Painful lessons

When I looked over my last few entries, I saw I included too many little triumphs. It makes sense that I would want to remember the times I did well, but there have been plenty of years with bad results, and some of them make good stories. More importantly, they taught me something the good results couldn’t.

There was the time I thought I had lost too many bouts to make it up to the next round, undressed, cooled down, wandered over to look at the results, and found out that I had made the cut and raced to the strip only to get knocked down by my first opponent. (I never undressed early after that.) Or the time my zipper broke, and I had to get duct-taped into my fencing knickers by the organizer of the tournament (memo to self: check your competition equipment thoroughly). And I can’t tell you how often I have gotten stuck in my head and made the same wrong fencing action over and over and over, sure that this time I would get it right, until it was too late and I had lost. I stayed up crying all night once because I did that, with “Stuck in a Moment” coming up remorselessly on MTV. (I don’t seem to have ever completely learned not to do that repeated wrong action.)

But 1998 wins the prize. That was the year when I forgot to put my fencing jacket back on after running to the bathroom, and then fenced an entire 15-touch bout without it. Boy, did that hurt. It was only possible because in sabre, the protective fencing jacket is completely covered by what’s called the lamé, a conductive jacket whose purpose is to register touches on the electrical scoring machine when the opponent hits you. No one could see that I wasn’t protected. All I had on underneath that lamé was a T-shirt and an underarm protector, but I looked just fine.

I should have told the referee when I realized what had happened, because it was dangerous, but I was too embarrassed at being so stupid, and I didn’t want to get carded. The embarrassment backfired, because I was so obviously in pain that my opponent, Jill, asked me what was wrong afterwards, and I had to tell her. She was relieved, because she didn’t think she had been hitting that hard. I learned then that getting carded was not as bad as getting beaten up.

That would be enough to make 1998 the winner year for losing, but in that same year, Division I National Championships in New York City was worse, even if it didn’t involve physical pain.

Closeup of Tshirt reading "U.S. National Fencing Championships, New York City, June 13-15, 1998, 168 Street Armory Track & Field Center."
Been there, bought the T-shirt.

You have to qualify for National Championships by getting on the national rolling point standings, and you earn points by finishing above a certain level in a national event. I had gone to every national senior event that year, and I did well enough in Seattle, Fort Lauderdale, and Austin to qualify.

I really took my competitions seriously that year, because it was the first Division I National Championships in women’s sabre. Women had never been allowed to compete in sabre, colleges didn’t have NCAA women’s sabre, it wasn’t in the Olympics, and we were a bunch of cheerful nerds who just liked competing, so it wasn’t until 1998 that they let us be part of the Division I. The previous two years, we had competed, all right, but the women’s sabre competition was just called a Division II event and nobody cared about it except the women’s sabre fencers.

I had some good competitive results by that point, but I was finding out some things about myself that I didn’t like, and one was that I was an absolute wreck at tournaments: I was always sick to my stomach, I was anxious, I was annoyed, and I hated everyone in my event, without cause or favoritism. I stiffened up, too. I forgot all the sophisticated actions I had been practicing, and I felt as if my feet were made of mud.

Therefore, I decided to do something about my competition nerves. There are lots of sports psychology books for that, of course, and I picked up a book written by the then-coach of fencing at Columbia, Aladar Kogler. It was entitled Preparing the Mind, and it was all about calming competition nerves, controlling your breathing, and entering the zone. I read that book closely, underlining the important parts and applying its precepts in my competitions. I worked hard on being ready for the big day.

So by the time Nationals rolled around, I was as prepared as I had ever been, and I looked forward to being as calm and relaxed as a Buddha on the strip.

I was relaxed, all right. And I fenced well. Everyone who saw me that day said I looked smooth and was making great actions. There was only one problem. I was so relaxed, I was moving in slow motion, and I lost every single bout I fenced. I finished dead last.

It wasn’t because I was old, either. There were a couple of other women my age in that event. One of them, Leslie, finished in the top eight and earned an A classification. The other, Judy, also finished ahead of me. I could beat both of them, but not that day.

That was how I found out that I couldn’t avoid having competition nerves. The nerves were there for a reason. If I wanted to do well, I had to be in a terrible mood and feel awful on the day of the competition. That’s how adrenaline hits me, it turns out, and I can’t fence well if I’m not pumped.

From then on, my coaches knew that if they asked me how I was doing, and I said, “I hate everyone and I don’t want to do this,” they said “Good,” because it meant I was in the zone. It seems truly weird that something I do for fun makes me feel absolutely awful sometimes, but though I never learned to like the feeling, at least I recognize it and know it had its uses.

I would rather not have learned that lesson by finishing DFL.

2 thoughts on “Painful lessons

  1. helen McKenna Uff says:

    Delia! This is Helen. Val and I just visited Leslie in France. We’d all love to be in touch!! Love this post.

    1. DMT says:

      Hey, Helen! Hope you and Val are well. Haven’t seen you since Nick’s memorial! I haven’t seen Leslie in quite a while, but she did visit Philadelphia some time in the last couple of decades and we caught up then. I thought she had my email (perhaps she got in touch with me via Facebook, which I don’t belong to any more), but just in case it’s the name of this website on this website (d******* (Have to watch out for email harvesting, sigh). –Delia

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