Well, I went down saying I was going to open a can of whoop-ass on those male fencers. Someone, I think, must of have shook it up first because somehow THEY weren’t the ones getting the beating. My fencing tournament day actually started Friday morning when I found out that my lower right leg was severely infected.
A few days ago, I received a strong epee hit to the top shin which dug out a chunk of flesh out of me. I cleaned up the blood, bandaged it and went on my way. But it started to hurt. By Friday, when the doctor removed the bandages a 2 by 1 inch section of shin was raw, infected oozing membrane, and the parts of the shin that weren't yet oozing, were red and inflamed. There were, as yet, no maggots. So when I blogged thursday that I felt flush and dizzy and flu-like; that might have been blood poisoning. Anyway, I got two prescriptions (one for curing the infection and the other prescription for when the first one doesn't cure it) and off to Seattle I went!
Saturday morning, 8 am and I am up, almost awake and getting my equipment checked. Guys are already running up and down in salle, they are serious...very serious. I try to chat with some, ask where they are from. They give curt answers, so serious are they. Either that or focused, or seriously focused, or just boring. So, by default, I end up with the other nine women in the event and we hang together. It is already an us versus them atmosphere (since the guys treated us as at best an annoyance and at worst with complete dismissal). And when you try to connect with guys talking about women's epee, you might as well be talking about the sport of watching grass grow. Come on guys, I know that fencing has it’s own little world but as epeeists, knowing who Sherraine MacKay shouldn’t be out of consideration for A ranked males should it (since you know....she wrote a book last year....on epee fencing?). Sherraine MacKay is the world champion female epee fencer, first North American one too (Canadian!). As one looked at me and said dismissively, “I don’t do the women’s circuit.” (you know who you are Josh!) Okay, whatever buddy. There were 70 people signed up for mixed epee but only 60 showed up. However, of the 15 A ranked fencers, 14 showed up (plus Jeff Bowman), which meant that this was a "top heavy" event. In fencing, the higher the letter, the better the fencer; so an A is supposed to be national elite level (I am an E with bitterness at not being a D). So, looking at 15 really, really good male epeeists. Then we get to the really, really almost as good male epeeists (B ranked).
I had what is known as a “tough” pool. There were two A ranked fencers (a left hander named Josh Conner and Nathaniel Strauss), a B from California named Contway(who an A ranked male on the strip next to me kept saying to me, “I know he is an A, he won it from me in the finals last summer”). A C ranked male, Friedman, who was at the junior Olympics, a lefty woman named Rorburg and me. With 6 fencers in the pool we should have one in each 10 point area - instead our pool had 2 fencers in top 9 places and all the males in the top 30. That equals a "tough" pool.
Okay, lets get back to the fencing. I started with Friedman, who had this move where he flipped my blade aside and then flipped it back and hit me. I don't know why it worked three times in a row....but it did. I never win first bouts. My ancestors were cursed 100 years ago for buying the last issue of the 1907 Christmas Annual ahead of a bitter spinster with occultic powers and now, I have to pay the price. Or...I just don't get my head in the game until the second bout. I was like, "That sucked but now I am really to focus." I didn't know that I had just lost to the "easiest" male.
I had come today to beat men, plain and simple. I knew that meant a lot more movement; a lot more stopping fleches, some longer lunges, faster reactions and extreme effort. I soon found out that with A ranked or elite male fencers, pretty much everything I know and have been trained with epee is useless. First off, they don’t have an epee form, they just keep their hands by their side. Nor do they use traditional footwork but bounce around. So, I could throw out what I had learned from the few lessons with Mr. Ho: beat attacks, attacks on stationary hands, etc.
I faced Strauss next (he finished 7th overall), and found that the only way to attack him was long lunges, which he would counter attack (which is about the only time he raised his sword). I found that he was just slightly underestimating my reach. He got the first two hits but by the third hit I had the distance and got him, only he got me in counter attack and again, score 4-2. I was going to try a long, long lunge when he fleched me, end of game, 5-2.
By this time the other woman, Rorburg and I are eying each other up because we realize after watching these guys that the bout between us is likely the only one where ONE of us will win a bout. Our bout was next and though she was a lefty, I took and early lead of 2-1 and then every time she would try and come in, I would just keep hitting her outside shoulder to win the bout. Which was good because most of the bout I was thinking "Don't think about what will happen if you lose this bout, about how you will finish without a single win...and don't screw this up!"
Josh Connor was next and everyone seemed pretty terrified of him, because he was young, cocky and left handed (oh and seemed to win a lot) since he was undefeated so far in our pool and ended pools fourth overall. However, since I seem to fence an average of three lefties a tournaments, I wasn’t particularly concerned. Josh didn’t seem concerned with me either, until he fleched me and I doubled. I went on the attack, and he countered, point Josh. Then he fleched again and I got a point on his approach. Josh was faster than me, sure, but I was taller than him and as long as I got my arm above his on his fleche, I could counter. He decided to try for a toe hit. BAD IDEA! Every single elite fencer tries to toe hit me and overall, I am way ahead in hitting them on the shoulder as they drop down than they are on hitting me on the toe. Still, I was downn 3-4 when he fleched again. I got my arm up and felt my tip run along his outer arm but the light never lit, and bam! I was out (Josh Conner finished 9th). However, since he seemed to terrify everyone else, I name dropped him shamelessly whenever someone asked how I did: "I got 3 points off Josh Connor." They would look me over, "Wow." (I was tempted to add a bit about making him cry with the shoulder hit, but thought that might be pushing it).
I had fought three guys, I had lost to three guys. I don't get it, I beat club guys all the thime. What was going wrong. The last guy left in the pool bouts was Contway; the same guy who had beaten both Strauss and Josh in pools (not a good sign for me).
Linda had been taking pictures of my bouts with Conner and in every shot, Contway is in the background staring....at me (go back and look at the Josh pictures). My impression (after the event) is that while Contway may not be as young or flexible as his opponents (he had more braces on than I have ever seen before on an athlete, I don’t think there was a single unbraced joint) – he was a great tactician. I asked around about his style and everyone said the same thing, that he fleches...a lot. Last guy, so I went into the bout with a win or die attitude and started aggressive by doing all sorts of long lunges. I mean really long lunges, with fast recoveries. This was the guy I needed to beat. Contway, like the mature male fencers I fenced, didn’t have a problem backing up, in fact, there was a sensation of constant pulling and pushing in the space between us. This space and their lowered hand gave Conway the ability to often simply avoid the blade completely. Like the boxer said, the best way to box is not get hit, and the way Josh, Contway and Strauss fenced was to never allow the tip of a lesser fencer near enough to hit them. I charged Contway and there was an in-fight. I lost. I decided to charge and lunge him. I lost. At 2-3 I actually said, “When are you going to fleche?” Apparently never. Soon I was down 2-4 and I was going to play my last card: the super-lunge. When the referee says “fence” I can, if I explode with all my strength, do a sliding lunge the entire distance between the two starting positions. The two starting positions are 4 meters from each other, just over 12 feet. The referee called us to position...ready.....fence. I immediately took a half step forward, to steal 6-8 inches and my back leg exploded with my super-lunge, and I rocketed forward in full extension. Then I watched my blade tip, aiming for his shoulder, just miss him as he twisted his whole body downward and sideways. I let out a little shriek at the miss and waited the half second for his counter hit. Bout Contway. He was pretty friendly and I think shook up as a little with my last lunge because he kept showing how he reflexively just somehow twisted away. I wanted to know why he didn’t fleche. He said that watching me in with Josh Conner, I was getting 50% of the points against people who fleched me, so he decided it wasn’t worth the risk. See, the only guy who respected me enough to actually work out a strategy to MAKE SURE and win.
So, that’s it, pools are over and I hadn’t beaten a single guy, I am in 46th position and for the DE, I got a guy called John Varney who is in 19th place. I looked him over and he seemed to have some grey hair so I told people my plan was to “wear him down.” Everyone I told that to was soon bent over in hysterical laughter. There were, I concluded, some pretty odd people in Seattle. What they knew and I didn’t was that Varney was the number 1 veteran male fencer in North America, is currently #2 for the US and the current #1 epee male points holder for Western Washington. Knowing absolute NONE of this, I went over and asked him if he had any tips for me on how I might best go about beating him. Some weaknesses he might want to share at this time? He smiled but said that no, nothing he wanted to share. He was ranked 19, I was ranked 46. I told him I was sorry but I REALLY did need to win and I would likely be doing moves he had never seen before. I also warned him that I sometimes laugh when I miss very badly, so I wasn’t laughing at him. He said he understood and we were called to the strip.
For the first three minutes I worked on a tight defense and counter attacks. John Varney twice got me by getting me to roll my hand inward in a counter parry and then hitting the 1/8th of an inch of pinkie I showed. Very tricky. But I corrected that and at the end of the first three minutes it was still close at 3-7. I had done all that my defense could do and realized that while I could probably slow his points even further while picking up a few points, I was still going to lose. He was more accurate and more experienced and I was the one sucking wind, not him. Go out with dignity? Naw, remember, I wasn’t there to lose.
In the second three minutes I went on the attack: lunges, long lunges, again and again, lunges with secondary lunges, leaping attacks, anything to get past his guard. We went corp-a corp-six times (when you are both so close you are almost touching but you have both missed your targets and are trying to hit the other person before they hit you - other people might call it "blind and frantic jabbing"). I lost all six times. At one point I did everything I could to either push him off the strip of make him fleche – no matter what he counter attacked with, I blocked and lunged, forcing him back, but I just couldn’t force him off the strip. In the end, I leapt almost literally into his lap, missed him, and ran past. So the ref started us up again. This time I feinted to his wrist and then jumped under his sword and poked at his leg....and missed, I poked again, and missed, I poked again and just as my sword was about to hit, his blade got my back (Linda said a parent was shouting “poke him again, keep poking!” to me). I started laughing. I mean, you have to don’t you? I was down 4-13, crouched under a man’s blade poking at his leg and I miss three times? Linda said afterwards that I moved more in this match than she had ever seen before. I also did the bouncing footwork the entire time as well. Must be why I was seeing those floating black dots. By point 14 I was laughing so hard that the referee was laughing as well. It’s not that I wasn’t trying, it is just that he wasn’t hittable. So I lost 15-4.
Afterward everyone came up and told me how good he was and how he was Veteren champion. Even George Tidrick (14th out of pools) came up later and told me I did very well. As George put it, “Don’t feel bad, you got twice the points on him that I did.” (George faced him after me and lost 15-2; John Varney was eliminated by the Canadian Habib Farooq who went on to come in second).
It was, everyone said, a very, very hard tournament. Most of the men who won their first 15 point direct eliminations were the guys used to winning all the tournaments in their club. The guys who advanced after winning their second direct eliminations were the ones who won state, or region, or division competitions. The only surprise for people was Canadian Jeff Bowman who was listed as a C. "How is he doing it? He's only a C" people were muttering.
“But it’s a Canadian C!” I would try to explain, since there were 4 times the number of A’s in this one tournament than in all of Canadian male epee fencing. Canada is really, really stingy with rankings. I think you might get a cape and special rocket boots if you are an A ranked Canadian fencer. (Monica Kwan, who won three nationals in a row and is ranked #65 or so internationally was and might still be a B ranked Canadian fencer). Jeff went on to win the tournament easily, his only tough match was his last against the Canadian Habib. For example, by the table of 16 it was pretty much A’s against A’s as the Canadian epeeist Habib, after beating Veteran champion John Varney faced Birgit’s Husband and ex-international fencer Eugenio Salas (who has won almost every Washington and Oregon Tournament in the last two years), who he beats 15-14. Get the idea?
All I knew was that my thighs were killing me, as in “ow, ow” every step killing me particularly the right thigh, particularly going up or down stairs. I measured the thigh and it is now 70% the size of my waist at 25 inches around (can anyone say “freakish>” – I did when I saw it in the mirror – “Come look Linda, I’m a kangaroo!”). I ended up 46th out of 60, which was 3rd out of the females who came. I still believe that I can beat MANY guys in epee, but until they put me in a pool with at least a D or a couple C ranked epeeists (or forbid, even an E, the same ranking as me), I guess we won’t find out?
While I was there, most of the women were very “up” and friendly and there was a definite fencer buzz as we rooted for ANY women to win ANYTHING. But afterward, I had a bad case of the blues and felt like crying. The tournament I had supposedly come for (Women's Epee) was tomorrow, my body currently felt like it had flopped down several flights of stairs and all I could hope was that tomorrow wouldn’t be a repeat of today.
What is the solution to teary eyes? Carbs and credit cards. I went out for a bite and we went shopping. Linda and I left the Seattle club at 2:00 pm and we didn’t stagger back to the hotel until 9:00 pm (and ordered in pizza). Now, you might ask, is it wise, after one tournament and with another the next day to walk endless blocks hauling around seven hours worth of shopping? Damn straight it is. Seattle is just as much a vacation for us as it is a sports event; and part of this whole attempt to not get so down is making sure there is "more" in my life than fencing...like huge debt...no I mean like NEW CLOTHES! So spending a few hundred dollars is the “more” in my life, particularly when I cleaned up at the Victoria Secret sale. One good thing about the whole superwork-out aspect is that the “Active wear” in Victoria Secret (which is often more revealing about bumps and body curves than being naked) is you can finally wear it AND look in the mirror. With my ever thinning waist, I also got size 13 jeans (Linda is not so in love with my plan to lose “just a bit more” so I can buy size 12 jeans). Linda did very, very well at Old Navy getting a bag o new clothes for her and then we had to go to REI to buy a new backpack to carry all our clothes back home. See how sensible we are.
I would like to say there is a happy ending to this day, but truth was, once I stopped moving it was pretty painful. That night, I was using a platinum strength muscle relaxant, valium, and a prescription painkiller they gave me at the hospital once as an interim drug to take me off morphine: all mixed with wine in order to get a few hours sleep, repeated as pain pulled me awake every 3-4 hours. If you want to know how part of me felt, then imagine a supernova out in space, a fireball of constant eruptions and unbearable heat. Now put that supernova in your right thigh. Until about 6 am, it felt like my leg was trying to explode but somehow the skin was JUST keeping it from succeeding. Thus ends day one of the Battle of Seattle, in semi-conscious dreams, drugs and delirium.
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