The day was here. I was up at 5:55 am because the check-in for women’s epee was at 8:00 a.m. and, after having booked at the hotel recommended closest by the Canadian Fencing Federation; the CFF then changed the venue. But, not to worry, we were told, because the hotel was running two shuttles to the sports venue, one at 7:00 am and one at 7:30 am. Linda and I thought, since this was my first nationals, we would go at 7:00 am and have a lot of time to change and get ready. 7:00 am, the van pulls up, and the driver asks me, “are you going to the sports arena?” I nod and he grabs my bag. At this point a guy in his 50’s with a beard says, “put her bag down.” What? We both turn to look at him. “This van is for CFF referees only.” The driver looks puzzled and says he has heard nothing about that and after a brief argument heads inside coming back with out the CFF fax which says that in the first van CFF refs should be given first spots but all others can be given to athletes. “No,” the guy with the beard states, “Athletes have to find their own way there, taxi, whatever, but not in this van.” He then puts his daughters fencing gear in the van, gets in with her calls the other CFF refs to come in and forces the driver to leave in a half full van. The driver, before leaving, comes over and tells me that he WILL return for us (and then starts saying some pretty explicit things about the CFF). I on the other hand, having to either sit by passively or alienate ALL the refs have been memorizing the face of that man’s daughter. Let’s just say if she’s in my pool, she will never forget that bout.
The driver returns and we get in and try to explain to him that not EVERYONE involved in fencing is an asshole, just those officially connected to the CFF, I guess. I did say to Linda getting off the van “Next week, I want to get my USFA membership” (since I have US citizenship). The check-in procedure surprised me by being more lax than the Seattle competition (though this time they did actually check the mask). I found an obsessed father/armourer to help me check all my blades and then changed and did a bit of a workout. It was freezing (literally) and no one was bouting with each other to warm up, only coaches working their althletes. I mentioned to a few people with a smile that everyone seemed “very serious” – they just sort of glared at me. O...kay (I guess they didn't get the message about "fun").
I had been advised by coaches to “play strategically” if I wanted to get out the pools, so, for example, if I was up against someone very good, simply let the time run out with it close and lose 2-3 so the indicators, which determine who gets cut and who doesn’t, would be good for me (every point you lose you get -1, every point you win you get +1, add them up and you have the "indicator"). However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, I had come “to win”, that indeed, to fence someone and not give my 100% would be, to me, a form of cheating. That is simply my nature, even if I am down 4-1, I fence to win. I had come, not to fence the system, but the people, and to do that I need to out think and out perform them. (TOPS was my reminder: Timing, Openings, Precision, Speed ) When I was on the strip I wanted my whole attention to be there and thinking of how to win. So screw the indicators!
I drew pool 2 with seven fencers. I said to one fencer, "at least there are no lefties, last tournament I had two - talk about hell." God likes it when I talk like that: our pool of seven had two lefties. I was up first with a right hander named Alvarez. I followed my plan of taking it slow and spending 30-45 seconds feeling out my opponent. However, I was having a hard time breathing because adrenaline was pumping through me like crazy. I made the first point but then, in a way I still don’t understand Alvarez would bind my blade, then step in and hit me on the foot or ankle. Retreating only sped up the process so I as soon as I felt the bind I ran toward her. Still, before I could figure how, when and what she was doing, she got five straight points: 1-5. This, I said in understatement, was not a good start. (I will say that I have noticed it takes me about 5 minutes to get up to “fencing thinking” and will try to figure out a way to fence with SOMEONE before the first bout NEXT tournament).
My next bout was with a shorter Asian girl from Montreal called Fournier. This time things went entirely according to plan; I tested, I knew what she could and couldn’t do to my blade, as well as how far she could lunge and how she reacted to hand and arm attacks. And with 46 seconds to go, I was up 3-1 and knew there was no way she could get to me without my getting her too. At this point her mother started calling out the timing in French (an FIE no-no) and she twice backed me on the back of the strip so I couldn’t retreat from her lunge (which is how I got my touches before) and we finished the bout with two doubles; 5-3. I was feeling better as I had gone to plan, used the time and stayed calm, but kicking myself for not leaving enough room behind to retreat so I could finish 5-1 (yeah, I'm never happy am I?). It was, I thought, too bad that she was such a low ranked fencer, as I knew everyone from now on would be harder (later I found out her national ranking was 30th out of 89 and a Canadian D rated fencer – the Canadian rankings are MUCH harder, for instance there are only 4 A’s given in women’s epee – to the Olympic team).
Amazingly, Megan Noseworthy, who I had faced two weeks earlier, was in the same pool. She was the left hander who beat me 5-1 because I froze up on the strip, paralyzed with fear that no matter what I did, she would know how to counter, so I did nothing at all (this was the "hell" I alluded to earlier). While she has done years of epee, she has been out of it recently and watching her with others, I realized that while she has fast reflexes and point control, when pushed with complex moves, she leaves openings. I felt that on my best form, I could have beaten her. Well, now she was my next opponent. We tested each other out all over again and I got a point only to have her respond. She had gotten more aggressive in the last two weeks and I guess I wasn’t the only one putting in extra training. She (along with everyone) loved to push me back and often I was within inches of going over the back line with the back line running under my toes of my front foot, however, I always stayed calm and let the distance run out. She was up 3-2 with 39 seconds to go. I waited and timed myself for a 6-4 attack because I noticed that she kept twitching her hand open if I flicked to her outside, leaving her forearm exposed. With 20 seconds left I made the attack and touched, tying it at 3-3 and decided to leave it to her, convinced I could read her arm well enough now to defend or hit her coming in. The time ran out. In the coin flip I was awarded the initiative in overtime which meant Megan now had 1 minute to get a point or I would win. She started backing me up, I waited, knowing she HAD to lunge and I saw her intention a fraction of a second before she attacked. I hit her arm coming in and that was it, bout Elizabeth 4-3. I had this uncontrollable smile when my mask came off, but refrained myself from cheering (don’t worry, Megan beat 3 other fencers, more than I did). I do wonder if she'd only had a few more weeks to practice and remember her old experience, would there have been enough openings left? I guess I’ll find out next time we’ll bout.
Okay up 2-1, this was looking better. “Who's left to fence?” I asked Linda, she went to look at the board. “You have #2, #13 and #16” she said coming back (this was the rankings assigned fencers based on skill coming into the nationals. Since the #1, Sherriane Schalm-Mackay did not show up that meant that the left hander Ainsley Switzer assigned #2 actually became the number #1 seed at the nationals. She is also number one in the Canadian national rankings and has moved up to be #37 in the world. So, I wasn't planning on winning a bout against her...yet. Of the other two fencers, one was woman with black short hair named Keating (who looks a lot like me in her fencing stance) and a blonde woman named Grant who seemed to love to go up and down hitting feet and wrist with equal deadliness (and who frankly scared the crap out of me): she’s tenth in the Canadian national rankings. I faced Keating first and went in with a, “I’m going to win or die” attitude. Keating was fast and deadly quick and was soon up 3-1. I turned up the aggression a bit and got an arm hit. At 4-2, I lunged, she retreated and I kept up a series of fast explosive lunges which each came faster and faster. These had her retreating so quickly that she lost her stance, opening up her body and allowing me to tag her right before she fell off the piste completely scrambling to get away from me (I don't know why I have that effect on so many people?). Now it was 3-4, this, the voice of strategy would say, would be when you want the time to run out and take a close loss to a high ranked fencer. Screw that! I set up my play to get inside her defense; I drew her out, parried, lunged and watched as my blade tip skidded across her stomach without going off, she countered and there we stood, my blade still sticking at the edge of her side, without a hit: 5-3.
I knew what the problem was; my shoulder was too tense, and it was costing me point control. But, hey, for some reason, I was really, really tense and on edge and couldn’t seem to find that inner calm. But hey, you work with what you have. My feeling was that I took my shot and made it past her guard, maybe next time, I’ll have more control and we’ll be at 4-4.
To speed things up they put Grant and myself on another strip. I was very wary of Grant because for me, being so tall, the foot and knee are a big target, especially for someone who like to attack the foot like Grant. I stayed still but ready as she moved around, testing me, and suddenly exploded into a lunge which slammed into her neck. “Yes!” I thought as she staggered backward, “I’m in the game.” Being up 1-0, I decided to wait for her attack and try to get another on an arm touch while retreating. There was a flurry of attacks and counter attacks between us and suddenly it was tied. Grant didn’t get to be tenth in Canada without being very sly. So every time she would try to attack my foot, she would pull my tip down with her, and by the time I flipped it free, the opening on her shoulder was gone. By the time I figured out that Grant was NEVER going to attack me without making sure my blade tip was bound, pushed, beaten or otherwise engaged I was down 3-1. It was, I decided, time to return to the attack. What I didn’t know was that I had returned to the second of my old, bad habits (bad habit number one is pulling my arm back to my hip after an attack instead of keeping it out at distance to threaten): that with my tense shoulder, I was rolling my shoulder forward just before each lunge; which to a fencer as attuned as Grant was as good as shouting “INCOMING!” (I guess this is why you practice “follow the point” lunges 1000 times, because once you get tired, and tense and desperate, things fall apart). The rest of the match was like one of those dreams when no matter how hard you chase someone down a long corridor, they just keep getting farther and farther away. Score at end: 5-1.
Okay, my best two chances to winning a third bout and avoiding the cut after the pools were gone. That meant only one thing: I needed to beat the number one Canadian fencer. Switzer is a lefty who uses a long French grip which she holds at the very end, giving her 4 inches longer reach, at least. It is angulated and she holds it out from her body so that the other fencer creates a triangle between her blade and her body. I watched her bouts carefully and saw again and again that the slightest lunge would, without her even bringing in her arm, immediately get her tip point to close the triangle and should would get a shoulder hit point coming in from 6th position. It was deadly and effective. When she wasn’t threatening body parts, she was “whipping”, using her long French grip to throw her tip over my guard to touch my hand. Over time, that gained her a point and I was down 2-1. I was not, however, discouraged, as I had found Switzer’s weakness, and was now waiting to try and exploit it, all I needed was her to extend her arm. She made a short lunge, and BAM: parry and a low lunge to her left side abdomen, right under her arm: 2-2. She had the same weakness as Amanda; she was so dominant with her parry, that she wasn’t used to being attacked on the outside or directly under her arm. The problem was, with her triangulation system, I needed her to move her arm before it would work. While waiting for that chance, she hit my foot with precision and speed to put herself ahead with another point (as you can see in this 4 second video): 4-2.
I took a chance with a lunge to the outside of her lefty guard, and as she pulled her arm back, I whipped the point circular attack lunge to try and hit her shoulder, it skittered past her helmet at high speed and I leapt back – good plan, bad point control. With another feign I got to extend her arm and lunged again to her side, this time however she extended to get the double points. Game over Elizabeth, Switzer wins: 5-3.
After we took off our helmets I told her, “Give me 5 more points and I’ll have you.” She thought this funny for some reason. We went off and talked a bit; actually I think I was having a bit of “fencer high” and did a lot of talking. I also met her friend, Katherine Durrell who lives in Ohio, fencing both US and Canadian events and will be at next weeks NAC (so say hi from me if you see her!). I think the three of us got on well because all three of us were in our 30’s, there without coaches; being there because WE wanted to be there and to fence. This may also be why we were the only ones cracking jokes (there were quite a few stone faced 20 year olds+ with coaches and entourages behind them). I had told Linda not to bother looking at the list because when you lose a couple bouts 5-1 and only win 2 bouts there is no way I was making it out of the pools. Then Katherine said, “but you did, I think, I thought I saw your name.” Linda ran over and she was right, I did make it out of the pools. I just couldn't believe it. Alright, goal number 1 accomplished! (I want to point out here that I was NOT the last person to avoid the cut, I was the SECOND to last person to avoid the cut). Now all I needed was to win two DE and get to superpools.
Due to a change from last year, the top 4 from pools were given “byes” directly the superpools instead of the top 16 or so getting a “bye” on their first DE. What this meant to me was that instead of getting someone sort of close to me in skill (I was rank 29 in DE), like facing number 25, I was instead facing #4, a red haired 20 year old named Brita Goldie.
I had met Brita in line checking when when I tried to make some conversation and compared the set-up to Seattle before asking her how she found it; “I usually do the world cup circuit” was her stone faced comment before deliberately turning around. O...kay.
At the strip, she had a coach, and a whole entourage on her end and I had..well me (and Linda). I thought, “Okay, she’s kinda cold and robotic, and #4, so let’s see what will mess with her mind.” So I decided after playing around to go for a hit on her thigh; kind of a message of “hey look, I can hit you where I want.” It worked and we doubled 1-1. Then she got me with a lunge. And later in a tussle, I countered and we were 2-2. “This isn’t so bad.” I thought. “You can do this, just stick to your game, make her come to you.” Well, that was the last coherent thought I had for a while as Goldie started pounding me with this lunge that I literally COULDN’T SEE. I could feel her binding my blade, and I could feel her as she arrived at my neck, but I could figure out what she was doing. I tried retreating more, I tried picks at her hand, but she just kept pounding me.
Linda filmed one of the attacks and after the event, watching it about 12 times, I STILL couldn’t see what she was doing, so we did it frame by frame (16 frames a second). And this is how she did it: As she lifted her foot to start the lunge she would drop her hand slightly pulling it in toward the body, then explode forward into her lunge without extending her arm. Halfway though the lunge she would whip up her arm using the blade and arm to cut across the outside of my blade/arm (in 6) pushing them down in a bind and her tip would arrive, at her full extension, at my neck. The ENTIRE lunge including arm movements takes 3/8th of a second from her start to when the tip touches my neck. It is simply amazing. She may project all the personality of a dead trout but what an awesome attack! There is a video here – I recommend if you want to see what she is doing, watch it several times; first watch her sword arm to notice when it drops, next time watch beside her head and you will see the blade reappear at high speed arcing toward me, it arrives at my neck next and only then am I able to free my arm and raise it in defense.
The first 3 minutes ended and I was down 11-2 and feeling like I was fighting the invisible woman. Her coach was in close conference with her. What I did not know right then was that Goldie last year was the #1 High Performance Junior fencer currently the #2 ranked National senior fencer (after Switzer). I turned to find some support and it happened that Switzer was in the lane next to me, doing her DE and taking her 1 minute break. “I’m getting killed” I told her, “I’m trying to do defense hits and she is hitting me with lunges I can’t even see.”
“Extend your guard” Switzer advised, “and start attacking.”
That made sense to me, so I thanked Switzer and made a new plan (have you noticed that somehow the top fencers help me with advice at competitions? I think it is the teary eyes). We were called to position and I came out with a guard 4-5 inches further out, played around for just 3 second before BAM, straight to her shoulder. Point Beth. I just turned around and walked back to the line; let’s get it on, I’ve got less than 3 minutes to make 10 points. It was a completely different game. I went out, I picked either elbow, bicep or shoulder, I hit it, I turned around and I walked back to the line. Lunge – double, lunge – point, lunge – double. I never even looked at Goldie's face, I was so “in the moment” though Linda, watching said that after I impacted her with one lunge, Goldie snarled. All I know is that it became clearer and clearer that Goldie wanted me off that strip in the worst possible way. It was 13-6 and instead of letting me get a chance to lunge she came out and we met with a flurry of in-fighting, I could see the target but couldn’t free my blade; I brought it round and just before it touched I felt her blade touch me: 14-6. I actually fell to my knees from the force of disappointment. With one point to go, she would go for the double, my comeback was just about over. I however underestimated the intensity in which Goldie wanted me off that strip. As immediately after the call to fence she fleched wide, throwing herself almost vertical in the air to make a hit sideways on my guard arm.
We shook hands and it was over. Goldie would go on to take out Keating (from my pool) next before continuing to take silver and second place. I always feel that my opponents, particularly if they win, should either come off with a feeling of “thank God that’s over” (like I think Keating did), pissed off at me (Goldie) or wanting more. What I realized afterward is that because I do so much defense the one thing most fencers don’t see from me are my attacks, they are my “secret game” – and if I had a “do over” it would be to start my bout with Goldie with the ruthless attacking mindset I came out of the break with. But then...life doesn’t have do overs.
The previous night I had met Maica from Quebec, we had circled each other warily under she found out that I had only been doing fencing 8-9 months at which point all her fear of me disappeared (She was ranked 17th and got eliminated by Amanda). A couple people including a coach told me that people had said they had seen good hits from me (I found this hard to believe then another person told me they watched my bout). I was asked by several women why they hadn’t seen me at national events before, so I told them “I’ve just come back from the UK”, not, “Well, gee, I’ve had 10 one on one lessons from my coach from 25-40 minutes long so I thought I might as well come to the nationals – but don’t worry about experience, I spent some months trying to figure out the sport on my own.” There was no question I had the least experience there (by several years). Katherine Durrell and I talked about the difficulties the CFF gives adults who try and learn the sport, since she can’t get into the HPP program because she learned epee in college (she had about 10 years training). If you don’t start at 15, Canadian Fencing doesn’t want to know about it. This is where the US with the different levels of nationals is better because it means that an adult can pick up the sport and actually go and feel they have a chance of making the top 16 in their division. This is not to say that I won’t make the top 16 in Canada, just not this year. Unfortunately starting next year, the Canadian nationals are closed except to: all people in the HPP program (adult learners need not apply), the winners of each provincial championship, the quarterfinalists of the westerns and eastern championships and the top 48 ranked Canadian fencers. Does this mean that I won’t be able to go to next years Nationals? Well, let’s say that the CFF has made it a LITTLE more challenging for me – good thing I’m not the type of person to avoid challenges, eh?
There were a lot of teary eyes around the arena. In the locker room, while I was showering to change and come back, one woman just sat and sobbed, not responding to anyone, another slumped over, after losing her DE because her body cord faulted. I thought, where else do so many women pay so much money to be so unhappy? However by the time I got out of the shower things had picked up and everyone was talking tattoos, temporary tattoos, henna and colouring. There was some interest in my hair coloring (I had new bright purple streaks put in) until they found out you have to have cold showers to stop the color from running. Also, have to say that standing around talking to a bunch of half naked 20 year olds with perfect size six bodies does not always make a person feel there are in as good a shape as they should be. I mean, I know that I am tall and size 14, but honestly, when I am fencing or talking, I don’t FEEL that tall/big, only when I look back at the pictures and ask Linda, “Am I standing on a box or something?”
My goal was to 1) get out of the pool – accomplished! And 2) fence the best – I fenced the number 1 and number 2 in Canada (the number 1 happened to be the number 37 in the world). And while I haven’t yet made them fear the name Elizabeth, I think they at least KNOW the name now, and let’s face it, I’m pretty much on a steep growth curve here – so I look forward to fencing them again (particularly Ainsley Switzer; I’m pretty sure I haven’t unearthed all her tricks yet). As for rating the fencing level of women at the Canadian nationals: it was intense. Unlike other competitions there were no people who were going to be “easy” (for instance Fournier, the woman whose bout I felt in complete control with was the only one to beat Switzer). From the women in Seattle tournament I felt that only maybe 6-8 would be at equal level with ANY of the women at this competition, and likely only 1 or 2 get beyond the first DE.
Right now, I am at the top of the bottom 1/3 of the women at the nationals (#33 out of 45). I might have moved up a few places by playing “strategically” but hey, that’s me. Right now, I want to find the way in the next few months to a) leap into the middle of the pack (say #25), b) get a 3 or 4 bout wins, and c) get past the first DE. So back to practice, the grindstone, and more tournament experience (as long as the money holds out). On that note, last night I signed up for THE BATTLE OF SEATTLE taking place Jan. 21st. And whatever the outcome, you already know I am going there to win (or at least lose really, really spectacularly!)