This past weekend was Fechtschule New York 2014, which was my first "formal" tournament since beginning KdF almost exactly one year ago. By "formal" tournament I mean one in which every match in the tournament was judged and refereed according to rules that had been prescribed beforehand. I had competed in one tournament before this, at an event called Shortpoint 2014, but that was a very informal gathering of fencers and the "tournament" was simply the result of every match that a fencer happened to have during the course of the day, be it a friendly sparring session or "in the ring."
At FNY, I was competing in both the paired forms competition (in which teams of competitors performed specified techniques from a particular fencing treatise, each team competing to present the technique as cleanly and "ideally" as possible), and the beginner's longsword tournament.
I didn't advance beyond the first round of either tournament, but I feel very differently about them. My partner for the paired forms tournament got her left little finger broken earlier during the event, so I competed only sort of by accident, at the last minute - another fencer from my school also found out he needed a partner at the last minute, so the two of us practiced ten techniques for about an hour and then threw ourselves into the competition. That's about six minutes per technique, which isn't exactly a lot of time to polish things even if we did know most of them already. Given that, I am proud of what we were able to present to the judges, even if we didn't make it past the first round. And the people who did go far really did deserve it; their fencing was clean, exacting, and accurate.
The beginner's longsword tournament was a different matter. Competitors were divided into three pools of five fencers each (I think one of the pools might have had six), and each fencer fought every other fencer in his or her pool. The two best fencers from each pool went on to a bracket system for the semi-finals and finals. The rules for the tournament, and the judging procedure, had been refined at Shortpoint and in my opinion were excellent. Not only did matches run very quickly, but judging felt very accurate (i.e., few instances where the fencers thought one thing had happened, but the judges thought another), and the incentives for the rules felt very good. In a nutshell, they discouraged people from taking shots to easy targets (such as the forearms) unless they could also defend themselves while doing so, and encouraged people to make technically strong hits to the head and torso, preferably while simultaneously controlling their opponent's blade (and, thus, defending oneself). While no tournament rules are ever going to be perfect, and no tournament will ever be a very good simulation of a real fight - even a real duel - I have nothing but good things to say about these particular tournament rules.
I do have very critical things to say about my own fencing. It was timid, overly intellectual, and restricted itself to a smaller range of techniques than I know. At Shortpoint I felt like I fought about as well as I knew how, win or lose. At FNY I did not feel like I fought as well as I know how. I found myself discomfited by the incentive to go for the vitals, but did a poor job of defending myself when going for my preferred strikes against exposed hands and forearms. I let myself believe that my opponents were better than they were, and as a result forgot to fight with basic good technique, which foreshortened my range and made it even harder to fight at a good distance from my opponent. That belief also restrained myself from doing what I knew was the right thing in many situations. "I'm not especially good at what I know I should do in this situation," I might think. "My opponent will probably counter it." But that is no way to fight. Everything can be countered, but counters are generally harder to pull off successfully than the things they are counters to. And in any case, if one isn't willing to attack, one might as well throw in the towel. Attempting to substitute techniques that I knew I was better at, but also knew were sub-optimal for the situation, did not go well.
This is why I am not pleased with my fencing in the longsword tournament. I certainly would have liked to win more matches, but mostly, I feel like I did not fight with my all. I have been brooding over this for the past couple of days; it's taken me that long to break down what exactly I did wrong in terms that are specific enough that I can work on them but broad enough that I can draw generalizable conclusions from them.
I've decided that I need to own this failure. On the one hand, this weekend was not the best fencing I have ever done, or even the best fencing I know how to do. But it is the fencing I actually did, and that makes it part of me as a fencer. It's something I need to face if I'm going to get better.
It's also, despite the pain of giving a poor showing, a reminder for me of what kind of fencer I want to be. It might be nice to say that I lost because tournament fighting is not real fighting. But in fact, the opposite is true. The event as a whole demonstrated that the best way to become an excellent tournament fighter is to learn real, martially applicable skill. And you know what? While I'm perfectly happy to hew into somebody's forearm to win a fight, I don't want to be someone who can't attack and defend. The elegance of the longsword that I find so appealing is precisely in using it both to attack and defend. And I don't want to be the kind of fencer who wins fights by nickel-and-diming my opponent to death in the legs and arms. I want to annihilate them. I want those head shots - one of the most oft-repeated phrases in the treatises we study is "stab him in the face." Yes, it's scary to close that extra few inches to be able to hew or stab the skull, or the collar area. I want to face that fear and conquer it.
Because that's what fencing is about to me. Force without is force within, and vice versa. I'm not interested in killing because I have any particular desire to kill people. I'm interested in it because it's a form of authentic force, and I believe that authentic force is what is necessary for real self control or self possession. And that - to hold oneself in the grip of one's own will - is something I prize very highly. So I will get better at fencing the way I want to fence, and I will get better at being me, and I will remember that most of all, this is something to learn. More than twenty years later, Alanna still calls to me to work, even at the things you aren't good at, to bend myself to my will through sheer bloody-mindedness:
“Sacherell was well enough.” Coram yawned. “He’s a bit of a natural. Ye’re just not a natural with a sword, Master Alan. Some are born to it, like me. I never knew aught else, and I never wanted to. Now, some—some never learn the sword at all, and they don’t survive their first real fight. And then there’s some—”
“Yes?” Alanna asked, grasping at this straw. She was obviously not born to the sword, and she had no plans for dying in her first fight.
“Some learn the sword. They work all the extra minutes they have. They don’t let a piece of metal—or Aram Sklaw—beat them.”
Alanna stared at the forest and thought this over. “It’s possible to learn to be natural?”
“It’s just as possible as it is for a lass t’ learn t’ beat a lad, and the lad bigger and older than she is, and in a fair fight."