Because I was willing to risk making a fool of myself, I have collected many embarrassing moments, and a handful of precious memories. I was thinking about one of those memories today, because Henri Sassine died February 12. He was the Canadian coach of nine athletes at five Olympics, including his daughter Sandra, who fenced in two Olympics herself.

I didn’t know him personally, and he didn’t know me, but we did cross paths once.

In 1997, I flew to a tournament in Montreal. My kid was fencing in it, and a bunch of the club members were going, so I decided to go and fence too. I was in way over my head, but then I was always in over my head. Montreal was a “designated” event for US fencers, meaning you could earn national points, and a lot of very serious competitors were there.

In my first round seeding pool, I would be facing one of Sassine’s fencers. The girl, though seeded high, was having a very bad day. She lost a bout she shouldn’t have, and when her small, energetic coach came over to check in on her, she was tearful. He looked at the order of bouts, saw that she was fencing me next, and said to her in French, loudly enough so I could hear him, “Take this one out and I will come back and tell you what to do,” and he went away to coach his other fencers. He wasn’t being intentionally insulting; he didn’t know I understood French. All things considered, it was good advice, because I wasn’t as good as she was. The only problem was that she was indeed having a bad day, and I beat her in that next bout.

Sometimes I worry that when I tell these stories, it comes across as bragging. That’s because it is. But I’m not bragging about beating Sassine’s student. She was just having a tough time and I happened to be there for it.

I’m bragging that in spite of everything, I showed up. If I hadn’t entered the event in the first place, if I had respected my limits, I wouldn’t have earned that tiny victory over myself, and it was all the more precious because Sassine had dismissed me so audibly.

Of course, I didn’t earn a medal. Instead, wheezing with exercise asthma and so exhausted I said “Thank God!” when I was finally eliminated, I finished tenth out of 43 (still a great finish for me). Then I jammed myself into the back of my coach’s car, cramping up almost immediately, and they drove me home to Philadelphia. I made it back in time to teach my classes the next day.

I’m a big fan of being realistic, mind you. High expectations are the devil, and I have seen far too many people crushed by losing when they thought they could win. But low expectations are the devil, too. I was fencing in that event because they let me, and if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have a story to tell about it. It’s all about the stories, after all. That’s what is left when everything else is gone.

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