My fencing experience really began several weeks ago when I contacted a local fencing outfit, Cracovia Foil Fencing Club, to express my interest and explain my ongoing project. When I called a woman with a heavy Polish accent named Krystyna answered the phone and kindly listened to my explanation of my goals for the year. Upon hearing what I intend to do, Krystyna's voice rose with excitement. She asked me several questions about my plans and enthusiastically insisted upon me visiting her school as soon as possible. Feeling welcomed, I gave her several dates I had available and we narrowed down the choices to June 1st. With the date set, I looked forward to the day I would join the members of her club to learn more about fencing.
Several weeks passed and June 1st was upon us sooner than I expected. As a result, I packed a bag of clothes I thought suitable for fencing and made my way to the Cracovia Fencing School building. When I arrived at the Cracovia School I was surprised to find it tucked into the corner of a small strip mall on Madison's west side. The building had one entrance below a small sign tacked to the wooden exterior of the building. It was clear I was in the right spot, so I parked my car, grabbed my bag, and headed into the building.
In the 15 minutes that followed my conversation with Krystyna, a little more than a half of a dozen more students arrived and immediately began putting on various pieces of gear that were completely foreign to me. I watched as each student entered a back room and came out wearing a unique coat and a glove with a tapered sleeve. As more of them filed out I realized every student that had arrived at the class to that point was between the ages of eight and 14. Although I felt out of place at first, Krystyna assured me fencing with young students was a good place for me to start. Eventually, a few more adults arrived to the school, which made me feel a little more comfortable in the environment. Regardless, I was ready to give fencing a try even if it meant losing to a group of middle schoolers.
Once the full class had arrived, Krystyna took me and another new student aside for a brief set of safety instructions. She walked us through how to manage our gear, watch the position of our blade, and maintain awareness of our surroundings. She had us repeat the phrase "Safety is first"several times until it met her satisfaction. Then she guided us to the rest of the class. Krystyna proceeded to pair us up with our individual mentors who would walk us through basic fencing techniques. My mentor, Gabe, was a young man of about 13 years that, despite his youth, stood a little less than six feet tall. After brief introductions, Gabe walked me through some basic attack and defense positions. He provided me pointers on my footing, body position, and point of reference to ensure I was capable of contesting an opponent during a match. Just as quickly as we had walked through the basics, Gabe stated it was time for a match. Although somewhat stunned by the pace of the lesson, I obliged. After all, I was there to fence, not get a walkthrough on what it would be like to fence.
Gabe took it easy on me during our first few bouts in our fencing match. I clumsily moved about the floor trying to maintain control of my feet and my foil in my desperate attempts to strike Gabe's torso. He stood casually as he deflected each attempt and gave real-time feedback on my performance. I focused on adjusting my technique based on his words as Gabe broke his defenses to periodically jab me in my vest. Each time he would do so he would walk me through the need to reset and would point out aspects of my stance, posture, and blade work that needed improvement. In time, I began to get the hang of the finer points, and Gabe and I started engaging in matches that looked much more like real fencing.
Kim and I continued fencing for some time with the energy, physical effort, and mental strategy of each match increasing steadily. I started feeling sweat building on my body as we fought one another. Although I was losing routinely, I was keeping up long enough to make our bouts last for extended periods. Kim remained vigilant in his efforts to defend against my rookie attacks and strike me when he saw the chance. Things were getting intense, and I was beginning to realize the accuracy of Krystyna's earlier description of the sport.
After getting another round of losses handed to me at the end of Kim's blade, Krystyna gave the group a brief break. Sweat ran down my forehead as I removed my helmet and headed for the bubbler at the back of the room. I was feeling tired, but the adrenaline from the fencing experience had made me unaware that was the case until that moment. I walked back to toward the center of the room after getting a drink of water and Krystyna stopped me. She asked me how the experience was up to that point, to which I replied I was finding the experience challenging and rewarding. Krystyna smiled and said, "Well, you here for the real experience, so that's what we will give you now." Without delay, Krystyna grabbed me and two other students. She explained our next matches would be two on one, with me on the lesser side of the equation. A few moments after the explanation, the content of the message hit me. I was about to face two blades at the same time. Undeterred, I gave a nod of approval and lined up to start the match.
Over the next 15 minutes I fought hard against my two opponents, focusing intently on all of the advice I had been given earlier in the day. To my surprise, I was keeping up on the scoreboard, with my opponents maintaining a one point lead throughout the match. Although I was down, the match was not a blowout. My improving technique and control guiding me, I made bolder attempts during the match and they were paying off. Ultimately, we found ourselves fighting for a victory as the match came down to one final round. It was close, and I thought I might be able to pull it off. The three of us squared off with several sudden quick movements of our blades. I pushed forward, driving my opponents toward the wall behind them. I positioned myself for one final lunge to earn the next point, but was stopped short by the familiar feeling of a foil tip poking me in the chest. I had lost, but I put in my best effort of the day.
With the class nearly drawing to a close, Krystyna was again greeted me and asked how I was doing. I expressed my gratitude for the opportunity and described the enjoyment I was gaining from the class. Krystyna replied by explaining I was not quite finished with my first fencing experience, and that there was one thing I had left to do. She called over a young student of about 10 years old that had been working with another adult for the extent of the class. Earlier in the day Krystyna had explained the young man's talent and pointed out the dozens of medals lining the back wall of her school. She reminded me, "Those are all his" as she explained a match with the young man would serve as the finale in my first experience with fencing. Hesitant, I slowly walked over the other side of the room and prepared for defeat.
I knew if I was going to go out fighting one of the best young fencers in the Midwest, I was going to go out with a bang. As a result, I started the match with some aggressive moves that appeared to catch my opponent by surprise. I was feeling confident as our first bout carried on over the course of nearly a minute before I was struck in the torso. Walking back to my starting position I made it known my goal was to score just one point against my opponent. I lined up again and took my stance. On the ready, we began our second bout, which lasted a few brief moments before I found myself at the end of the foil yet again. I continued pressing harder and harder over the next bouts, striking closer and closer to a point with each attempt but falling to another foil strike each time. I was becoming winded as each of my attacks was deflected or blocked. The best I could seem to do is catch a grazing blow on my opponent's hip, which meant nothing from a scoring perspective. Despite my every attempt to read the next move or find a weakness, I could not make good on my goal to score a point. My muscles began to feel tight and my breathing became labored as I put in all of my effort to accomplish that seemingly simple task. Finally, Krystyna announced the practice needed to draw to a close. I removed my helmet a took a brief rest on my knees to gather my breath. In contrast, my opponent, as if unaffected by our match, appeared no more exhausted than he had before we began. I stood up, shook his hand, and announced "He's damn good..." to no particular person. Krystyna, feet away from my position, stopped and smiled before responding, "Yes. Yes, he is damn good."
|Bonus: This dude was hanging out all day|