Fencing is based on the ancient art or craft of killing your fellow man. But there's a lot more to it than that. As a sport, it shifts the focus from killing to the various ways of doing the deed without causing death. By blunting the swords, it transforms aggression into creativity. Fencing has the closeness and intensity of boxing. Like boxing it places value on technique and tactics. It is different from boxing in that its object isn't to punish one's opponent physically or to destroy him, but to undo him. This heightens the importance of technique and strategy.
There's also a sort of magic that enables you to see a "conversation" between the blades. A beautiful touch, worth a point in fencing, seems to result from a curious cooperation between adversaries. A bout becomes a dialogue, building from point to point, telling the story of the contestants as they push and feint. You can see their thoughts and personalities reflected in their movements and how each affects the other. In the end you see why this one won, how that one lost. Fencing is highspeed communication.
What goes on in the mind of a fencer is similar to what goes on in the mind of a pedestrian in a crowded city. When he walks out the door of his apartment, he is immediately on the alert. Hurrying through the streets, he's constantly judging the spaces between people so he can slide by and be ready for the next wave of people coming at him. He has to judge courses, intentions and character and act with great speed.
In fencing, developing the ability to make such calculations takes a lot of training, which, like all true transformation, is both simple and mysterious. The process begins with the coach or master. He's the keeper of the technique. The student is taught balance, distance, footwork, blade work and how to coordinate them all. He learns by hitting the master. The master, who is padded, plays the role of the opponent, except that his job is to get hit, not to defend himself. He gives an opening or a series of openings, and the student must respond with the correct action at the correct moment. The master watches and fine-tunes until the action is smooth and executed from the right distance—the fencer's body extended to the proper degree so that the movement is neither cramped nor strained. During the lesson the student must be at his best, because the typical fencing master is a harsh judge of the sport he loves.
May 23, 1982
"You lazy, lousy good-for-nothing," chided my first master, a Hungarian, who taught me for eight years, as he guided me through a sequence of rythmic blade movements, surprising me somewhere along the line with a change of tempo. And in booming, incredulous tones, he'd say, "Have you no spirit to fight? Are you a fencer?" My second coach, also for eight years and also Hungarian, was world renowned for his technique and toughness, and he taught with a voice full of wrath and contempt. "Or you do, or you don't. Is up to you, sir," he'd say sneeringly. This was his way of warning me that if I made a mistake, a lightning-fast slap with the blade across my thighs would follow. Over time you become increasingly adept at deflecting or avoiding these punishment cuts that are timed to take precise advantage of an error. One day I parried his vicious blow and then cracked him back with the hardest riposte that I could muster. He rubbed his mask and growled. "Sorry, sir," I said.
A fencer has a long career. Though he may begin training seriously in his teens, he may not achieve his prime until his late 20s or early 30s and then may hold top form until his late 30s. He's always taking lessons. And he's always doing drills and free fencing to integrate the moves learned in lessons into spontaneous combinations. He also takes part in tournaments to hone his ability to move and evaluate an opponent at the same time, to plan and react at the right moment under pressure. The steps are well rehearsed, but you don't know the whole dance until you're on the strip. If you have talent and can absorb a master's teaching, you slowly work up the ladder to local, then national, ranking and finally to international stature.
The 36th annual World Championships, held in 1981, were a severe two-week test of the skill and resourcefulness that is peculiar to fencing. The most formidable participants are from the dominant European fencing powers—the Soviet Union, Italy and France—whose teams meet at big tournaments all year long. They supply the officers of the sport's international administrative body and fill the seats on the tournament committees and the ranks of the officials. In this last capacity, they perform a critical function, because the judging in one of the three weapons, sabre, allows for a large degree of subjectivity. (In foil and épéé, on the other hand, touches are signaled by an electric scoring machine connected to the fencer and his weapon by a body cord.) Lesser powers are West Germany, Hungary and Poland. The supporting cast consists of the outsiders—Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Australia, Japan and now the Republic of Korea and the People's Republic of China.
The World Championship tournament doesn't fit a neat time slot, as a football game does. It's more like a battle: It starts early in the morning with 100 to 130 competitors in each discipline, lasts into the night and resumes with the survivors the next morning. At first light on the opening day, the arena is aswarm with pairs jockeying and charging, warming up and then going at it for real. In five quick five-touch bouts, you must establish a game and prove yourself. In each pool of six fencers, three or four advance to the next round. As the day wears on, the field shrinks. Scores of good fencers are swept from the scene. The pairs grind against each other until there is only the winner.
The U.S. participates in world-level competition on the average of once a year: In 1982 it will be at the World Championships, which will take place in July in Rome. Being out of touch with the people, pace and intensity of European competition places us at a disadvantage, though we occasionally have had finalists. We face fencers from both sides of the Iron Curtain who are professional or at least are given substantial travel grants. For us, fencing is something of a dream. Despite all the considerations that argued against my doing well, when I made our team for the most recent World Championships, in Clermont-Ferrand, France last July, I knew I had to go. At 32 I had trained seriously for years and I needed to know where I stood.
The results reflected our inexperience. In the individual events our best showings were a 22nd place in women's foil by 19-year-old Jana Angelakis of Peabody, Mass., a 30th place in épéé by Holt Farley, 28, of Bedford, Mass., a 36th in sabre by Stan Lekach, 34, of New York City and a 38th in men's foil by George Nonomura, 23, of San Francisco, who in his first World Championships missed the final round of 32 by a few touches. In the four-man team events, we took an eighth in foil, our young men coming within a few touches of toppling the Olympic-champion French, and another eighth in sabre.
I went out in the first round of the individual sabre competition. My technique and savvy were equal to the situation, my strength of purpose was not. As soon as I was knocked out, I realized I was as good as my opponent, a Pole, in that first bout.
In the three days that followed I didn't fret. I watched the fencing and soaked up the rhythm and drive of my fellow competitors, feeding my brain through my eyes. I projected myself onto the strip and fenced the bouts I was watching. I read bodies for letdowns, telltale signs. Every day I took a one-hour lesson from my coach.
By the time of the team sabre event I was self-possessed, though I didn't know it, because what I possessed or was possessed by was the beginnings of a new self. The energies were no longer confused, but were channeled to the right places. Our team made it through the first day of competition, beating Spain and losing to Hungary to make it out of the first round, and then beating Great Britain to achieve the final group of eight. I was the substitute and fenced in-frequently but well when called on. I beat two top fencers. That night as I sat in my bath an inner voice said: You are going to fence well tomorrow, very well. And I had no doubt.
The second day we were up with the big boys. We went against the Soviet Union, which hadn't finished lower than second in this event in 19 years. I was fencing in the lead-off bout. Going immediately to the attack, I got the first touch. Then my opponent and I battled until the score was tied 4-4 with one touch to go. I drove my rival to the end of the strip, where the director of judges warned him that if he went off the end a touch would be called against him. He took off his mask to wipe his brow. I saw the same expression that I had seen on the face of the Pole in my first-round pool. I hadn't been able to take advantage of what I sensed in that bout because I hadn't believed then that I could successfully act on my instinct against a topflight fencer. The Pole's look had said that he had a limit. My Soviet rival seemed to be saying the same thing, and today I was going to press him past that limit. It was almost as if revealing his face had been a deliberate act of communication. I revved up and went on the attack before he could. He was going backward when I cut, but with typical Soviet competence he parried. Somehow this didn't bother me, even though the odds were that he would hit me with the riposte. I hadn't charged in so close as to lose my balance, but delivered my attack from a little longer distance than usual. I was able to follow the course of his blade in comfort as he tried to hit me. His riposte dropped on my guard and I hit him with my second cut.
In my eagerness to win I lost my next two bouts. My pace and my patience had disappeared. Though the bouts were close, I didn't have the feel to make them go my way. One of my teammates, Peter Westbrook of New York City, a three-time world-class finalist, won two bouts, and we lost 9-3. But my spirit was never down, never hesitant. I would fix what was wrong.
We then lost to the Italians and ended up fencing the French for seventh place. They had also lost twice, putting up tremendous fights. We quickly fell three bouts behind. In the last half of the match I went in for a bout against their strong man, Jean-Fran√ßois Lamour, a world-class finalist who had been mopping up our guys. When I got out to the strip, a change came over me, a clarity, a state of mind I had worked and prayed for—alert, pumped up and poised. Animal and intuitive.
I didn't care who he was. This time I didn't think: Here I am an American on the Continent, everything will fail. My concentration was total; I was fierce. I went after him but saw my cut fall short on his guard and felt him tag me hard on the mask. One touch against me, but it didn't dent my belief that I was going to win. I resumed my assault, and as he hung back for me to repeat my misjudgment, I lengthened my attack by another measure, getting in closer, and faked to the place he was expecting me to go for. When he bit, I went around the other side. We traded touches, and I continued to keep him a bit off balance, forcing him backward as he tried to parry my attacks. He preferred to fight as a counterattacker, and, besides, I wasn't about to give him any choice in the matter. I went up 3-2 when I offered him an apparent opportunity to thwart my attack by lowering my head in mock hesitation. He took me up on it and launched a fast cut that I whipped up to parry, hammering him in return.
None of these actions was traceable to conscious thought or overt planning, because in a match such as this even strategy becomes subliminal. It was just a matter of keeping the distance, feeling what my opponent was up to and then either pressing him or letting him be. At 3-2 the bout still hung in the balance. A picture flashed through my mind, a freeze-frame of my first cut landing short on his guard. Then there was only the clear scene of my opponent across from me, a large man waiting to crush me. I picked up where I had left off, pushing. I quickened my pace and gained a step. Then I beat his blade aside and cut him.
With one touch to go he had finally become a little shaky. He didn't want me to attack anymore and so he began to move in on me. But his movement wasn't smooth. He hesitated for a split second as he was getting underway and I jumped straight into the opening. All my years of training had prepared me for that moment, and my new mind made me act at precisely the right instant. I had never felt so in control before, so sure of myself. Now I know I can do it because I have done it. It took 16 years to get that way. The power of the will over time.