The 30th Olympiad came to a close just 48 hours ago, but it already feels like the Olympic spirit has left the building. I, for one, am not quite ready to end the Olympic celebration, so I am going to keep the party going with…fencing!
Fencing began in Spain in the 1450’s and spread abroad through battlefield encounters with other nations. Modern fencing is one of only five events that have been a part of every Summer Olympics since the birth of the modern Olympic movement in 1896. The Boston Fencing Club traces its roots back even further, to 1858. It’s the oldest fencing club in the country, so it seemed like the most appropriate place to pick up a sword – specifically a foil – for the first time.
I started my evening of being en guard” with a private lesson with Adam, one of the club’s instructors, whom was a collegiate fencer and is a great teacher. We went over the basics including the three styles of fencing (foil — which I would be learning — sabre and epee), where I should be aiming (the upper torso) and how one scores (in foil, just a clean touch with the tip of the blade). He outfitted me in all the necessary gear and I stepped on to the strip (the area that acts as the boundary in which one fences).
When Adam and I said “en guard” for the first time, I felt my pulse quicken. I was loaded with plastic and canvas protection, and the tip of the foil was not particularly sharp, but I was nervous that I would hurt Adam if I stuck him. A few times I actually asked him if my “touches” hurt. Of course they didn’t, but I think I was having trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that I was waving a sword at another person.
It’s not surprising that I was worried about Adam’s safety, and not necessarily my own. I do that a lot. I worry about my family and friends and I have a track record of compromising myself in favor of others. Depending on the circumstances, this can make me a very devoted friend, or alternatively, a masochist…and now I was brandishing a sword.
As we got going, Adam advised me to stop “bouncing around.” Fencers tend to move almost as a reflection of their opponent. If one takes a step back, their opponent will advance in their direction trying to push their opponent back, closer to the edge of the strip. I had not realized it, but I must have been hopping instead of fencing. Not the most aggressive or intimidating look, I’m sure.
After some initial sparring, Adam introduced the concept of “right of way.” In the simplest terms, the rule dictates that if both fencers touch one another at the same time, the fencer who began the offensive action gets the point. This may not sound all that complicated, but when you are on the strip with a sword in your hand and you have someone trying to stick you, it becomes difficult to keep track of who has right of way. This rule exemplified how subtle yet complex this sport is. Fencers must keep track of who has the right of way, while still being present in the moment, trying to “touch” your opponent while moving and blocking in an attempt to avoid being “touched” yourself.
Adam and I sparred a while and then I joined Adam’s adult class which, while filled with novice fencers, had weeks of experience on me. When I stepped onto the strip with my new opponents my adrenaline was really pumping. I felt as nervous as if the sword in my hand was real and sharp. If you had asked me about the lesson I had just learned, I probably would have said “right of what?”
I felt my heart pumping, and the killer instincts I never knew I had took over. I still felt myself bouncing a bit, but this time it was an aggressive bounce (I’m sure). I advanced towards my opponent with my foil pointed at his chest and after a few lunges and parries (blocks) I landed a touch. My opponent landed one as well, but it didn’t hurt, in fact I barely felt it. If the electronic score keeper had not buzzed I would likely not have noticed. I had no idea which one of us had the right of way, but I wasn’t waiting to find out, I was going after my opponent and if I lost a point, oh well, I was fencing!
Now I am not in any way advocating aggressive behavior, but for me to fence a stranger and not stop to as how he is feeling, or unleash the classic emilyism, “Oh my goodness,” was quite a breakthrough. With a sword (albeit one used for sport) aimed at me, all my competitive and survival instincts took hold and not only did I defended myself, but I went on the offensive! While I am not totally sure who won, that is (almost) beside the point.
Many thanks to Adam and Helen and everyone at The Boston Fencing Club for letting me join their class and for helping me unleash my inner (harmless) aggressor. The club offer classes for children and adults, and has terrific teachers. This sport is like nothing else I have ever tried, combining very specific skills, agility and strategy. Plus, it is a totally fun way to work off an aggravating day.
I know it’s sad that my Olympic adventures have come to an end, but don’t fret. There are a few additional physical feats that I couldn’t squeeze into this fortnight, so there will be a stray Olympic post or two over the next few weeks. And mark your calendars now (and get your requests in) the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia begin in just 18 months and I will be hitting the slope — or maybe the bobsled track, or the curling ice — once that torch is lit.