Topsy-Turvy

It's the next morning and I'm still in hell. Everything that my coaches and friends have told me over the years is a lie. "Patience," they say, "it takes time to learn to fence. You've still only been fencing for a relatively short amount of time; it takes years (six, seven, eight) before everything starts to make sense." And yet, my opponent yesterday (see previous post) has only been fencing for three years and a bit and she was in the semi-finals in a very challenging event. "You need to have confidence in your attacks," they say, and yet, she made almost no attacks and won bout after bout without fire, without pushing, without (apparently; clearly I'm missing something) setting up any of her actions except to be ready for the parry-riposte. "You have to want to win," they say. Well, clearly she did, but so did I, otherwise, why would I be in this hell--again?

I cannot tell you the number of times I have felt like I do right now, although it is more or less guaranteed that I will feel like this after Nationals. After my first year of fencing when, by a miracle of, yes, fire and wanting to win, I managed to qualify for Div III, but once there lost every bout in my pool and, of course, was trounced in my first D-E (4-15). After my second year of fencing, when I was sure things would be different but still, again, lost every bout in my pool, while others who had been fencing less time than I managed to win not just against me, but even some of the more experienced fencers. Third year was somehow different, for once: I won three of my pool bouts in Div III and my first D-E (15-13), putting me in the top 64 for the first time ever, and in Veterans I won three of my pool bouts and lost my D-E by only one point (9-10). And then came last year, when I did not qualify for Div III so was not fencing that event at all, while I managed to lose all of my pool bouts in Veterans and thus any chance at all in a D-E. And now yesterday, when after a year with my new coach and all sorts of promises about how this year would be different, and yet it isn't, at least not in my results nor in how wretched I feel afterwards.

What am I supposed to be telling myself this time? "Patience"? "You have to want to win"? "One day it will suddenly all make sense"? But, when? WHEN? WHEN IS THIS GOING TO HAPPEN? Clearly, something is amiss in the way in which I set expectations for myself, because, to be fair to myself and my coaches and friends, it was unlikely that I would do much better than I did my very first year in fencing or even in my second--although others did and do. But now, after five years, what realistically can I, should I expect of myself? Clearly, as my opponent showed yesterday (not to mention the other woman on the finalist podium who has been there since the first year she was fencing; she beat me handily a year ago in a D-E, but wholly with attacks that I simply couldn't parry), there is nothing stopping me...you...one from real success even in less time than I have been practicing, so how can I be pleased with my result yesterday when it was in fact worse in terms of final points than my very first ever Veteran-40, two years ago? Great, I've managed to regain my place after last year, but I should be happy about this? Some progress.

I know everything I'm supposed to be telling myself right now: "You do this for fun; some of it is just luck--who you fence on the day, how she is fencing; I lost in my D-E yesterday to someone who has been fencing (according to the announcement when she received her silver) twenty-eight years and she beat not only me, but two of my friends whom I know are strong fencers; you know that you understand what is happening so much better than you did two years ago, indeed, even last year. You are always really fencing only yourself--your anxieties, your weaknesses." But, if that is the case, why are mine so enormous? I said it yesterday and I'll say it again, "It just isn't fair." And, yes, I recognize that even this is one of my weaknesses, the sense that it should be fair, that there should be a path that one follows, dues to pay, lessons to learn, before one has great success. But is this really so wrong? Everyone deserves to win on the day that she does, but how does one explain what got her there?

This past March, one of my fellow veterans fenced marvelously well in Div III and took third, thus earning her C. And what did she say afterwards? "It's good to know that all that hard work paid off." So what have I been doing, slacking? I could have died more than once this winter driving to and from practice in snow storms; I have rearranged my teaching and research and responsibilities on campus so as to enable me to make practice three times a week; I have refused invitations to conferences and parties on weekends so as to make not only tournaments but even ordinary practices; I have next to no social life except with other fencers. And at practice? I fence every bout to win; I leave every practice tired. Perhaps I could push myself harder, but I'm scared: every time I do, I get sick. I tried running this year to build up my legs, but my knees started hurting so much, I had to stop. I've ruined my yoga practice with my fencing--goodbye any flexibility in my right hip. As I write this, I am wondering, am I really pushing myself as hard as I possibly can? Perhaps not, but then I am not losing my bouts because I am physically out of condition, at least not my bouts with other veteran women. You tell me, what am I doing wrong?

One of my friends yesterday (also a coach, but not technically my coach) told me that one of my weaknesses is the need to do the action right, that I worry too much about being correct in my fencing when what I should be doing is concentrating on getting the touch, no matter what. I know what he means because I have been working on this for tournaments: not being surprised by incessant remises, but just going in and getting the touch. But this is not what got me yesterday, at least, I don't think it was. As far as I can tell, I lost because I was being too aggressive, going for the attack and having it parried; trying to push my opponents into showing their parries as I did on Tuesday. This worked with two of my opponents in the pool, but not at all with the others. Should I have then been more passive, waiting for their attacks? But this is exactly the reverse of what my friend tells me is wrong with my fencing. He told another of our clubmates that what I need is more fire. So I push and I lose; I wait and I lose. I know, I know, it's all in my head, but where?

Yesterday, while I was still at the venue and wrestling with the Green-eyed Demon, I asked myself what, exactly, I was envying in my fellow fencer. Which is simply another way of asking, what does it mean to me to win? I have friends--amazing, wonderful, supportive and generous friends--whatever I do on the strip, who quite honestly only want me to enjoy what we're doing and are distressed to see me in such psychological pain. I doubt very much they would like me better if I won, although they would be happy for me, as I am for them when they win. Nor does winning guarantee more friends: I am unlikely to feel particularly friendly to someone whom I can see only through green eyes (my eyes actually are green--can this be the answer? Colored lenses?). Indeed, the one person who can't forgive me for failing is, you guessed it, myself, and yet she is certain that she has let everyone else down, particularly her coach. (Witness, yesterday, when my old coach asked me how I had done in the pools, and when I said, "Okay," he answered, "So, how many did you win? Three? Four?" Ha. "Only two"--I failed.)

Yes, my coach-friend (not my old coach; clearly, I'm going to have to give everybody aliases, otherwise you're not going to be able to follow this) is right: I worry too much about doing the action correctly, but this is one of the things that winning actually means to me: acquiring a skill that enables me to create something beautiful. Plus, although sloppy fencing may get you through a pool bout or two, I don't see how it can sustain you through an entire elimination table. The best fencers may not win every day, but the ones who win regularly are the best fencers, in the sense of being able to judge distance, change tempo, and land their attacks. How is working to fence in this way bad? Why shouldn't I be trying to fence correctly? That seems to me to be what my opponent yesterday was doing, although I admit the last touch that she got in the bout that took her to the top eight was incredibly lucky and most definitely a remise. So, I am envious that she has acquired a skill faster than I have, despite all my efforts and studying.

What is the key? What am I missing? I read the books (I know, I know; see "By the Book"); I take the lessons with my coach; I tell myself all the things you are supposed to say: "Relax. Enjoy it. Take it one touch at a time. Take the time to set it up. You have to want it. Fight." And it doesn't work. Yes, I'm envious. Who wouldn't be? Somehow, everyone else seems in on the secret and I'm not. Nor, it seems, can they give it to me; they simply have it and I don't. It's not something you can earn, otherwise it wouldn't just come to fencers who have only been fencing for a handful of years (or even months). It's not something you can work hard for, otherwise ditto. It's either there or it isn't, like, yes, grace. So am I damned? Apparently so, because even now, after five years of trying, I can't write myself out of this hell. What did I do to deserve this, other than being myself?

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