The most common question asked in online fencing groups is “Am I too old to start fencing?” The person asking is usually fourteen. Even though the question gets asked about once a week, everyone replies kindly and says no, you’re not too old, people start at every age.
They’re sort of lying, because what the fourteen year old wants to know is if they can go to the Olympics. For that, they should have started when they were eight, picked wealthier parents, and lived very near one of the top fencing clubs in the country. Even then, their chances are slim. Heck, a lot of people who start fencing don’t end up liking it. It’s really hard, and you don’t have anyone to blame for failure. It’s full of weird rules that are always changing. Also, people yell when they score touches, and referees say things you don’t understand, so you think maybe someone cheated. And everyone in the room at a tournament loses at least one bout, except (sometimes) the winner.
When I started, I was a good bit older than fourteen. It was 1994, I was 43, and I was standing in a noisy storefront in West Philadelphia, with people yelling, machines beeping, and metal clashing against metal in the background. A man with a dramatic handlebar moustache saluted our small group of nervous adults. The man had broad shoulders, and he was wearing black athletic tights and a bulky brown water-buffalo-leather jacket with black sleeves, so he looked like a tall and ominous gamekeeper, or the third assassin in a fight scene set in an unidentified Eastern European country. He had a weird quasi-Hungarian accent, even though he grew up in Detroit. He was our children’s fencing coach, Mark, and we had all signed up for his one-day class for parents.
He was teaching a parent class so that (so he said) we could understand what our kids were going through. We actually knew he was doing it to get the parents to stop giving their kids terrible advice, and to stop pestering the kids when they were fencing. Most of the other parents were taking the class so they could give their kids better terrible advice. I was taking it because I wanted to learn how to hit people. My kid Jess had been fencing several years by that point, and didn’t need (or want) any advice from me.
Mark took us seriously that day. He taught us how to do fencing footwork, which involves sort of half-sitting in mid-air with your feet in weird positions while moving back and forth, without bobbing up and down or sticking out your butt. After the footwork, he had us play games. Mark loved games. He had an elaborate curriculum, and liked to talk about his ideas at great length, while his students fidgeted and waited for him to finish talking. I was never very good at the games, which involved balls, gloves, frisbees, elastic cords, and all kinds of other paraphernalia. Also more footwork. A lot it. My quads and glutes were devastated. I was stiff for weeks after that class.
In the afternoon, once we were pale, sweaty, and haggard, Mark finally let us go up one by one against the club’s best epee fencer, Mary. I don’t think he dared have us try to hit each other, because someone would have gotten hurt. Mary was superbly competent, and none of the parents could manage to hit her, no matter what they did. She would step back slightly, or step in, or redirect their blades with her blade, or just poke them anywhere she felt like as they were coming towards her. She didn’t make a big deal of it. You just couldn’t ever hit her, and she always hit you. It didn’t hurt. It was just crushing.
I managed to hit Mary twice when it was finally my turn, though. I remember people laughing as I did it, because I looked awful doing it and because I was incredibly excited. It was wonderful. It was what I wanted to do.
I signed up for the adult beginner classes. I was the only parent who did.
Because I got results later on, people have frequently implied that must have been easy for me, and that I was a natural. Oh, no. For one thing, I have exercise asthma. Also, I am fairly constantly bewildered. Confusion is my natural state. I spent that whole first year of classes playing Mark’s games and never having a clue what I was doing, no matter how much he lectured. I used to go to the sidewalk out front of the club and say loudly to the dark evening sky, “I have no idea what you are talking about!” But then I would go back inside.
We started with about 12 adults in the beginner class, steadily lost people in the intermediate class, and ended up with three in the advanced class. I loved it, though.
I had a challenging job, a middle school kid, a husband who was starting his own business, and a mother who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease when I was the local daughter. I was trying to write my doctoral dissertation, and failing. I didn’t have much money. But for an hour a couple of times a week, I was doing something hard that was just for me, and I was getting to be some kind of competitive athlete. For that hour, I didn’t have to be someone’s mother, wife, daughter, or teacher. I didn’t have to think about grad school. I could just be a competitive athlete who was trying to trick someone so I could hit them.
After nearly a year, I finished my classes, and Mark told me to go to my first tournament, a novice event (for people who had been fencing less than a year). It was about an hour away, at a small club in a small town, and I brought Jess with me for moral support, because I was pretty sure I was going to be turned away. You see, in several years of taking my child to local, regional, and national tournaments, I had never seen any adults fencing in official competition, except for experienced athletes like Mary.
I was so scared my heart was pounding. I was sick to my stomach. I hated the whole thing, and I wanted to go home, but I went inside. I got Jess to take my picture, wearing fencing knickers I had ordered online. They were too big for me. I felt like a clown. I was also definitely the oldest competitor there. There was an eleven-year-old boy named Drew, and a buff-looking young man named Doug in sweatpants with “USMC” printed the leg, and some teenagers. But there were in fact a couple of other grownups. At any rate, no one turned me away.
That tournament was a genuine mess, and I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what I was doing. That was heartening. I beat USMC Doug. And once, I made the referee laugh so hard she couldn’t keep going, because I just stuck out my point and my opponent, a grown adult named Noelle, marched forward and ran onto it. I ran the eleven-year-old off the end of the fencing strip several times too, because he didn’t seem to know how to go forward. I beat some other people, too. There were fourteen of us, and I finished fifth.
Some people never go to tournaments. They enjoy practice at the club, and they don’t want to compete. I get that. It’s pretty intense pitting yourself against other people one-on-one on the piste. Every tournament I went to after that first one, for thirty years, I was still scared someone would tell me to go home, that I didn’t belong. My heart always pounded. My stomach felt awful. I hated the world and everyone there. And yet I kept competing for thirty years, because it felt as if I was doing something just for me, and that seemed to matter more than anything else.