Fencers Anonymous

Hi, my name is Rachel, and I've been fencing for six and a half years. I do foil and a little epee. I'm always saying I'm going to quit, but I somehow I just can't. I don't always really enjoy fencing, but I miss it so much when I don't get to practice, I somehow find myself putting my gear in the car, leaving my husband and son at home, and going off for whole evenings at a time to practice. And then every so often, like yesterday in my first DE, I get that sweet touch that wins me a tournament bout, and just for a moment, it all feels worth it. But I also spend a lot of time in tears.

I tell myself I can quit any time I like, but I'm not really sure I can. The misery and frustration, while great, simply don't seem to override the wonderful feeling of being there in the moment when something has finally worked, the action made sense, the timing been right, and the light has gone off in my favor. And yet, I am more or less certainly never going to be one of those fencers who knows how to do well enough to fence more than one or two DEs in a competition, no matter how much I improve (if at all). I don't think I'm a bad fencer really, but I somehow simply don't have what it takes to be a good one.

I'm not saying this as well as I'd like to. You want to know why I fence? I wish I knew, I really do. It started so circuitously: a talk that I heard at a conference on the history of fencing, a student in one of my classes mentioning that he was on our university fencing team, a search on the web for classes in the city, showing up at the club and being handed a weapon and told, "Just try it!" And I did. And after that first not-even-really a lesson, I was hooked. I lost 30 pounds the first year I was fencing, I was so excited by what I was doing.* Some of my colleagues got rather worried at how thin I was getting, but for months all I would say was that I was just happy. I was afraid that if I told anyone (other than my husband or son, the latter who was also taking lessons with me at the time) that it would spoil it. I didn't want to have to explain, I just wanted this precious secret, all mine.

Funnily enough, even now, when I've been fencing for as long as I have and everybody knows that I fence, I don't like to talk about why I do. How to capture in words the joy at being able to do something so physical that is at the same time so mentally (if not intellectually, per se) absorbing? Are there words for the rush that I feel when I've fenced a bout with absolutely every ounce of concentration that I have and yet somehow have managed not to overthink it, but rather just be there in the moment, there but not there, myself but not me? But it isn't just that, the thrill of success. There is also the feeling of simply being a fencer, knowing that I've been practicing this difficult skill, that I am--whether I win or lose--one of the ones who is out there trying.

I was thinking yesterday morning as I was stretching and watching the snow fall on the river how what hurts most looking up at the fencers on the medals podium is the feeling of being excluded. It isn't, oddly enough, so much that I want to win as that I want to be one of the gang, not left out. I want to be good enough to belong, to not be picked last for the team. And that, truth to tell, is the real rush, sweet as it is to win. The irony is that I already am one of the gang simply by being here at the tournament ready to fence. I am, whether I win or lose, a fencer.

I wonder why I find this so hard to admit.

*I've gained most of it back. You can only live on adrenaline for so long.


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