Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Battle of Seattle Sunday I: Women's Epee; hitting the pools

We arrived at the hall at noon, and got our equipment and blades checked out. This was Linda’s first tournament and many fencers couldn’t understand why I would so strongly encourage Linda, who had only picked up an epee four weeks before to come and compete (indeed I had this exact conversation with a woman going around the country photographing epee competitions). First, I understand Linda, someone who likes to see "the big picture" and a person who on getting an extremely techincal government job was told it would take "two years" to learn, was TEACHING courses on doing the job within six months (she learns quick). As a fencer, she already had a good foundation from foil in footwork and stance and has great hand eye coordination and control. This would be an opportunity for her not only to fence 10 different women and get a sense of different styles in women’s epee but to also get the social and concentrated “feel” of a tournament. As anyone who has been to a tournament knows, a club bout and a pool bout are completely different things and until you experience that, it can often be abstract theory.

Jackie from Alaska was there, her sister who came with her for the September tournament was not but she had come with her own coach. Marla Clem, a bouncy blonde from Seattle, was there and looking very fit and energetic. I asked her to warm up a little with Linda because Marla is a like a friend we had in Wales; she is short and somewhat stocky and you think that she isn’t going to be athletic (Our friend in Wales saw that look on my face and said, “I did the London Marathon last year”, she also was the Welsh Judo Champion). Marla really moves, and lunges, and counters and does everything and anything you don’t think she is going to do all while being very nice and perky and cheerful. I warmed up with Helen Jolley from Oregon who had nice stop hits and we had fun. Helen and Marla ended up in the same pool as Linda while I ended up in “hell pool” with EVERYONE I dreaded from last time: Brigit Salas, Ellery Tucker-Williams and Sutton were all in my pool. And if it was bad for me, Josephine Rorburg, who I had fought yesterday and beaten 5-1 was also in the pool, so I am imagining if I was going “Oh no!” she was going “super oh no!” (Our one pool took 50% of the first 6 places – so yeah, it was a tough pool).

After my squeaking by at Canadian Nationals and my getting (insert appropriate body part here) stomped on the day before, I was really asking myself, “Why have I been doing all this training?” I just couldn’t tell if I was getting better or not, since I never seemed to be moving ahead. Today, I thought, would be the final indication of whether I was to forever be a fencer barely making it or whether I was improving my skills. This tournament was just under four months since my last Seattle tournament and I was facing the same fencers. Emotionally, I was low. I had the exhaustion you get from being in very severe constant pain. And when I went into the change room, I just sat on the stool and looked at my bag and tried not to cry. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to have to put that fencing gear on. I had tried so hard in the last six weeks (and failed) that I didn’t think I could try anymore.

I did change and when I came out I told Linda and we asked Jackie for some pain pills, which she gave and then gave me a banana (against my protests) for my ailments. It is hard to be friends and competitors but she manages. Before my bouts I will give a brief rundown of Linda’s bouts, since during breaks we mostly ran to each other and she would say, “I got 3 points that bout” or “I got 4-5”. Linda’s first bout was with Helen from Oregon who treated her very cautiously. Linda has a unique guard in that she puts her elbow against to hip to make sure her arm doesn’t get tired (when she is more experienced the guard will move out) and instead works on not showing any arm behind the guard. So she has good looking arm form, plus, the guard is so far back it sucks other fencers in close enough that she can easily hit you just by extending her arm (which we practiced with the ping pong ball). She also has a good sense of counter-time attack and can really charge! Tournaments are hard because you are so busy trying to DO stuff that you often forget what you were going to try to remember to do. So I make her an acronym M.A.C.E for Move, Attack, Counter-Attack and Extend the arm: the only four things she would need to remember (this tournament). I also showed her before we came the way lefties attack and how to beat them.

In her first bout with Helen, she took her all the way to 4-4 before losing at 5-4. She then went 4-4 AGAIN with Karen Portch but lost. Something she learned this trip was that 4-4 at a tournament is different than at the club and her opponents will be taking more chances and being more on edge and she needs to be that way too if she wants to win. With the B ranked lefty Anna Telles, she got three points, which made her proud (since Anna ended up 3rd over all), which is the same score I got with Anna after 5 months of fencing (Linda says after watching me fence for 10 months, she has picked up a lot of strategy). She got three points on Marla as well as two points on the underrated E Jackie from Alaska (I am convinced if Jackie was living somewhere within 1500 miles of tournaments, she would already be a D).

Linda's last opponent was Kundry, another B ranked fencer. As you can see in the picture, Kundry could see how far back Linda’s guard was and with Linda’s lack of strong attacks, Kundry crept in until her blade tip was up to Linda’s guard. At that point, Kundry only need a very short fast lunge to close the final distance before Linda could react in time. In the picture you can see Kundry is getting Linda to commit to a defence in 4, and is about to lunge to her outer arm in 6. Kundry won 5-0 (and gave a few bruises). Linda was happy she had gotten so many points on most people as her indicators were pretty much the same as people who had won a bout, however she had secretly hoped she would win at least one bout! But she had a couple close bouts, and I think in a few months she will definitely win at least one in the next tournament. Most of her opponents were very positive and complimented her strong points post bout. When people asked how she did, she named dropped Anna shamelessly, saying she got three points on her. Which was, admittedly, pretty impressive.

As for me, I was taking pictures of Linda. I was tired and I was trying to MAKE myself care, doing some high leaps in place to try and get the adrenaline going. My first bout was with Cynthia Glover and I soon had a 3-1 lead when I could hear what sounded like someone on the strip behind me talking. I was backing up and waiting until Glover gave me an opening because I was hoping I could end this first bout 5-1. But I kept hearing those voices; two guys talking. I looked back and again. Glover used my lapse of attention to lunge and I countered, a double. Ooooooooh, I was irked. I looked and there were two guys in the corner, but as our strip was in the corner as well, their voices were bouncing off the brick walls. Okay, problem solved. I went out to find the final lunge (probably on 6 to the outside arm), when someone shouted, “Move more” Who were they talking to? It took me another moment to figure out it wasn’t me but that Glover was getting some “on strip” coaching. Bam! Bout over 5-2. Maybe it is because I don’t HAVE a coach but I really don’t like on-strip coaching.

My next bout was with the lefty Rorburg from the day before. I had figured out where I had left myself open and did 5 straight counters to her upper shoulder when she dropped her arm to attack me. 5-0. I hated doing that. One of the things I am having difficulty with is being “that fencer” – you know, the tough fencer who takes out almost everyone (I overheard someone saying something not so nice about Tucker-Williams as I stood talking to her father; that wasn’t a good moment, and I’ve heard people say things about me too). Honestly, I like being friends with people but I could understand when Rorburg wasn’t too happy to see me. Her face after the bout reminded me of the day before when Rose Theresa and I had bouted together to warm up for the mixed epee and she said how she had been fencing three years and how sometimes it was frustrating to still not to be doing well at tournaments. She wasn’t, thankfully in my pool, but I understand her frustration (because I felt it yesterday, and at Nationals). She has a very nice underhand pick since she is small and I hope she finds a coach that helps her have a really good tournament.

Finally I get my rematch with Birgit who says she hasn’t been practicing for months. That might be true as her style has changed slightly, and while she still comes aggressively forward, she doesn’t have the same control of distance, in attack and retreat as in September. This is not to say she is not giving me a sound spanking; it was just that she had moved down the rank from “Ultimate Fencing Goddess” to “Mortal”. She tended to lean forward to press attacks and I managed two hits on her helmet because of it. She is still very strong and manipulates your blade to create the opening. At 3-3 she did an attack on wrist immediately followed by a lunge to the thigh which hit for 4-3. Linda told me after that her husband Eugenio was standing behind me, showing her exactly which attacks to do (pointing to the wrist and then to the thigh). Sheesh, is it not bad enough I have to fight Birgit, now I have to fight her, outthink her AND outthink her husband as WELL? I told him later that next match I would be moving to block his view of anything but my ASS, and see what strategy he could come up with that! He told me to go right ahead. Hmmmm...maybe that wasn’t the threat I intended it to be. With a flurry of blades, Birgit won the bout, 5-3. Suck! Okay, NEXT time, I am going to be all over her. And I will fleche her!

By this time I was tired. Like TIRED! I mean, you know that feeling of tired where you are pretty sure you either have bone marrow cancer or leukemia. That’s how I was feeling and my next bout was with Sutton. As someone said to me, Sutton is the passive aggressive lefty fencer. I watched as she beat Tucker Williams by getting one point ahead and then getting two more as Tucker tried to get the point back, all on defense. She doesn’t tend to move, but goes up on her toes and rotates her back foot and hip so it “looks” like she is bouncing back and forth. But she isn’t. My worry was I KNEW that Sutton was going to take the whole three minutes and I wasn’t too sure at this point if I could stand up the whole three minutes. Also, if I intended on getting a bye, I needed to beat at least one of the “power three” of Birgit, Sutton and Tucker-Williams. I had blown my chance with Birgit so I better concentrate on Sutton, who I overtime....on my last DE. Not exactly a confidence booster. The only advice I took in with me was a comment from a parent about Sutton: “Sometimes you can win a bout with a coin toss.”

We played around for 40 seconds just to make sure she hadn’t changed her strategy and that YES, I was going to have to attack her if I wanted a point. I did my usual multi-attack to the hand and lunge to the body and voila! Point Beth. Sutton counter-attacked right away and I caught her shoulder coming in; suddenly I was up two points. This was looking pretty good, I just needed to play keep away. Sutton however was a foil fencer, and the day before had come in third in women’s foil. So avoiding my arm completely she did a lunge to the body. 1-2. This is when I realized that I was in trouble. Within 30 seconds she did it again and I could neither retreat, stop hit or defend fast enough to stop her. Now I knew I was in real trouble. “Time?” I asked the ref. I had 32 seconds. What Sutton didn’t know and I did is that I was too exhausted and my reaction times were too slow to be able to beat her. As it was, I was struggling to stay standing. On a good day, a different day, playing defense would be smart because it would work, today it wouldn’t. Plus, I was getting muddle headed but this I knew, if she lunged again, she would win. So I started bouncing, I started little attacks on her hand and I prayed that she would keep to form and decide to run out the time than risk attacking me. She ran out the time.

The ref asked for a call, I said “Tails”, it landed heads. I got confused and started to unclip. Someone told me that it mean I had to get a touch on her in one minute. “Oh, that again” I said, as this is the exact same scenario as the DE of September. I knew I had to lunge to her body, I did about 25 seconds of dancing around, and attacked her arm a few times to get her jittered and then lunged, half fleche, half falling toward her body. When I go, I always go 100%, no matter how low that 100% might be. I connected. Point and bout Beth. Sutton was not pleased (understatement). I think I was kneeling on the floor and someone came to help me take off my cord. If I had won the toss, I would have lost, I couldn’t have held out for a minute. Anyway, it was over. As I walked off the strip past the parent I said to him, “Sometimes a bout IS decided by a coin toss.” He smiled at me.

I talked to people to keep going, parents mostly. I am so socially trained that I can’t show how tired I am if I talk to someone. So I talked until they called the next bout for me. I was against Carola from Washington, who I hadn’t fenced before. I asked her if she had a coach here, she didn't. I told her I wanted to check because I was going to ask the ref to not allow on-strip coaching and I didn't want her to think it was something to do with her. She said she understood. I asked the ref, and he said the rule was changed and on-strip coaching is allowed. I said it seemed to give a home team advantage. He said then I should bring my coach next time. Grrr....bit of a sore point there. After the pools I asked the ref if he would coach me for my DE, he said that as he belonged to a Washington club, he should only be helping them. home team advantage eh?

Back to the bout with Carola. I hadn’t watched her bouts but she was tallish, and as I stumbled about the piste, I wondered what would happen if she was tricky. I spent 30 seconds trying out a few feints and moves and she didn’t twitch or counter so figured she was either very cautious or didn't know what to do so I lunged, point. I came out again and lunged, point. And again. I was up 3-0. Suddenly, Carola got it. She shifted over her guard so that I couldn’t lunge her arm in 4, I would have to risk the outside in 6. Normally when I fence, I am reviewing all the previous moves of a fencer in my head and comparing them to all the possible variations for a best choice. Not today, today it was simple questions: should I defend? I wondered. No, I decided I didn't think I could stand up that long. I waited for a while anyway. She didn’t attack. I lunged and she countered. Double points. Darn. She shouldn’t have gotten a double on me. I thought about working up a new plan, but in my hazy mind, that was just too hard. It was hard enough to holding onto one thought, which was, "Find opening: lunge". “I can live with a double” I thought as I lunged again. 5-2 bout Elizabeth. (Please understand, I always consider a double to be a personal failure – this is NOT normal thinking for me, but desperate and confused thinking). I complimented Carola on her quick reaction to close that line and keep her defense steady. I was at 5 bouts victory to one loss. So I smiled a little as I sank down and drank some water. It seemed all that training was some use after all.

My last bout was with arch nemesis number 2, Ellary Tucker-Williams. Her father told me she finished #63 in division one at the NAC in Columbus, OH. Amanda from Victoria, after her daily training program on the High Performance program went to the same NAC and finished #68. Amanda still kicked me around on a regular basis. Ellary's father was not giving me good news. I faced Ellary and we tested each other out, she attacked, I countered and suddenly there was an opening, and I lunged, she retreated, I kept going in with fleche as almost all female fencers are unable to stand up to a strong running attack. Both of my feet and body were in the air and Ellary was backing up, totally in control as we flew down the strip, as I swung my left foot down, I felt it catch the ground just for a split second giving me the little burst of speed I needed. I could see it in Ellary’s eyes that moment before my blade touched. Yes!

We came out both a bit more cautious and a bit more aggressive, and quickly launched together for a double. Then Ellary countered with a lunge to my foot. Ha ha! I hit her shoulder with ease. (Everyone in the club tries to hit my foot almost every bout, so knowing how to “just” pull it out of reach is something I don’t think about anymore) I was up 3-1. My brain repeated that: I was up 3-1 on Ellary Tucker-Williams! OMG! Okay, I thought, let’s time it out. I asked the ref for the time remaining: 1:52. Hmmmm, that plan wasn’t going to work. So I went on defense. We dance, I retreated and with a fast bind, Ellary was in past my guard and got the point. Now, since I can never get anyone to teach how to counter-bind or avoid binds, I am terrified of binds because as you may notice, people who know how to bind my blade tend to win by doing it again and again and again. So, if Ellary had already bound my blade once, that was it, no more defense. During the next point I could see Ellary getting ready to lunge so I pulled out a trick I had used before: fleching directly at the face of the opponent in the fraction pause while they are preparing the lunge. I have found most people, particularly female fencers get unnerved at a 200lb plus tall woman flying toward them aiming a sword directly at their face; it makes them pause a fraction of a second, and then I drop the sword tip during that fraction to hit them on the chest instead (the angulations of the helmet could cause the point to skid off, the chest is a lower risk). I saw the fraction of a second where Ellary was pausing before lunging and fleched her face. Without a hesitation, she dropped vertically to sit on her feet and I impaled myself on her sword which stuck straight up. Brilliant. Disappointing for me, but brilliant; and now it was 3-3. I’m not sure what I did after that, probably some attacks, or attack on the arm or beat attacks but this I know, the bout ended 5-3. Ellery kept her cool and came back. If I could say one word about Ellery it would be consistency – it is not that she is super-fast, or super-tricky (though she does have a few tricks I have picked up), but that she is, in every bout: consistent. And she wins out.

I met her father afterward. “I was up 3-1,” I told him.

“I know.” He replied.

“I really, really wanted that win!”

“I think she really wanted it too.”

“No, you see, I REALLY wanted that win.”

He laughed, I think he knows me too well. I sat down and had some more water. Linda came over and I consoled her on not winning a bout. I think pointing out that probably one or two of the other women were REALLY glad she was in the pool because otherwise THEY wouldn’t have won a bout today wasn’t as encouraging out loud as it sounded in my mind. Marla came by and told Linda, “Remember, you beat two women.” Linda wanted to know who. “Those two women who signed up and never showed...oh, I’m going to get that (name withheld), I mean here you come from Canada and she can’t come across town.” Marla’s a hoot! The female photographer who was taking epee pictures was moving on, so Linda had her take a picture of us together, post bouts. The family McClung goes a fencing! (and gets a lot more questions like, “So are you sisters.......?”)

The results were posted and I was 6th after pools, even with the two losses. All I could think was, “Thank goodness, I don’t have to go do a DE right away.” Linda, was 21st and though her indicators were good, as the only person to not win one bout, she ended up last out of the pools. Her first DE bout was with....wait for it..Sutton. (It’s like the Family Feud!)

Tomorrow: Battle of Seattle Women’s Epee: The DE’s and beyond.


kathz said...

I can hardly wait for the sequels.

Anonymous said...

Wow! It's epic! Great story. I loved reading it.

kathz said...

I meant to add that I think Linda's prowess is amazing - and how great for you to fence together - sisters in the sense of "sisters in arms", perhaps? (I don't think that would contradict partners or married couple and I like the phrase.)

Elizabeth said...

Yes indeed. Great story.