A sabre soul

A bunch of national fencing medals piled up on a windowsill. Some are pentagons, some are disks.

I have won many medals at national events, but I most certainly did not win any at my first one. I didn’t come close.

It was in 1996, in Richmond, Virginia, and I had been fencing sabre for less than a year, though I had been in the “concrete box” as a fencing parent for a while.

National events are in convention centers in cities that aren’t on most people’s bucket lists, because we need a lot of space for not very much money. Once you walk inside, it doesn’t matter if it’s San Jose, Palm Springs, St. Louis, Miami, or South Bend. It’s always the same concrete box, with harsh lights and hard floors, with the same people in it that you saw a month or two months ago. At least I could drive to Richmond from Philadelphia.

There are three weapons in sport fencing: foil, epee, and sabre. Foil is intense and precise, epee is methodical and patient, and sabre is for wild souls like me who always wanted to be pirates and who operate on impulse at all times. Fencing sabre feels like flying to me. The sabre is a steel stick with a bell-guard, and you score by “cutting” (though the edge isn’t sharp). It feels like a proper weapon. My husband gave me one for Mother’s Day early on, and it was the best gift he ever gave me.

Before sabre was scored electrically, you had to convince your referee you had scored by going fast (and first) and by hitting hard enough that everyone in the room could hear the smack, hopefully hard enough that your opponent also winced and cried out. I’m only sort of joking. Women did not fence sabre. It was only for men. No NCAA sabre fencing for women. No Olympics. I know a very few women who fenced in open tournaments, and they were brave.

Also, it looked like two rams going at each other horns first, over and over. And there was a lot of yelling.

In 1986, sabre scoring was electrified, with the addition of conductive jackets, gloves, wires, machines, and plugs in our sabres. Suddenly, you could score a point with a touch instead of a mighty thwack, and a few more brave women began trying it out. We were mostly misfits, because coaches were still directing their strongest athletes into foil and epee. Women sabrists were a cheerful and goofy bunch, all shapes and sizes, all ages, united by enthusiasm and by the willingness to show up, even though the general opinion was that we were weird and comical.

I had started fencing sabre at absolutely the perfect moment. I was a beginner, but so was everyone else. I could go to any sabre tournament, anywhere, and I fit right in because none of us fit in.

The poor opinion of women’s sabre was shared by pretty much everyone who didn’t fence it, including my coach. A few days before I went to my first big tournament, he said he was bored, and offered to fence me with just a dagger. It was clear he thought he would be able to teach me an easy lesson. He gave up on that idea very swiftly indeed.

Later, the assistant coach was trying to prepare me for the national event by telling me to lower my expectations. The head coach interrupted her. “You haven’t bouted her,” he said. She made a face at him. She wasn’t wrong, but neither was he.

It would take longer than it’s worth to describe national tournaments, so I’ll just mention a dream I had last week. I was in a huge noisy space, didn’t know where I was supposed to be, I had misplaced my stuff, I was rushing through crowds of people who were talking to each other and ignoring me, I was supposed to face someone who could absolutely kill me but I didn’t know where or when, everyone who could help me was busy with someone else, and I was upset and confused.

It wasn’t even a nightmare.

That’s pretty much how it is at a national tournament, still.

The events are held in large open convention center spaces, laid out with metal fencing strips. Several different events (men’s, women’s, foil, epee, sabre, youth, cadet, junior, senior, veteran, parafencing) are going on at once. Coaches, parents, referees, and fencers are scattered all around, and the clatter of metal against metal is punctuated by loud shrill beeps from the scoring equipment, and by full-throated screams and howls from fencers. There are folding chairs everywhere, and fencing bags. Coaches are arguing with their athletes and with the referees, parents are offering hopeful advice and water bottles (both summarily rejected), the committee that runs things is up on a high platform looking out and down at everyone and trying desperately to keep track, and you are not supposed to bring your own food because the concession stands have to make a living from the fleshy protuberances they call hot dogs. Before competing, you have to find the technicians (“armorers”) who will inspect your equipment to make sure it’s safe and that the electrical bits work. There is inevitably a long line for the armorers, just when you have to be somewhere else. Armorers like to tell bad jokes and fail your equipment. There are vendors where you can buy more equipment, which you also have to get inspected before you can fence.

You also have to officially check in for your event. In 1996, it wasn’t completely computerized; instead, they gave us an index card to hand to our referees once we figured out where we were supposed to be. The locations of our bouts were printed out and taped to the wall somewhere, surrounded by fencers trying to read the sheets, so that no one could see.

You were not allowed to lose your index card. Bad things happened if you did. You handed your card to the referee, who wrote your name on a pool sheet, entered your results, and calculated your finish once everyone had fenced the seven-person seeding pool. Then you waited for the committee to put more sheets of paper on the wall to tell you what you were doing in the elimination bracket.

I had signed up for two events. One was a Division III, which was aimed at encouraging novice fencers like me, and the other was a Division II, which was for marginally more experienced fencers, but which I could enter if I wanted, and I did.

As I expected, I did pretty badly. In each event, I won only one bout in my pool, then won one direct elimination bout, and I was eliminated immediately after that. It was about what I expected, as a 44-year-old novice with asthma. It was no one’s idea of a fantasy first tournament.

Except that it was a triumph beyond my wildest dreams, and both times I was crying with excitement. First, because I survived, and I wasn’t awful. Second, because I earned a classification, or rather two classifications, one after the other.

[Classifications: In fencing, we use letters E, D, C, B, A to seed the preliminary rounds. How did the fencers get those letters? By competing in strong events and finishing well, or by competing in national events where there was the incentive of guaranteed classifications for a certain finish. Thus, if anyone finished in the top 16 of the Division III, they earned an E. If they finished in the top 16 of the Division II, that earned a D.]

People starting out spent years just trying to earn their E. It was a big deal to have a classification. It meant you have proved yourself.

But in women’s sabre? Our event was so small that winning one direct elimination bout put me in the top 16. Thus, I arrived a U (unclassified), and came home from my first national event having earned an E and then a D. People kept congratulating me back at the club, which was embarrassing because it was just due to the numbers.

Others were openly envious. A couple of the young men who fenced sabre complained about how easy it was for women sabre fencers to get ratings. The foilists were likewise condescending, and were sure they could fence sabre if they really wanted, though they mostly didn’t. Even when I re-earned the classifications soon afterwards in tougher circumstances, it was difficult to convince them that what I had done was hard. Heck, I wasn’t even that convinced.

Then, a couple of months later, one of the women foilists, a very strong fencer, decided to fence me in sabre. It was a friendly bout, but she was muttering “I’ve got to beat you” under her breath, and it was clear she had something to prove.

She didn’t beat me.

Later, we were all standing around talking about this and that, and she said, ““That hurt.”

I was apologetic. “Did I hit too hard?”

“No, you cut my tiny sabre soul into bits,” she said ruefully.

My tiny sabre soul was very happy about that.

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