why I fence
Sometimes I wonder why I fence.
I have no natural aptitude and no sporting ability. I am never going to be a good fencer.
There's no-one cheering me on or watching to see how I do.
But for two years I sat and watched the fencers while my son fenced and wished I could join in. I longed to try out the moves and hold a sword in my hand. I remembered all the swashbuckling films I had enjoyed and the fencing fantasies of my youth.
Then a friend pointed out that, as I was coming up to 50, I could try things out and no-one would expect me to do well. She had just taken up archery and sailing. So, with some nervousness, I aked one of the club coaches if I could have a go and joined the beginners' class. I had ambition - I wanted the grade 1 certificate and badge. The coach suggested I might even reach grade 2.
It was cheap, I didn't need to buy kit at that stage, and thought I could justify the cost.
Once started, I never wanted to stop. My son and daughter saw I enjoyed fencing and encouraged me to continue. They told me the cost of kit was worthwhile. (And the club let me borrow for quite some time.)
The coaches were patient and encouraging and better fencers slowed down to let me practise against them. I even took part in a friendly team event (women's foil) for beginners, though I was the weakest member of the team. Last year I picked up an epee and thought I'd have a go, even though there was no formal epee coaching then - just a couple of starter sessions.
At the beginning of this year, I was awarded the club trophy for most improved fencer!
Occasionally, when there's pressure on the pistes or a big competition coming up, I have to wait a while for a bout. But I've had a lot of coaching, tips and encouragement - nobody at the club has laughed at me for becoming a fencer. Coaches have shown amazing patience. Good fencers have offered to fence me, helped me work on technique (correcting the same errors again and again as my guard position slips), and yet not pushed me beyond what I can do. I'm never going to be very fast.
There's now regular epee coaching.
I fence because I love fencing.
I fence because the club is a good place to be - and I like the people there.
I fence because the coaches and members are kind, helpful and encouraging.
I fence because I enjoy bouts and can improve at my own rate (rather slowly).
I fence for me.
epee coaching and slow fencing
Another dark, icy night.
The epee coach returned and his encouragement made me realise I'd been improving after all. Ten minutes into my individual lesson, my arm began to ache from the weight of the epee - I'd been gripping it too tight. It might have been excitement. I perservered, trying not to mind the dragging in my upper-arm muscles. I practised parrying and disengage attacks, often missing the stimuli and making the wrong response. But when it worked my blade was landing more or less where it should, with a decent angle and firm attachment.
I felt better and healthier than I have for weeks.
I'm not convinced I'll parry much, given the wrist-strength of some of the men. They may seize control of my blade even when I have the advantage of forte to foible. But I've been given another possibility (if only I were faster ...) and one day I may have the chance to use it in a bout. For the moment I'm doing everything slowly, trying to get the moves right.
After a while, I was paired with another epeeist (a woman!) so that we could fence slowly together and try out what we had learned. Only at the end did I fence on the electric piste a another tall male fencer. (I lost, of course, but not disgracefully.) Slow as I was, I managed a few hit and felt quite pleased with myself.
Afterwards the cold hit. I don't mind - I'm improving, still learning. I'm a fencer.
I looked up the story behind the modern pentathlon. According to British Pentathlon's website, the scenario is as follows:
"The choice of the five diverse and unrelated sports that make up the Modern Pentathlon arose out of the romantic, tough adventures of a liaison officer whose horse is brought down in enemy territory. Having defended himself with his pistol and sword, he swims across a raging river and delivers the message on foot. Not surprisingly, it was the military who most enthusiastically adopted this new sport with its inherent demands of courage, co-ordination, physical fitness, self-discipline and flexibility in ever changing circumstances. "
I never planned to join the army or be a liaison officer. Not only am I a pacifist (a fencing pacifist, I admit) but I can't ride, my whole shooting experience is from fairgrounds, I swim in the middle lane or summer seas and most of my running is for trains and buses. I might try defending myself with my sword but, after last week's one-hit epee contest, I think that's out too.
They fence one-hit epee in the Modern Pentathlon, though it strikes me that a light hit to the opponent's wrist or fore-arm isn't much to ask of an athlete who later swims through a raging torrent - but the authorities may have subdued the torrent too.
My main strategy in epee consists of building up my opponent's sense of security by fencing in the same way for two or three points, then changing technique in the hope of taking him or her by surprise. It doesn't usually come off but sometimes I get lucky. Failing that, I charge forward and usually impale myself on my opponent's blade. Then I hope that my stamina - I don't have much speed - will come to my aid.
After that, I lose.
If I'm lucky, lose with points.
But my strategic attempts depend on more than one go.
Last year's one-hit epee contest (for the traditional prize of a chocolate santa) was a matter of standing, running or retreating and being hit. This time, I took advice. A colleague who fences epee with another club said "take your time and think". It was my best chance.
I tried the advice and somehow, in my first bout, scored a wrist hit. I assumed my epee was defective; I didn't think I'd attached the blade and my opponent was last year's victor. I still think it was a mistake. But I scored a point - one more than last year.
That was it. After the point, bemusement and astonishment - and my opponents' greater speed and accuracy - took over. Once again I was the only woman fencing. Once again I came last.
There were three other women who fence epee a little, at least, at the club that last. They would probably have beaten me too but I wish they had taken part.
I don't have the excuse of age. The winner (scoring 8 points out of a maximum 9) is at least ten years older than me and the oldest fencer taking part. He's also amazingly fit, a left-hander and an ex-Olympic fencer - and a terrific coach and opponent. He brought the chocolate santa and he took it home again, distributing mini-santas to the losers. But the good news is that I'm finally beginning to feel better after nearly two months of illness - and I'm enjoying fencing much more. I won't acquire the lightning speeds I need but improvement once again seems a possibility.
The club championship is on 3rd December. I'd just like a few more points than last year. Not coming last would be a triumph. (It's also pretty unlikely - unless I can persuade a couple of beginners to join in.)
wiring a foil
I'm no good at practical things. I was a disaster at cookery classes and chemistry experiments.
Sometimes I can manage on a sort of hit or miss basis - and reckon that with practice I'll be better. So I sat in on the demonstration of how to re-wire a foil. It began badly. I was asked to take the foil to pieces - something I've done successfully in the past. But it was a pistol grip, whereas I always use French grip, and I couldn't loosen the pommel. After making a fool of myself in front of an audience, I had to pass the foil to a boy (who also struggled, so perhaps I wasn't entirely feeble).
The demonstration included advice like, "you'll need your stanley knife for this." But I don't have a stanley knife. At some point the blade has to be heated on a gas-stove, bent like a bow and left with the right (epoxy) glue in a safe place for several days. And then, on the last day of the procedure, it's still possible to snap the wire. I suspect that's just what I would do.
The demonstration ended with the words, "and re-wiring an epee is much harder."
Steam fencing suddenly has great attractions. Should I ditch my feminist principles and admit incompetence - or just pay someone efficient to do re-wiring for me? I don't think I have the time or skill for this.
I did get to fence a little epee. As in all my fencing lately, I was slow and unscucessful.
Must try harder.