Fencing, like all sports, is full of opportunities to do things that aren’t actually the sport itself, such as refereeing, repairing equipment, running tournaments, serving on committees, and coaching. Many adult fencers migrate into those tasks, and I have tried out most of them. The first one I tried was coaching.
In 1995, when I had been fencing about a year, my coach Mark said he needed someone to run the basic adult class at the club. The United States Fencing Association offered “Coaches College,” a week-long summer program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and he thought I should go and learn to coach. Mark said it would be a great opportunity for me. I told him what my mother said about him: “That man must be some salesman.” It made him go red in the face and laugh.
I knew he needed a part-time coach. I also knew he preferred not to hire people from outside the club because they cost too much. I went to Coaches College anyway. It sounded like an adventure. I try never to turn down adventures.
The OTC was a large campus in the middle of a very small city, at 6000 feet in the midst of mountains. The fencing headquarters was in the OTC as well. I assume we got our training facilities at a reasonable cost. We were sleeping in plain dorm rooms, but we were eating in the athlete’s cafeteria, and training in one of the big gym buildings, just as the Olympians did.
Though the OTC wasn’t a big showy place, it did have its glamors. The first day, before our program started, the women in the fencing group all drifted over to one side of the gym and were staring down through the glass wall separating us from another gym one floor down. We were awed, transfixed, and soon the men in our group wandered over to find out what we were looking at. We just pointed, but the men kept peering, unable to see what we saw.
To them, it was just some little guys doing exercises. To the women, however, the male gymnasts below were a matched set of absolutely perfect, utterly tiny superheroes, doing astonishing things, with ease, and we all thought they were utterly gorgeous. I don’t think the guys in our group ever understood what we had been looking at. To them, the ideal man had to be over six feet, with prominent muscles and a big jaw.
The cafeteria was probably the best thing about the whole facility, though, because it served healthy food of every possible variety and because we could eat as much as we wanted with our OTC credentials. The credentials didn’t work very well; they were supposed to be personally authenticated by palm scan, but the process wasn’t well developed yet.
There were some wrestlers in the athlete cafeteria, and sometimes we would see other athletes at a distance, but mostly they (and we) were too busy to roam. I bought a T-shirt in the gift shop, because I knew no one at my job would believe I had actually trained there (I was right).
Our group was a real assortment, and though there were some experienced coaches and some active fencers, I realized pretty fast I wasn’t even the biggest novice there. My roommate, for instance, was completely at sea. Most of us were there because we didn’t know enough yet.
Our teachers were all legendary coaches, including Alex Beguinet of Duke University, Abdel Salem of the Air Force Academy, and former Olympian and sabre referee Ed Richards. Alex is French, a puckish, cheerful tiny big-nosed Frenchman who adored playing practical jokes on his students. Abdel is Egyptian, an epeeist and another former Olympian, tall, amiable, deliberate, and monosyllabic. Tall, craggy Ed was peppery, opinionated, and abrupt, in keeping with his sabre background.
The curriculum was ambitious, even if the session was only a week; the teachers were trying to teach some of us how to fence in the first place, while challenging the experienced people. We all did a lot of footwork and bladework, and played many tactical games. I recognized much of the material from Mark’s classes, and it was reassuring that he wasn’t a maverick. There are a few of what people call “hobby coaches” in fencing, and you are never sure if your own coach is one of them, until it’s too late and your skills are outdated or peculiar, but permanent.
The main focus of the program was the core skill of coaching fencing: the individual lesson. One-on-one, a fencing coach works with a student, teaching the correct action at the correct distance with the correct form. The coach must give good cues, at the right distance, with proper timing, so that the student can see when they are supposed to hit, and how. As the student adapts and becomes more skillful, the coach has to adapt as well. Coaches thus absorb many, many solid hits, often from clumsy students. I was glad I had splurged on one of those buffalo-hide coaching jackets, though I felt a little foolish in it.
The last day of instruction, to get Alex Beguinet back for all his practical jokes, we stole his fencing glove while he was out of the room and sewed the fingers together. He was agreeably baffled when he put it on, though we knew he must have realized what happened the moment he picked it up; apparently it was a tradition at Coaches College to pull a final prank on Alex.
There was a paper exam, but that was easy. For our real final exam, we had to give a mock lesson to a fellow student. The night before, I slept in another classmate’s room, because my own roommate was panicking even more than I was, and I just couldn’t take it. I knew how she felt, because I was sure I wasn’t going to pass that test. I hadn’t mastered the cues. I didn’t know the correct distance. I had only been fencing a year.
When it finally came my turn, my demonstration lesson in the exam room was indeed stiff, uncomfortable, and awkward. The observing coaches stopped me, asked for clarifications and corrected me, and after my “student” (a fellow classmate) left the room, they pointed out–at length–what I had done wrong. Then they said, “Thank you,” and I left.
Outside, people asked me how I had done and said, “They just said, ‘Thank you,’” and I began to cry.
The guy who had been my “student” wrapped me up in a hug. But another classmate, young Stefan, said to me, “Did they talk to you?” I nodded and told him they pointed out all the things I had done wrong. “Then you passed,” he said firmly. “They only talk to the ones they pass.”
In the meeting afterwards, they called my name toward the end of the list of people who had passed and, as I went up, overwhelmed, to get the certificate, the whole group sang me “Happy Birthday,” because it was my 44th birthday.
Some people didn’t pass, including my panicking roommate.
After the celebration, I asked Ed Richards why I had succeeded. He said, “We knew you were nervous. But you knew some of the material and we saw how you were doing over the week. What do you think this is, a make-or-break thing?”
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what I had thought, because that was how it was presented.
Before we all headed home, a bunch of us spent the day on nearby Pikes Peak to blow off some steam, including fellow students Woody and Stefan. Stefan threw snowballs at me, and I should have realized something then.
It was a long day, and we got back from Pikes Peak and turned into the USOTC at exactly the moment the shuttle was due to pick me up to go to the airport. I grabbed my pack and ran. I looked back and waved. Stefan, (the young man on the right of the photo above), jumped out of the back of the truck and ran a little toward me. I waved again, he waved back, and I left.
It wasn’t until I was actually on the plane that I realized that apparently, I had been back in middle school, and that one of my classmates liked me.
I was 44 years old, happily married, with a teenage kid and a husband of nearly twenty years, and here a very nice young man thought I was cute. I sat there in my airplane seat, my chest bubbling with amused delight, absolutely astounded. Somehow, that little incident seemed even more affirming than passing the test.
When I got back home, Mark asked me to lead the adult beginner class at the fencing club. Hesitantly, I agreed, though I didn’t really have time. Toward the end of the class, after I thought I had acquitted myself pretty well, Mark came over and pointedly started re-teaching everything I had already covered, as if he was teaching me by example and pointing out all my errors. It was condescending and dominating, and I was annoyed.
The thing was, I didn’t necessarily want to be one of his coaches in the first place. I was doing it as a favor to him and as an adventure for myself. Apparently, he didn’t understand that. Therefore, after the class was over and the students had left, I politely went to Mark and said I wasn’t going to be able to teach the adult class after all. “I’ve already done my student teaching,” I said firmly.
I never coached at my home club. I’m not sure Mark ever understood my reasons.
But I couldn’t make fencing my job. I already had a job; it was how I paid for fencing.