Participation Awards

I am one of the most competitive people in the world, except most of the time. Somebody at work once said I was competitive, and I answered honestly, “Only if you compete with me.” My coworker didn’t quite understand that. I come across as intense, I realize, and I don’t lie about my results. That can come across as boastful, especially when people have decided to underestimate me to begin with. Thus, they apparently decide I’m grandiose, but they ignore all the awful stories I also tell on myself at the same time.

However, as should be obvious by now, I do really like medals. That’s actually not because I’m competitive, it’s because they are the best kind of participation awards. I carry the medals home from the event with me. I put them in my jeans pocket and check them to make sure they’re still there. If I am flying I put them in my personal bag. When TSA alerts to the circular discs, I am happy to explain. I definitely brag about the shinies, but it’s because it comes as a perpetual surprise that someone gave them to me and I want to share the joy. Yes, I am about six years old when it comes to medals.

This fondness for hardware partly explains why I so often competed in the state games of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

32 medals from Pennsylvania and New Jersey events.
Medals from state games

In an earlier post, I talked about the Philadelphia Division. The Philadelphia area is a tiny percentage of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but it contains most of the state’s competitive clubs. In the rest of the state, fencing is sparse. The Keystone State Games were held almost every year, in a place that is more central to the state, and I would often go. As long as I kept my expectations low for the event, it was a nice outing.

Why low expectations? Two reasons: One, the organizer, Ed, was a sweetheart, but he also fenced at least two weapons, maybe three, and because he was a nice guy, he figured that if the Games were happening, everyone should have a chance to fence whatever they wanted, including him. Therefore, the tournament took forever. The 11-person event that took four and a half hours wasn’t even unusual. One year, my 20-person event took seven and a half hours to fence, when it should have taken perhaps an hour and a half.

The other reason for keeping my expectations low was that the quality of the fencing varied widely; some of the fencing clubs in the state were isolated and not terribly competitive. The event got better over the years, mind you, and the last time I went even the refereeing was good (except that our ref decided it made sense to process a pool of over-50-aged women with tremendous efficiency, and a couple of us started having asthma attacks).

There was usually an open combined (men’s and women’s) event, a veteran event, and a women’s event in the Keystone State Games, and I often did well. In 2003, for instance, I finished third for the open (all ages, both men and women), first for the women, and first for the veterans (over-40, also mixed). Ergo, lots of medals.

Then why are there so many more New Jersey medals in the photo than there are from Pennsylvania? Well, for one thing, because New Jersey is very small, and therefore much of it is actually closer to Philadelphia than much of Pennsylvania. And besides, Gladys, who usually organized the Senior Games, is an even nicer person than Ed, and she decided that there should be medals for each five-year age group in the over-50 events. That meant I usually got two medals, one for the whole event and one for being the highest finisher in my age group. In other words, I got an award and a participation award, both at once.

Oh, yeah, and one other thing: Sometimes, I confess, we had as few as four people in my event, so I would have had to work really hard not to get two medals.

It was worth going, though, because it was always a pleasant outing. Gladys had contacts and got good referees for us, which was a huge deal. Sabre is fast and complicated, and points are often determined by a combination of who started first, who missed, whether someone parried, and various other considerations. A good referee who understands the game thoroughly is essential. The problem with refereeing veteran events is that on top of all the precision, speed, tactical choices, and strategy, you also have inevitable physical slowing, awkwardness, and distraction of an older physiology. It is hard for some referees to realize that just because we look clumsy, that doesn’t mean we’re not working at a high level.

Also, veterans talk a lot. And we argue, flirt, and digress. So not only does the referee have to be good, he or she has to keep cool under some very bizarre and ridiculous pressure.

One year, my friend Donna had come down from Massachusetts for the Senior Games, because it wasn’t easy to find good veteran competition (sometimes we called our best opponents, if they were registered, to make sure they were actually coming). Donna is younger and faster than me, and very good indeed. The referee for our bout, a young man named Idris, leaned casually against the wall and started the bout, clearly expecting that he could be chill with the oldsters.

Then Donna and I fenced our first touch.

We went up and down the strip, with all kinds of tempo changes, deceptive actions, and (I confess) yelling. Idris said, “Halt.” He blinked and said, “I wasn’t ready for this.” He didn’t even try to call the point. We all laughed, knowing it was a compliment, as he stood up, settled his shoulders, and paid very close attention for the rest of the bout.

I got two medals that day, one for winning the whole event and one for my five-year-age group, which I believe was for age 65-69. And the next year, I got the same two medals, too, defeating my friend Jennette, an experienced foilist who had decided on a whim to start fencing sabre, in an epic gold medal bout. When Gladys was awarding the medals and I won gold for the 65-69 age group, a gentleman on the sidelines blurted, “How old are you?”

Now, I realize, the state games medals too can go in the recycling bin. What really matters, what I want to hold on to, isn’t actually the medal. It’s Idris (who was already a really neat person in his teens) saying, “I wasn’t ready,” the bouts with Donna and Jenette, and the man saying, “How old are you?”

Those moments are the real participation awards. I treasure them. When I think of those moments, and about all the friends I used to see at those events, I smile.

3 thoughts on “Participation Awards

    1. DMT says:

      Thanks! Oddly enough, most of it wasn’t fun. It was deadly serious and very intense. But it was intensity and seriousness that DIDN’T MATTER, which made all the difference 🙂 I wonder sometimes if the function of sports is to allow us to take silly things very seriously.

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