Chapter One: Re-Education

The last few days of the summer ended much the same way, with me surprising the heck out of everyone (most of all myself) by winning more bouts than I lost. After that, it was time for color war and all that jazz. A few days later still, and I was back home in Jericho, NY. It's a smallish town on Long Island, in the suburbs of New York City, where I've lived my whole life.

After spending a few weeks getting used to high school, I was surprised to find out that we actually had a fencing team! I'd never seen them practicing or even heard of them before, but a look at the banners in the gym confirmed it--not to mention the fact that they'd been county champions for the past two years. I figured that I might as well try out. After all, I'd probably be the only freshman with prior experience, which would give me a huge leg up. Plus, playing a varsity sport got you excused from gym while the sport was in session, and just about anything was better than playing badminton and golf (I was in the "life activities" gym class-anything to avoid actually breaking a sweat) with the other recreationally challenged folks.

So, in early November, I attended the "informational meeting" that each team usually held prior to the start of the season to introduce the coach and let everyone know what the practices were like…stuff like that. I saw an odd mix of people when I walked in, most of whom were upperclassmen I didn't know. There were a bunch of new people from my grade as well, which mollified my nerves somewhat. After waiting around for a while, the coach of the fencing team, Doug Meiners, entered the classroom. As the group hushed, he silently put his bag of equipment down and stood at the front of the room. He let the silence linger for a few moments, then turned to the kid nearest to him and said, "What do you want out of this season?" I don't have a clue whether the kid was a freshman or he had been on the team before, but I do know he gave some lame answer like "I want to get out of gym!" Coach glared at him and said if that was the only reason he was here, he'd never be any good and he might as well leave. He continued going around the room, hearing various things like, "to get in better shape", "to meet new people", and "to be competitive", until someone finally just said, "I want to win, Coach." Coach finally nodded in approval. I remember exactly what he said next: "Good. When you want to win, your heart is in the right place. If you want to win on this team, everything else follows--you'll meet new people, you'll improve yourself, you'll be competitive…and you'll even get out of gym. Until you're in that frame of mind, you're worthless because you just don't care."

Even with everything that happened later, that's how I like to remember Coach.

I had a talk a few days later with the only other freshman in that meeting I was friends with at the time, Russell Greenberg. We talked about the meeting and how intimidating the coach had been. I asked him if he still was planning to join. He looked me dead in the eyes--one of the few times I've ever seen Russell completely serious-and said, "No way, Ian. That guy scared the crap out of me." I always chuckle over that one.

The first few days of practice went pretty much as expected…getting our team equipment for the year, learning the en garde position, lunging, footwork. I was a little ahead because of camp, but I had still forgotten an awful lot--it had already been three months since I had fenced, and I didn't know all that much to begin with. The biggest challenge lay ahead, though, when I learned that Sean Santay had basically lied to us--in foil, the first person to hit their opponent does not always get the point. Instead, there is a specific set of rules called right-of-way to determine this.

For example: Fencer A attacks Fencer B, and Fencer B just sticks out his blade. Fencer B happens to hit first, but Fencer A lands a valid touch as well. According to right-of-way, Fencer A gets the point even though he didn't hit first. The rationale for a case like this is pretty simple--Fencer A presented a clear danger by attacking. If this occurred in a real swordfight, the absolute last thing Fencer B would do is stand there and let himself get hit. Even if he hit as well, he'd still die! In order to gain the right-of-way, Fencer B would have to do some action to deflect or evade A's attack first.

Because of this, I pretty much had to unlearn every mannerism and movement I had developed during the summer, because it was completely backwards. For almost that entire season, I'd find myself going after a quick touch even though it wasn't a "proper" motion and for half a second wondering why I wasn't awarded the point.

The best fencer on the team was a junior, Brhet Hohwald. This guy was amazing. He'd started his freshman year, and by the beginning of his sophomore year he was already starting in the varsity lineup. By the time I got there, he'd been to the Sectional Championships, Junior Olympics--all the way to the National Championships. He'd earned a "C" national rating from the United States Fencing Association (ratings go from "A" for a master fencer down to "E", with "U" for unrated), already establishing him as one of the great fencers in the region. Ratings are next to impossible to get that young, because you can only get them at open competitions…scholastic fencers are much more likely to enter in youth competitions. A U-17 competition, for example, would limit the entrants to fencers under 17 years of age.

Anyway, Brhet was one of the best pure fencers I've ever seen. He'd never get flustered, always knowing exactly what to do in any situation. He was also lightning quick, which turned into a very deadly combination. His third notable trait was the extreme joy he got out of beating up beginners. I had the unfortunate luck of becoming friends with him, so I had the privilege of being his test dummy whenever he wanted to test something out or practice a move. Although we wear an awful lot of padding and protection when we fence, some of the moves still really, really can hurt, and many a night I'd come home nursing some new slash mark that Brhet or some other evil upperclassman had given me.

I should probably mention some of the other people on the team. My closest friends on the team at this time were Brhet and his best friend, Nirav Kakhar, along with Alex Kobak, a senior. Other juniors included Jon Rausch, the team troublemaker, and Bryan Greene, the team lefty. There were only two sophomores, Bret Cohen and Jung Min Lee. Both actually joined the team as sophomores, so we were all learning at the same time. The other notable fencers from my year were Jordan Zolan, who I vaguely knew from middle school but had never really met before; David Jeon, and Ross Gartenlaub. We also had two eighth graders on the team for some inexplicable reason, Raquel Midar and Gabriella Reubins. We'd joke later on that if we could barely stand four years with Coach, how the hell were they going go survive five? True to form, neither did.

Up to RimRod's Fencing Autobiography
Back to Prologue: Camp
Forward to Chapter Two: Snatching Defeat

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