In 1984, I sat in my living room watching the first ever women’s Olympic race longer than a mile: the marathon. The American, Joan Benoit took an early and commanding lead and kept it to win. Fifteen minutes after her finish, the Swiss marathoner Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss entered the stadium and changed my life. Due to heat exhaustion, she had lost function of her left arm and her right leg was rigid, crippling her as she struggled against the loss of equilibrium to remain on her feet. I watched for 5 minutes and 44 seconds as she weaved and dragged herself along the final lap, described by commentators as a “grotesque sight” she continued on to the end the race, falling across the finish line. Inspiring me in a way the seemingly super-human athletes could not, I said to myself, “If she can do that, I can do that.”
Three years later I would have to drop out my beloved but hopelessly inept basketball. I could not run, it hurt to walk, it hurt to bend my legs; a year later I had both knees operated on. Less than 18 months after the operations, I ran the Los Angeles Marathon.
Monday, I went in to fence a “full night” at least 150 minutes of epee. Mr Ho called me over to show me how my non-sword arm was putting me off balance. I usually keep it on my hip in a saber stance, but that was tipping me slightly forward. “Make your shoulders straight” he told me as I tried to hide my scoliosis by artificially dropping a shoulder (Mr. Ho won’t teach you if you aren’t “healthy”). It worked and he showed me how to not only change my stance but other aspects of my lunge. I have already been working on my lunge for a month but there seem to be endless ways to imperfectly lunge. For the rest of the night, I thought about arm position, I thought about extending the blade and I thought so much I got beaten repeatedly and badly. But in a few weeks I will be faster.
Now that I was getting regularly trounced, a couple of the guys, and one in particular felt the need to tell me everything I was doing “wrong.” I suggested he let Mr. Ho know. After about 90 minutes of this, I pulled Gerald aside and asked him, from his experience as a martial arts instructor, some suggestions on how to deal with anger when someone is being consistently condescending. I didn’t want to go home, but I felt that if I got any more “help” from one individual I would soon be attacking their throat. Gerald said that usually guys like that didn’t last in martial arts. Thanks!
I fenced Amanda and then William right up to 10:01 pm, with everyone waiting for us to close up the hall. During my bout with Amanda (who ranked 38th in the Vancouver World cup) I was down 1-3 when I ramped it up, using a high energy micro-jumping style which quickly evened things up 3-3. And then I stopped myself. That wasn’t how I wanted to win. This wasn’t the style I was training myself for.
Earlier in the evening Mr. Ho had said, “Make many many attacks, what does it matter, if you get the point? Everyone agrees.” I raised my hand. “I don’t.”
“One target, one strike.” I said.
“What did she say?” Mr. Ho asked Amanda.
“She said, ‘one target one strike.’”
Mr. Ho looked at me like I had two heads. “First hand, then wrist, then arm, and up. But you are a beginner, only Amanda can do that.” He turned away.
I tapped his shoulder and he turned back. “Then train me.”
Mr. Ho laughed, “Amanda has been training for five years.”
“Okay. Train me.”
“I only train people for competition.” He said.
“I am going to do competitions.”
“I only train people who fence three or four nights a week.” He turned away.
Later Gerald had some thoughts about anger, he said that in the West we think too much about the individual and so we have individual egos and in the East they think more of the community, they don’t have the need to stand out. “Gerald, I am a 6’3” lesbian, I am always going to stand out. Second, I do epee; you have to have an individual ego for epee.” He laughed and agreed.
Epee is unique, it is a sport in which the only way to improve is by challenging yourself, and working on your own skills, gaining physical and intellectual experience. But at the same time, it is a sport in which it is just you, a sword and a piece of ground. Unless you are there for different goals, if you don’t have some sort of “I can be better” ego, then epee is not for you. The question is, how much do you want the point? I want it badly; so much that I will fence slower and get bruised and beaten and talked at like some slightly stupid little sister in order to improve. Every person who enters the strip with me gets the same message: “I am a better fencer: please prove me wrong.” And nothing is better than someone who takes your best and shows you better. Because unlike a gun fight, I don’t die. I get to learn and work and try again.
There are 11 Canadian women epee fencers between me and the world champion Sherraine, Schalm-Mackay. Tomorrow I will work on my lunge, and will work on it the day after. Then on Friday, I will fence, and I will see what else I can learn. I will bruise, I will get elated, I will joke with the other epeeists, and sometimes I will go home and cry. But there are 11 Canadian women epee fencers between me and the world champion. I can be a better fencer.
Two years after her Olympic run Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss spoke at the IOC academy, "Seek excellence everlastingly, for if we surrender in life, it spells personal death, both spiritual and physical."
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