Saturday, June 1, 2013

Day 20 - Fencing

I have never fenced. To clarify, I do not mean I have never built a wooden wall around a piece of property. Rather, I mean I have never engaged in the sport of sword fighting. In fact, the only exposure I had to fencing prior to today was the few glimpses of matches I caught during Olympics broadcasts over the years. In other words, my exposure to fencing during the first 30 years of my life was very near none at all. As a result, I made it a priority to experience fencing early in my "I have never..." journey. I knew it would be unlike anything else on my list, and I knew I would likely learn a lot from the experience. As a result, I made plans to attend a local fencing club in Madison and prepared to get my rear handed to me in my first experience with fencing.

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.

When I opened the door a found a large empty space with multicolored interlocking floor mats. A woman with short, spiky hair sat at a desk behind a short divider in the back corner of the room. Her eyes remained fixed on her computer screen until I started walking across the room toward her. After my first few steps the woman shifted her eyes and glanced at me with a sense of uncertainty upon seeing an unfamiliar face. "Are you Krystyna?" I asked tentatively. She responded with a quick "Yes" as I continued walking toward her and announced my name. Krystyna remained seated and didn't respond. "I'm the guy that's doing something I have never done each day..." I said as I slowed my pace. The words had barely escaped my lips before Krystyna rose from her chair, threw her arms in the air, and bellowed, "Oh, yes! Please... welcome, welcome, welcome!" I breathed a sign of relief as Krystyna walked around the partition between us and greeted me with a smile. She carried on giving me praise for my idea and expressed her excitement at my arrival until another person arrived at the school. After a quick introduction to one of her students, Krystyna grabbed me by the shoulder and began explaining to me how today's experience would be a powerful one. "Fencing is chess at 90 miles per hour!" she stated firmly after walking me through some preliminary information. "You won't soon forget this experience. That I promise you!" she continued with a force of certainty. With anticipation I began preparing myself for the fencing experience, hopeful Krystyna's prediction would prove accurate.

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.

Some instruction...
We continued our bouts with one another for some time until Krystyna stopped the class for some brief instruction. Shortly thereafter she had a more experienced student change our match partners. The student indiscriminately paired individuals with other students, deciding at random to pit me against a young man named Kim who nearly matched Gabe's height and age. Kim gave me some boundaries for our match as I shifted to line up with his position. Feeling slightly more confident in my experience, I explained to him I did not want him to go easy on me during our matches. A grin crossed his face as he said "Alright..." and raised his blade in the customary fencing salute. We garnered our screened helmets and placed them on our heads as we took our stances opposite one another. "Ready." Kim said as he bent his knees slightly. "Ready." I replied as I checked the position of my blade. Following a brief pause, Kim lunged at me spinning his blade in tight circles. I scurried back trying to avoid the tip of the sword at all costs, but my efforts proved futile as Kim's foil arched upon striking my torso. It was clear Kim meant it when he said he would not take it easy, so I prepared myself for an dynamic match.

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
After a brief summary of the day's events and several statements of thanks, Krystyna wrapped up the practice. We put our gear away and carried on in idle chit chat as people began filing out of the building. Still dripping with sweat, I took a seat near the door and took stock of my first experience fencing. My body was drained. My mind was tired. I had just experienced one of the most physically and mentally exhausting experiences of my life. Sure, the physical and mental aspects of the sport do not present much challenge independently, but together the they proved to be a formidable force of enervation. I thought back to Krystyna's earlier description of fencing as "chess at 90 miles per hour," and I realized she was spot on in her metaphor. In reflection, I took note of the blend of physical and mental skill needed to compete in the sport of fencing. It was apparent that what I had just lived through was so unique and rewarding that it was unlike any previous experience in my life. Fencing caught me by surprise. This sport is something worth noting, and I look forward the next opportunity I have to give it another try.

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