Veteran World Championships

Two sabre fencers on an elevated strip in spotlighting with a large scoring machine behind them. The name on the scoring machine is "Turner."
This is the sort of glamorous-looking part (the gold medal bout in Italy, up on the finals strip), and that’s me on the right.

Veteran World Championships are an official part of the international fencing year. They are sanctioned by the FIE (Federation Internationale d’Escrime) which is the international fencing organization, and they are a serious competition for people 50 years old and older. The veteran championships are also a social event, a raucous get-together for all kinds of people who have known one another since they could pull their socks on without groaning.

The old guys didn’t really want women’s sabre in their championships, not to begin with. That’s because veteran fencing was first started as a way for people who were serious athletes in their younger days to keep competing. Most of those people, of course, were men; there were almost no women in sabre until the 1990s, so women somehow hadn’t earned the right to be “veterans.” Also, the old-time male sabre fencers really didn’t think what we were doing looked good enough. When we had a demonstration event in Tampa in 2002, the guys were still unenthusiastic, and it took three more years before we were official.

Because it’s an actual championships, many countries send squads of athletes: Japan, Germany, England, and the United States usually send the maximum number, which these days is four people per weapon (foil, epee, and sabre), per gender, per age group (50-59, 60-69, and 70+), totaling 72 team members. Other countries send fewer, or else whoever is willing to show up. A number of athletes, foreign nationals who happen to live in the USA, actually compete for home countries that otherwise don’t participate.

In order to make the team in the US, athletes have to compete, in their age group, in at least two of three national veteran events. The top four people, based on their best two results, are named to the team, with four more named as alternates.

Once we make the team, USA Fencing gives us team warm-ups, which are often the same ones that the Cadet and Junior team members wear. As required for an international competition, USA Fencing also sends a referee or two for the event, as well as a team coach, a trainer, and an armorer to fix our equipment, and it pays for their travel and lodgings. That’s pretty cool.

However, we athletes pay for everything else ourselves: flights, hotels, equipment, and fees.

While USA Fencing is very proud indeed of our results, and is happy to provide qualifying events, warm-ups, and public recognition, their funding from the USOC can’t be used for something that won’t tend to encourage the winning of Olympic medals, and their other money goes for other, equally important goals.

The veterans, who have elevated complaining to a sport of its own, kvetch about this perceived lack of support regularly. Because I am just happy they let me compete, I tend to get impatient with the complaining. For a very long time, I was on the national veteran committee, and had to listen to a lot of grumbling, until the USA Fencing President asked me to be the chair of the committee, whereupon I refused and resigned, because I have my limits.

Veterans are pretty nice people on the whole, however. I especially adore the sabre ladies. We are bad-ass.

Ten older women in navy warm-ups lined up smiling at the camera, with the caption "WORLD VETERAN CHAMPIONSHIPS 2022"
Most of my buddies on the US women’s sabre team in 2022 in Croatia, in our team warm-ups. I’m second from the right.

Once women’s sabre became official in Worlds, everything changed for me. I stopped caring about Division I and Division IA, and I stopped caring about classifications. All I wanted was to be in the top four of the point standings for my age group. I periodized my training so that I could peak for the three national events and then for Worlds, and I took a month off after Worlds so I could recover, because the older body does not bounce back easily. I knew exactly where I needed to finish in order to maximize my national points, and I always achieved my goal.

Fencing travel was my biggest expense, and in many of the years between 2002 and 2022, I didn’t have a whole lot of money to burn. I was also, for most of that time, a classroom teacher, and Worlds took place in October, not long after school started. Luckily, my employers let me take a few days off for travel and competition, and provided a sub. It helped that I was coaching fencing at my school, and that our PR person could coax local reporters into interviewing me, so that it looked good for the school. My headmaster used to introduce me to visitors as “our World Champion.”

My obsessiveness was rewarded. I made the USA team every time I tried, and I medaled in all but two of the 14 championships I went to in England, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Croatia. Oh, and Tampa, Florida.

25 medals of various types, lacking ribbons, including four in a shadow box.
Veteran Worlds Medals

And I won the gold medal four times. Those are the ones in the box at the bottom of the photo. Those are the only medals that I’m going to keep when I am done writing about my medals.

You know why I took World Championships so seriously? Why I treated myself like a serious athlete for such a long time, and spent my money, my spare time, and my strength on playing a sport, when I was so involved with being a wife, a daughter, a mother, and a full-time teacher?

Because, like many women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, I had to be incredibly good all the rest of the time. I got a graduate degree and became a teacher because someone had to have the health insurance, the 401(k), and the regular income in our family, my husband being self-employed. Because I got things done at work, they gave me more work: I was the department chair for a K12 school, the harassment ombudsman for a lot of nice people who occasionally treated each other badly, and the coordinator of faculty mentoring. I coached middle school fencing. I was the local daughter for my mother with Parkinson’s. My kid had graduated from college and was in grad school, so I didn’t have to be a mother as well, but all the time I had to be a grownup, and I had to behave myself.

I had to behave myself.

This is not playing to my strengths. I am by nature impulsive, distracted, and irrepressible. And here I was pretending to be an adult.

A lot of women blame the simmering rage they feel in their 50s on menopause, but I’m here to tell you it’s not necessarily all hormonal. A lot of it is that we have to be responsible for everyone and everything. This wasn’t what we thought we were going to be doing. At least it wasn’t what I thought I would be doing. I figured things would get easier once I got older, and here they were getting harder and harder.

So no matter how quixotic it might seem that I added Veteran Worlds on top of everything else I was doing, it is important to understand something: In fencing, it was just me against my opponent. I was tricking them so I could hit them. I could be pumped full of adrenaline. I could be coldly aggressive, purely competitive, and full of intensity. I could care deeply. I could even yell, growl, and pump my fist. The only thing that mattered, right then, was whether or not I could win the next point. It didn’t matter that my mother was increasingly confused, that my husband was worried about money, that I was never ever going to get ahead of my work. None of it mattered.

I just had to get the next point.

I didn’t have to think about anything else, at least until the bout was over.

And sometimes, I won the whole thing, and got to call myself a world champion.

3 thoughts on “Veteran World Championships

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.