The danger of trying to mix epee fencing and a vacation is when you spend two hours drinking margaritas and eating chicken wings before walking wobbly off to fence. Linda came with me as we weaved our way to the Seattle fencing salle (with my brand new FIE blade).
The Seattle fencers started with 30-40 minutes of footwork which focused on a lot of things I had never heard before, most of it foil based: scissor recovery, half-advance, half lunge, slow-fast retreat and hanging lunge. There was also a great deal of work on the ballista which is a hop forward with a loud slap of the foot. “What is gained with the ballista?” The instructor asked after a series of ballistras into a lunge. “About two inches” I muttered. I have never found it of any use in epee as it is the equivalent of holding up a sign saying “Get ready to hit me as I am about to attack you.” I struggled on with footwork, being the only one both dripping sweat and burping cajun chicken wings.
The lack of training and eating rich foods from my prolonged birthday celebrations left me wrung out simply from footwork training. The whole wheezing and gasping for breath was probably taking away from my making a dramatic and imposing image. Unfortunately because the club had 17 strips for fencing, it meant no one judged, so there were no set bouts, just the fencing on and on until you drop style. Going to be a long night.
I started by fencing Morgan, who was primarily a foilist but fences team epee at the nationals. I totally smoked her. I think she was on epee to give me a chance to fence different people. She might have gotten a point on me once. This cheered me up immensely as there is nothing like total and overwhelming victory to boost confidence. We finished with a five point bout which I won 5-0.
Swaggering off the strip I met Anna and we agreed to fence. She told me this was her first day back fencing as she had been in the hospital having a tumor removed (non-cancerous thankfully) and only last week had she been able to lunge again. She was in her early 50’s, my first left handed fencer and the shortest epeeist I had ever faced at 5’3”. Due to her recent hospitalization I decided to take it easy and did a half speed lunge to her forearm. Before I could complete the lunge, she counter-lunged, setting my helmet ringing with her epee. What the? I did another slow attack, and same result, she burst out of the starting gate tagging my arm. That’s it, I don’t care if you are dragging an IV bag, I’m gonna get you.
She was fast and no matter what I did, I couldn’t stop getting doubles (simultaneous hits). Now when I am a foot taller than the person I am fencing, I should be able to get them before they get me, so every double hit was getting me more and more frustrated. Then she fleched; a lefty fleche. I stood there watching it as my body wailed that it didn’t know what to do. She did it again. Plus I was having the problem of having my attacks slide just over the top of her shoulder; it was so far down that it was at elbow level. Basically, she handed my ass to me. In long attacks, she got doubles; in close body second attacks, she dominated. Often she moved and lowered her body to get under my blade. Next time I will work harder at keeping distance. But it was good to fence a lefty, as I learned what lefties do best, avoid the common parry and attack on the outside of the arm. In case total humiliation wasn’t enough after we finished she started making “kind” remarks how I was doing “okay...for the amount of time I had been doing epee.” I kept reminding myself to smile as there were sparks coming out from between my molars I was grinding them so hard. Ahhhh, that’s it, come back here, I am going to crush you! The coach giving lessons overheard her telling me she didn’t really compete and pulled off his helmet, “Don’t listen to her. You know who that is? She’s the 2003 National Champion; 2005 Champion and member of the US World Championship team.” That cheered me up somewhat but I left still muttering under my breath, “next time…next time.”
After drinking some water I fenced Alex, a red-headed lefty guy who was going to the World Cup in July as he made the top 32 in the last World Cup. I took the first few points easily and could hear some muttered swearing along with “that reach!” He changed his game to defensive to stay out of reach of my blade and soon we were chasing each other up and down the strip. In one particularly long engagement we had fought all the way to both ends of the strip and were coming back to do it again. I gave a half lunge to his arm, he retreated, but slow enough that I gave a full lunge to his thigh My point floated a few tantalizing millimeters out of reach. In a microsecond decision I launch myself in a horizontal dive for his calf, trying to get the hit before my knees hit the floor (after which the point wouldn’t count). After a floor jarring landing Alex stood there asking if I was okay while I struggled to turn over, “Did I get the touch? Did I get the touch?” I did.
Alex was excited and kept telling me to go to the World Cup as “they do stuff like that all the time.” He played a smart game of defense and distance as I tried new and sometimes wild techniques to try and attack his position. His lefty defense not only let him sneak attacks on my outer arm but also took away all my targets, even those I used as defense attacks while retreating. Soon the points starting turning to Alex. I was frustrated as I knew that what I was doing wasn’t working and I needed to change, but with so many new elements, I wasn’t sure what to do. Normally I would go away and think up a new strategy, only this time I wasn’t coming back for a while, I needed something now. I walked up and down the strip for a minute or two as I reviewed our bouts in my head. I concluded that he had too much experience with fencing right handed fencers for me to challenge his position so I would attack his timing, by getting him to move the blade, but keep attacking his wrist and epee guard to force him to keep back. The difference worked and we pulled even again, even though each point was driving me to total exhaustion. We finished up with a three point match; victory at 3-2 to me.
Alex gave me some good advice about using my reach to my best advantage in competition, which is to get those first few points and then force the shorter person to chase me instead of taking it to them. If I practice more with the ping-pong on precision hits and work on distance, then as long as I stay ahead in points, I will always have them chasing me to catch up. Plus, he noticed I wasn’t using my arm as much as I should in a lunge. “Arms are faster than legs” he said, a saying so applicable to me I want to get it put above my ping-pong ball.
Physically I was dragging but pulled myself together to fence Kundra. On the way to the strip I stumbled over another epee fencer, some guy with a stubbly goatee. “I’ll be back for you” I threatened weakly. Yeah, real imposing. Kundra is going to the nationals this year because she placed so high in last year’s Nationals. But as an epeeist, she was very passive. so I went through my rotation of different attacks on her, most of which worked perfectly. As she still didn’t seem to want to attack, I went through my secondary attacks, which are attacks I am trying to build up, like long advancing lunges, foot attacks and such. I eventually asked to stop as not only were we the last people fencing but the floor was getting slippery from all my “glow.” She seemed rather down on my thinking about competition but Linda thought that might be because Kundra wasn’t doing as well this year in rankings as she would have liked. Linda tries to remind me now and then that everything that goes on isn’t always about me (wha?).
I was really happy to get the opportunity to fence two lefties for 40 minutes as now, when I face one in competition, I won’t fall apart. I also tried to get some tips from everyone I fenced, as having someone see you fresh is valuable. I fenced three different women but my favorite fencer for the night ended up being Alex (not a woman). I think once I had a better grip with Anna’s style that could be good too, but it was with Alex I had a sort of “conversation by fencing” as our fencing evolved, changing our styles and techniques to counter the actions of each other. Alex was also encouraging, positive and the only person I’ve fenced who thought a flying dive to his ankles was a great thing.
Bottom line: I don’t totally suck at epee and come autumn Elizabeth is going to competition!
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