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Some Reflections From an Aging Fencer

ImageI fenced for about seven years, while in High School and College, and then when I got out into the real world, I no longer had a place to fence nor people to fence with, and I stopped. A couple of years ago, a fencing school moved into my neighborhood, and I started up again. All in all, despite my 27 year hiatus, it's gone remarkably well, and I think I am now a better fencer than I was when I was 20. Since I am over 50, and inclined to reflect on almost everything about my life, I have been pondering the meaning of this as well, and drawing a few conclusions that tie into whole notion of getting older and still staying in the game.

First, let's talk about physical degeneration. I am a lot fatter than I was at 20. I am also a lot slower and don't have the stamina of a 20 year old. How is it then that I am holding my own against many younger and in some cases, very experienced fencers?

My reaction time is much longer than it was in my youth. That is inevitable. However, I have noticed that while my reaction may be slower, I am still very fast -- but it's not about speed of reaction but speed of movement. The complex movements of fencing are clearly defined in my brain. The neural pathways called "parry-riposte" or "beat-attack" are well established, so when I activate one of those routines, it is executed without wasted movement or hesitation. So, you young buck; your reaction time might be many times faster than mine, but my attack is still faster than your reaction.

My compensation for my slower reaction is to carefully manage distance, and never let my opponent get close enough to launch an attack that I can't react to, or if he tries to get in close, attack him first.

I am middle aged, so I understand what's going on, and I know how to do stuff.

As to stamina, I know my limitations. First of all, I know that, while I still have the ability to cover ground quickly and bring the fight to an opponent; doing so cuts into my energy budget a bit too much. I manage the distance and wait for my opponent to get into range. If he doesn't, I close the distance slowly and then attack. It's not as exciting as a ferocious ballestra, but it gets me to the same place with a lot less effort. The violent, noisy attack is something I save for special occasions.

With age comes a better understanding of one's self, and limitations are not something I beat myself up over or obsess on. I simply accept them, work around them and find ways to push them to the rear while bringing my strengths to the front. I have come to understand that I can usually manage a situation in a way that focuses on my strengths.

And, being an old fart, there is nothing you can do that I haven't seen before. You may hit me, but you haven't surprised me. I just need to do a quick analysis of what went wrong, and not do that same stupid thing again.

I don't want to give the impression however, that I have it all figured out. Another thing that I have learned is that I never have it all figured out. When I am beaten, clearly I didn't have it figured out--and I must therefore take it as a lesson and learn from it. I also learn however, from those I defeat. They too can teach me about how I can improve or better understand myself.

One of the key lessons I have internalized is that I don't have to be a better fencer than you to win. I don't have to be faster, stronger, smoother or have better form. I just need to do something that's outside your comfort zone, but inside mine. Sometimes that means being scary, intimidating and in-your-face, and sometimes it means being cautious and exploiting small openings. Each opponent and each situation is different and calls for a different approach.

I have also learned that, win or lose, beginner or expert opponent, I am doing this because I love to fence and it is the experience that matters far more than the result. My ultimate objective is to make friends, have fun and stay in the game as long as I am able -- and with fencing or pretty much anything else, that's really what it's all about.


A Quick Plug for My Fencing School

I fence at the "Swordplay" studio, run by Tim Weske (the guy ruining my carefully staged portrait shot above). It is based in Burbank, but has a program in a rented hall in Granada Hills, and that is where I usually fence. My teacher is J. L. Jackson.

64 East Magnolia Boulevard
Burbank, CA 91502-1712
(818) 566-1777

Fencing is Forever

Started at UC Santa Barbara, continued after graduating at Fullerton College, and still have a cupboard full of masks, jackets, foils and sabers. Arthritis keeps me off the piste. Glad to see you fencing historically, none of that electronic stuff, with no grace or precision.