I found out that for my DE (Direct Elimination) I had been paired with Jackie Johnson, the woman from Alaska who not only helped me with pain pills but had given me the bottle of water I was re-hydrating with. “I did not want to get you.” I told her. And I meant it. When I had done warm ups at the September competition, a few points with her taught me that she was tricky, she knew binds, and that she was a very technical fencer. I also didn’t want her because before the competition I had been telling her about some of the medical problems I had been having over the last few months; in particular this mystery problem during extreme fencing which causes me to lose mental focus, dizziness, ability to control my extremities followed by collapse. It was becoming increasingly obvious, at least to me, as I searched for the DE strip, that something was significantly wrong with me physically. I worried it was the same problem which caused me to lose consciousness on the strip a few weeks before and I hoped that Jackie had not noticed and would not consider going easy on me or that I was trying to play mind games on her.
There was another DE on our strip, which Jackie and I would follow, so I went to go see Linda against Sutton. I had told Linda that Sutton would not attack (as she never did me or anyone else I ever saw) and gave her suggestions on what to do. But when I get to the strip, I find Sutton aggressively attacking Linda again and again. I am not sure why Sutton changed her strategy; perhaps it was because she was confidant Linda could not capitalize on the openings she was creating in her attacks or whether it was just one too many McClung’s in one day but this was a Sutton I had never seen before. Linda was hanging on in counter attacks but generally losing points 2-1. I could see Linda was tired as her tip had fallen out of line and she wasn’t retreating before Sutton’s attacks. My heart went out to her and frankly I wanted to jump on the strip and drive Sutton off. After three minutes Linda was down 6-13, which was still a respectable score. But it was obvious that Sutton was going for the kill and wasn’t about to stop attacking. I told Linda that while she had an extended left defense with her arm, she was bringing her arm back in every time she was about to extend it or attack, telegraphing her intentions. The minute was up and Linda went back, launched an attack which Sutton danced away from while tagging her for a point. There was a final flurry of in-fighting and it was over. Sutton won 15-6. I told Linda she had done a good job and it was strong fight to the end before I wandered off to sit down by my DE strip (I hope she wasn’t too disappointed as Sutton is a ranked D after all). I sipped water and waited to see if I would feel any better.
The other DE finished and Jackie and I assembled at the line and no, I didn’t feel any better. Just remember, I told myself: 15 points. My memory of this bout, unlike almost all other bouts I have done over the past year, is sketchy. There were a couple double points and I saw right away that Jackie would not be an easy opponent. I know that I caught her on offence, and that somewhere around point five she fleched, I retreated, parried and got the point. She wouldn’t fleche again (I head her coach yelling her not to) which is ironic as that was the last significant defensive movement I would make. I had beaten her fleche, I had beaten her in a stop hit on attack and I had gotten a point in a lunge and we ended the first three minutes with the score 7-4 in favor of me. Leaving the strip, I read in her body language that Jackie believed that I would out-fence her. Jackie however had a coach and conferred with her. And I could not believe, as I leaned on Linda drinking water, that she would not find one of my many weaknesses. The only thing I kept mumbling to Linda was, “It’s not enough” referring to the three point lead. I knew that my strength was almost gone and unless Jackie believed I could win, three points wasn’t going to be enough.
We came back and the way Jackie moved displayed an entirely different bearing. She now believed she could win and I could see it in the way she moved in on me aggressively. We doubled and she lunged and got a point, then came back for another. And then time became grey. I moved, or some part of me moved, and I reacted but the only thought in my head was in hanging on. And by hanging on, I mean, remaining upright. Linda said later that after that break she could see the signs and gave me only 50% chance that I would get to the end of the match without passing out. Later, I asked Jackie’s coach what she told her in the break and she said that she told her I wasn’t moving, I was just rocking back and forth and thus my timing was predictable. It was a good insight. I was in that stage you get when in a road race when your body is able to keep up a rhythm, long after you should be able to keep going. My body was doing the same.
Jackie extended into a hard lunge to my arm, breaking skin and bringing to me a wash of pain and anger. Not just another point but the point which gave her the lead. Thank God. Thanks to the abusive fencing of one of the male fencers at my club; I knew this feeling and I knew how to use it, to milk it for energy. I couldn’t do defense because I couldn’t react in time. I wasn’t sure if I could hit her arm if I aimed for it so I let the anger give me the energy to come out and lunge for the body, and lunge, and lunge. I didn’t care if I got the point or if it was a double; because at least I was still moving. Until even that anger and energy ran out.
Linda said that the ref would instruct me to come to en garde to start a point. I never heard it. All I could hear was my voice inside shouting at me; “Raise your head, yes I know it’s heavy, but come on, just this one time...I know I said that last time. RAISE your HEAD, dammit! Okay, good, you can see her can’t you, it’s only a few more points, but you have to raise your blade....raise the blade. No, don’t fall down! Just raise the blade.....good girl, good girl!” Jackie was one point ahead of me. Linda kept watching the ref, wondering if he would call the bout for medical reasons. And meanwhile I was trying to focus ten seconds at a time, or five seconds or two seconds or to just remaining standing. I knew that I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t lie down till I had that fifteen. I had to act as if the energy would come from somewhere.
Sports isn’t like Hollywood, and I don’t know if anyone outside of Linda could see the pain beyond the white of my uniform. But I have seen those few athletes who will risk everything rather than give up. I remember one Canuck hockey player in a playoff game of years ago who, the team score down, charged four opponents with the puck. It was insane. It wasn’t possible, and everyone watching knew it. And yet as he avoided the first guard and slid around the second you began to hope, that maybe this time, maybe there would be a miracle. You started to believe. Well, I got my miracle. Somewhere, somehow, my body operating on training, I got a single point. And suddenly we were tied at 13-13.
I think Jackie asked for the time, and it was 20 or 30 seconds. I don’t remember because I was just standing, my body giving little jerks as I leaned too far this way and then too far that. Two points, I told myself. I just had to get those two points. I decided to risk all on a fleche and as soon as I saw an opening I put everything I had into launching myself at Jackie. But I couldn’t control my limbs and I stumbled. Jackie’s tip hit me coming in as, out of control, I ran into her, my arms clinging to her as I tried to stop myself from sliding down to the floor. “I’m sorry.” I said, again and again. “I’m sorry.” Jackie said later that she was literally holding me up with her hands. 13-14. I couldn’t come to the line. But I must have because they called time. I had a minute. God, another minute. Linda held me upright. I didn’t have the ability to speak anymore, so I just clung to her. And then it was time to go back to the line. “More energy” is all I could remember. I don’t know what Jackie’s coach told her that break, I didn’t ask later.
When we started, I tried to do high energy jumping back and forth, to keep going, to give it all. I don’t remember how I lost the last point. I just remember knowing that it was over now and I could give into the darkness. Did I salute? Linda said she ran onto the strip and held me up. All I remember is someone trying pushing a pencil into my hand and trying to get me to initial my name. I stared at my hand, it was trembling. I stared at my other arm. It was trembling too. Linda said Jackie asked her if she would take care of me.
Linda helped carry me off. She found me a couch and pulled off my jacket and kept putting a water bottle to my mouth. She found a towel, soaked it water and put it around my head. Then she decided to take a picture? Since I was “away with the fairies” at the time, I couldn’t complain, but really, why did she want a picture? I remember starting to come to and Sutton asking Linda what happened. Linda said I had overheated and Sutton told me in a superior tone that I “should try to work on my endurance by going for a run or something the day after fencing.” If I could have crawled over to put my hands around her neck, I would have.
When I fully came to, I asked Linda, “How much time did I lose?” Linda thought about 10 or 15 minutes. And she helped me over to the strip so I could sit and root for Jackie in her bout against Ellary Tucker-Williams. I wasn’t sure if this was the quarter finals or semi-finals as I didn’t know how long I had lost full consciousness. It turned out to be the quarter-finals and Jackie was putting up a strong fight. But Ellary was always managing to keep just ahead of her. It ended 10-15.
Tucker Williams went on to fence Anna Telles in the quarter finals which was so close it was still tied in at 12 when Ellary got a lead. Telles, missing a hit, started chuckling when Tucker-Williams caught her out in a good move. Anna was still laughing when the match ended at 14-15 to Ellary. Telles projected such good humor as a person who had tried her best but this just wasn’t her day that you wouldn’t know she just lost the semi-final by one point. Ellary went on to win against Birgit as well, her consistency of performance holding her in good stead.
By now, enough time had passed that I was able to think again and begin to ponder what would haunt me for the next four days: What had happened to me? Along with this question were the feelings, at times overwhelming, of guilt and shame at failing. Not shame at failing to win, but at failing to be able to give my full game and not knowing why. Shame because the bout ended for me at 13-13, and that I couldn’t get another 45 seconds of focus or reflexive reaction from my body: That I fell across the finish line instead of running it out. Guilt that though I did not and still do not know what happened, that I was somehow responsible. That I could have prevented it from happening. Shame from letting everyone who supported me online during my training down. I looked at the final board and saw that, unlike September, when two more people or one more B ranked fencer would have meant getting I would have received a D rank, this time 6th place DID get a D rank. But, because I failed, it wasn’t to be mine. (please understand, I am not saying I would have beaten Jackie if I wasn’t ill, it simply would have been a different match, one that didn’t happen because….I don’t know).
Yes, I had had a tournament the day before but this wasn’t much different to training schedules where the last two weeks I often fenced four to five fifteen round bouts without a break after 60-90 minutes of five point bouts, followed the next day by the same routine. Two to three hours of training followed by 90 minutes to two hours the next day were so common place as to be unremarkable. But it was a few weeks ago that this mystery ailment first appeared, an exhaustion that separated me from both my energy and my neurological control. It started occurring randomly, sometimes not for two weeks, then twice in a week. Was it overheating? Was it under-eating? Low sodium? Low body fat? Heart problems? Not enough oxygen? Not enough glucose? Pain over load? Did I damage myself so much Saturday I used all my energy to heal? The night before both competitions I had a carb meal and I drank water both days. What was it? I still don’t know.
I haven’t picked up a blade since then. Only yesterday I started light exercise. From Sunday to Tuesday I could barely use my right leg, so severe was the pain. Linda keeps telling me that she knows I gave 100% to my fencing but I can’t stop thinking about those 45 seconds. I used every trick I knew to get energy and keep going including using the way a runners body can keep making the same motion, long after they should have fallen over. And yet, I failed myself and I feel I failed all who have encouraged or supported me, not because I tried my best skill and it wasn’t enough that day but because I was barely conscious.
Linda says there were two miracles that day. The first miracle was I got as far as I did as she says I had been pushing myself beyond reason for far longer than three minutes or eight, but maybe the whole previous hour. And what was I planning to do if I won? She wanted to know. What about the next DE? I hadn’t though that far ahead. I guess stay upright until I lost consciousness. She would have defaulted me.
Since Sunday I have cried a few times a day from the conviction that I failed in the trust of hope people placed in me. That I should have, somehow, found someway, to justify the belief of others that I had offered to carry.
Linda told me it is like Terry Fox; that in those last few weeks, he probably pushed himself harder against the pain so that he wouldn’t let people down, but that at the end, he was just physically unable to continue. She said that while people may have rooted for him to recover and continue, they weren’t upset at him for letting them down.
“But I bet he was,” I say.
So I am very sorry to anyone out there who I let down. Please believe that I did not do so deliberately or in any way that I could see how to prevent.
I will be going to a doctor; probably a lot of doctors because if it happened once it could happen again. If it is my heart, I will have to choose between the operation or the beta blockers. As for rest, I wait...in limbo.
Will I fence epee again? Will I compete again? I don’t know. Am I a person who can face the full agony of defeat and stand again willing to risk the same road leading to the same outcome? I don’t know but I suspect I will; after all, isn’t that what we all hope for: the hero to stand back up?
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