in to that was the fact that I was still too impatient. If someone didn’t attack for a few seconds I got bored and lunged in, not planning, not thinking, just going, and would be effortlessly hit for my trouble. My concentration would drop after ten seconds and suddenly the box would be beeping merrily, reminding me I just got beaten yet again.

I got more and more frustrated. I couldn’t use fencing as I had previously before the stress took over, as a way to relax, because when I relaxed my muscles were hard wired to do the wrong thing. It seemed to me then that the best thing would just be to stop, jack in the sport that I can’t really remember not doing and start something new.

Then, however, came to a new realisation. No one expected anything of me in this club. I wasn’t going to be expected to compete, or do well or be outstanding. I could just have fun fencing for the first time in possibly a decade.

With this turning point I started to relax. As I got used to everything and started to improve on the basics (one clue was when Christophe stopped having to yell “use your point” every few minutes) I started getting lessons again and slowly, slowly, I am starting to feel like maybe, one day, I could possibly be a half decent epee fencer.

Learning to be patient on the piste, to think while I am fencing, not to be distracted by the yells and gamesmanship, all that is still some way away, but I feel like it is reachable.

A fair while ago, while I was dealing with moving jobs, enforced unemployment, and a figurative landslide of paper work, I blogged about how I had rediscovered fencing at exactly the right time and how I had hated it by the time I quit in the UK.

Something I hadn’t considered before, but that my very wise coach suggested might be the case, was that switching blades was one of the reasons fencing became enjoyable again.

It is like a new sport without any of the baggage left over from the sabre years.

IMG_0088

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The unusual wisdom…

…of fencing coaches

Other than my first coaches, those wonderful men who were generally too busy trying to stop 12-year-olds smacking each other with swords to focus on much else, I honestly believe that fencing coaches say some of the most insightful things you are ever likely to hear.

More often than not, the profound nature of these statement is not immediately apparent, and you are left with the unshakeable feeling that they have misunderstood something of great value.

My very first teachers notwithstanding, I have had three coaches who, in their own unique ways, have shaped me as a fencer and as a person.

Laszlo:

With the exception of my dad, I think Laszlo has had a bigger impact on my life than any other man.

Student 5 nations in (possibly) Dublin in (possibly) 2006.

Student 5 nations in (possibly) Dublin in (possibly) 2006.

Not in a Mr Miyagi, student/master zen-type way, but through the very practical fact that my decision of where to go to university was based almost exclusively on the fact that he was there.

So the four years that I consider to be the most formative time of my life, the years in which I decided who I wanted to be, and that made me who I currently am (the two things are not the same right now) where all experienced because Laszlo exists.

He was a constant presence, a more essential part of my university career than any lecturer.

Patient when I was struggling, over-joyed by my successes, deeply sympathetic when I was injured.

Generous with his time. Committed to his students young and old, no matter what their level.

A kind soul and the kind of man you would never want to disappoint.

I once worked out that I had more contact hours with Laszlo per month than any professor in my department. Which explains a lot.

I will always, in my heart, be part of Laszlo’s Fencing.

He taught me to love fencing and respect opponents. To be a good loser and a good winner and to learn from other fencers as well as him.

I think that every single one of his students learnt something from Laszlo that made them a better person. I certainly did.

And he did all this with a wonderful turn of phrase that often leaves his students baffled, but somehow happy.

Some of the more memorable Laszlo-isms are:

1) (On meeting me for the first time when I was about 15 and excessively gangly having just grown several inches) “You have no idea how tall you are, but neither do your opponents, and you have longer to find out.”

2) “You must be prepared, like hedgehog.”

3)  (After I managed not to get injured during a training camp) “I am pleased you did not break, maybe next time you will work more?”

4) (Directed at the then British number one) “You used to move like old woman. Now, sometimes, you begin to look like fencer.”

5) “Your arm is like a sewing machine, stop it.”

6) (Directed at a consistently brilliant fencer) “Chris, you have the timing of an orangutan.”

7) “There is not enough room in your head for you to let other people inside.”

8 ) “Even when you are being slow, you must be fast.”

9) “You must work at everything.”

10) “Keep leg straight, like chicken.” (Thanks to Andy for reminding me of this one.)

James:

“Terrifying” was my first impression of James. Ex-Olympian, ex-army, stacked as all hell, and not afraid to yell.

He also taught me how to let go of what happened on the piste once you stepped off it, how to stay focussed, and how not to let the noise other people made distract me.

As the only native English speaker in this post, James’ wisdom does not have the ‘lost

Commonwealths - 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I'm not pictured as I'm taking the picture)

Commonwealths – 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I’m not pictured as I’m taking the picture)

in translation’ charm of the other two, which is coupled by the fact that he was always very direct with praise, criticism, and all his other opinions.

If Laszlo taught me to train hard and be dedicated, James taught me not to moan and just get on with it.

1) “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

2) “Tell that to someone who gives a damn. That ain’t me, by the way.”

3) “If you can talk, you can fence.”

4) (After a particularly brutal lesson)

“You need to make sure you get back for your parries.”

Me (standing very upright, breathing very steadily) “Ah-huh.”

“You need to really use your length when you lunge.”

“Ah-huh.”

“You need… to vomit don’t you?”

“Ah-huh.”

“Leave.”

5) “You don’t need a jacket for the lesson, if you do it right you won’t get hit.”

6) (In a text message, sent on a hot day, having not seen or spoke to him for several months) “If you’re thirsty, it’s too late. Stay hydrated.”

7) “She’s not as good as you, she just doesn’t know it. Remind her by winning.”

8 ) “Just do things better than the other person. It’s easy.”

9) “Stop whining, get fencing.”

Christophe:

Whether he knows it or not, Christophe has pretty much kept me sane for the past few months.

A spell of unemployment, followed by being thrown into a shift pattern that risked turning me into a hermit with insomnia, training with Christophe as often as possible is keeping me happy, healthy, and focussed.

He is (slowly) teaching me the principles and techniques behind an entirely new weapon, and to think in the long term about what I want to achieve four and five matches down the line.

More than that, he is re-teaching me the joy of fencing that I somehow lost along the way.

He also has a turn of phrase so similar to Laszlo’s (right down to the animal similes) that I am convinced they are in some form of clandestine coaches club. Although there is a little bit of James thrown in for good measure:

1) “We need to make you a plan, like an octopus.”

2) “I don’t want slow, fast. I want fast, very fast.”

3) “Don’t go as I finish stopping, it needs to be as I start stopping.”

4) “I can tell from your fencing that you are very bad at maths.”

5) “See? It is better when you just don’t think.”

6) “Sometimes I think you might be a good épée fencer. Possibly.”

7) “What is wrong with you? If you do that again I’m going to hit you.”

8 ) “Allez! You’re not tired. Your mind is lying to you.”

9) “Your brain has to connect everything, but let them all do different things.”

CIMG2133

Taking the piste…

…and other fencing-related (s)word play.

See what I did there? Yeah, I hate myself a little too.

Four months in (yes, four) to my work visa saga and still no progress from *company name redacted due to wanting to keep my admittedly tenuous grasp on employment*.

People I rant at/cry on/mooch food off have started saying that they are impressed how together and positive I seem in the face of frustration and incompetence.

Would that it were thus. I fluctuate wildly between sunny and positive to woe-ist-me self pity (don’t worry, I’m aware that’s intensely irritating and I restrict talking about it to people who are obliged to love me forever.)

A while ago I wrote a piece about the ups and downs of unemployment, prompting friends and family to express concern that I was becoming depressed. I’m not, by the way, I’m just moody, but this in turn prompted me to look at how I was living while my fate rests in a pad of ink and the incomprehensible rubber lines of an Arabic stamp.

I needed something that was going to motivate me, but also something that I couldn’t just put off if I was feeling lazy (like writing, or putting on clothes) and so I turned to something that used to be an incredibly important part of my life, but that for various reasons I turned my back on about 5 years ago.

Fencing.

I started fencing when I was about 12 and did fairly well on the UK youth circuit, coming away from a few championships with medals and representing my county a couple of times.

I enjoyed it, not worrying about the fact that it ate into all my weekends, and I enjoyed the time spent with my dad on the way to competitions

It stepped up at university, but that is also where cracks began to show. I will be the first to admit that I never really did as well as I thought I could.

This was partly due to a tendency to fall off/into/under stuff and the reciprocal arrangement of stuff falling on/into me, resulting in various injuries.

Mostly, though, it was due to the fact that I would get stressed out at competitions, fence badly, get upset I was fencing badly, and fence worse.

I let other people get to me, and royally crapped out of the 2006 Commonwealths because of that.

Somewhere along the way it stopped being fun, which made everything worse.

So when I smashed my back up I was almost relieved that I couldn’t do it anymore. By the time I was fully recovered I lived in a city with no competitive fencing club or halfway decent coach and after a few token efforts of travelling back to my home city to train, I stopped and focussed on work.

Coming to Doha felt like a fresh start, in a new club, where no-one expected anything of me (largely because they all fence épée which, as a sabre girl, still confuses the hell out of me.)

The few times I went before the whole car-to-ribs incident (again with the colliding with stuff) were fun and I started to remember how fencing made me relax, helped me switch of every part off my brain that wasn’t to do with where my feet should be and what my blade should be doing.

So now, with healed ribs and time on my hands, I have massively stepped up my training. The generosity is astounding. I am allowed to train with the women’s national team (not the men’s – let’s not get crazy, this is still the Gulf), and my coach makes time for one-on-one lessons which have finally passed beyond the phase of ‘use the point’ and ‘why did you just do that?’

It is an expense that, given my current state, might not seem wise to many, but it is keeping me sane, it is getting me up in the morning, it is giving me specific places to be at specific times, which when I do eventually start work will prove essential in my readjusting to a life of shifts and deadlines.

Mostly though, it is making me happy and keeping me motivated. The feeling of triumph when you finally land that hit you have been attempting all evening, the sense of accomplishment when you beat someone for the first time after studying them for weeks. The weird pride when the coach says you’re doing better and might “one day become an okay fencer” (it turns out all coaches speak like this.)

I’m pleased I have rediscovered a love of something that has been both a positive and negative force  in my life.

And I am thankful that discovery came at the time I needed it the most.

Commonwealths - 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I'm not pictured as I'm taking the picture)

Commonwealths – 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I’m not pictured as I’m taking the picture)