Chapter Seven: Thunder

Shortly after the season ended, I convinced my parents to let me get my birthday present early in the form of electrical fencing equipment. While I had a "dry" set, this would allow me to fence at real competitions on my own during the offseason. These competitions (along with the school competitions) use a system where both fencers are "connected" to an electrical scoring box, which lights up differently depending on who hit who. So, another few hundred dollars later, I was ready to compete!

My first individual fencing competition was the Long Island Division's qualifying event for the North Atlantic Sectional Championships. (The North Atlantic Section encompassed Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York.) The top 25% of the field from each division would get to advance to the North Atlantic Sectionals in New Hampshire two months later.

The qualifiers were at Brentwood High School, about half an hour due east of me on the Island. So, early Sunday morning, my father and I loaded up the car with Brhet in tow for support and off we went. I really had no idea what to expect. The event was being held in the school cafeteria--Brentwood is one of the biggest schools on the Island, and the cafeteria was enormous. There were nine or ten fencing strips set up throughout the place, with liberal space in-between for the scoring tables, chairs, and equipment. My biggest surprise, though, were the hundreds of people who were there! I didn't know that many people fenced nationwide, much less in our division alone. Turns out it was an abnormally large crowd because all five major events were happening all on the same day (men's and women's foil and epee, men's sabre). And, just to top it off, each event had at least two different age divisions (I was U-17 at this time, U-15 was going on as well) competing that day. After standing on line for half an hour to register for the competition and pay my fees (why not open up a second line, with the rest of the bout committee standing around doing nothing? That's the Long Island Division leadership for you.), I was ready to settle down somewhere and get ready.

I found that Jordan was there as well--his first competition too--and we staked out a little Jericho corner of the cafeteria to put our equipment down in and warm up. The bout committee (the people who run the competition) needed a few extra people to direct matches that day, and Brhet quickly got drafted into service.

For national fencing competitions (which this wasn't), you're required to have your last name printed on either the back of your fencing jacket or on your knickers. I noticed that an awful lot of people had their names on their jackets and idly started wondering just what the hell I was getting myself into. I'd find out later that it costs only ten to twenty dollars to get it done, so a lot of fencers will get it done out of vanity…but it was still an intimidating sight for a new fencer. There was one family in particular, the Huntington family, that seemed to be represented quite well. Every few minutes, it seemed I'd see someone new walk by with "Huntington" written on his back. I think the count actually had to reach ten or so before I finally realized that Huntington was the name of the town they fenced for, not their last names. Hey, no one's perfect.

They soon did roll call, and we broke up into our different pools and reported to our assigned strip. I had seen a few familiar faces from the school teams, but I didn't know a single person in my pool. I did, however, get blessed with two of the "Huntington Twins". I was hoping not to get the first bout, just so I could sit back and make sure I knew what the hell I was doing, but of course I was front and center. My first surprise of the day was that they actually did a weight test on my weapon. The spring in the barrel of the foil has to be able to support 500 grams without registering a touch--it places a limit on how sensitive the electrical weapons are. I'd known that they were supposed to be done, but none of the directors in the high school league had ever bothered to enforce it (which was a Good Thing, because almost no team weapons were compliant at the time). My first weapon failed. Yellow card, warning. My second weapon? Failed. Red card, point to my opponent. My third and final weapon failed on the first two tests, barely passed on the third--I think the director might have felt bad for me and "helped" the weight out a little. Not the greatest start to my first competition. I ended up losing that match, winning the next three and losing my last, ending up 3-2. The top three finishes from each pool advanced to the next round, and I finished 3rd by a couple of points.

I now got introduced to the most time consuming part of local competitions: waiting. With so many other events going on, it was a full three hours before enough strips cleared up for us to proceed with the next round. It was a lot of sitting around, eating lunch, trying to keep warm, mingling with the other fencers…someone in the group of fencers I started becoming friendly with later on would always bring a chess set to eat up some time. Anyway, after practically falling asleep out of boredom, they did roll call for the next round. Jordan had advanced as well, and we ended up in the same pool for the semi-finals.

I had gotten over most of my jitters at this point, and pretty much all the nervousness I still had after the first round had gotten bludgeoned to death by the three hours of waiting I'd just sat through. I got blessed with an easy pool (maybe one of two easy pools I've had, ever) and was 4-0 in the round before I knew it. My last bout was against Jordan. Brhet had finished directing at this point, and he waved me over to have a little chat with me. Jordan was right on the bubble of qualifying for the final round--if he won, he'd end up 2nd or 3rd…if he lost, he'd probably finish 4th. He dropped the hint, rather unsubtly, that I might think about intentionally throwing the match.

A quick aside: This is known as collusion, where two fencers will conspire to mutually help each other advance to the next round. In any sanely run competition, fencers from the same team will fence each other first. That way, they have no idea which of them needs the victory more and will most likely fence an honest match. This being the Long Island Division, though, they never bothered to even check on stuff like that. If they did, it probably would have taken another hour to get on the strip.

I knew that I was slightly better than Jordan at the time, and with the great day I was having I was almost positive I'd beat him. But…being 16 years old, I had a little too much foolish pride (hubris, Ms. Fishman, hubris!) stored up to throw a match. To a friend on another team, I might have been able to bring myself to do it. But against someone I knew I'd be fighting for a varsity spot next season…plus, this was my first competition. I wasn't sure if this was skill or a fluke, and I was going to be damned if I was going to ruin my one shot at a perfect 5-0 pool. I beat Jordan 5-3…he finished 4th.

There was a wait before the final round, but it was much shorter since three-quarters of the fencing had ended for the day at this point--I had gotten there at 8 AM, and it was already three in the afternoon! I thought a little too much during the break…I'd been watching the other pools throughout the day, and I was going in there with five of the best fencers in my age group from all of Long Island. One kid, a lefty (and Huntington Twin) named Blake Miller, I'd beaten in my pool round. Peter Greco was a Hewlett fencer, and I'd beaten him a few times in the past. Michael Kreidman (another lefty) was from Garden City, and had already been on varsity for a full year as a sophomore. The other two fencers I didn't know at all. I knew I'd already qualified for New Hampshire just by making it to the finals--something I was still having a hard time believing--and I think that knowledge hurt me more than helped. It took too much of the pressure off, and I had to psyche myself up again by making it my goal to get a medal. To do that, I'd have to come in third or better.

My first bout was against Greco, and I ended up beating him 5-4 in a match that almost went to the time limit. I lost my second and third matches to the two fencers I didn't know. One of them, a fencer from Brentwood who's name escapes me, was a damn good fencer--the weird thing was from what I'd heard he'd never been to a USFA competition before that, and to my knowledge he never showed up to one again. I beat Miller and was 2-2 going into my final match against Mike Kreidman. If I beat him, I'd finish 2nd or 3rd. If not, I'd end up out of medal range. I took a look over at Mike and was able to tell he was just as exhausted as I was--because every round had been in pools (which was extremely uncommon), we had all fenced over 15 bouts on the day already. If you're not in shape, you can get tired after one bout--this was getting ridiculous.

As soon as the match started, I could tell he was a little better than I was. I changed my strategy up to make him fight for every inch--if he even started an attack, I'd back up and regroup without even letting his blade make contact. If he gave up any ground, I'd follow immediately and not let him even think about getting it back. Before I knew it, the timekeeper shouted "TIME!" Regular time had expired, the score was tied 4-4. We flipped a coin to determine priority, and Mike won--if no touch was scored after one minute of overtime, he'd win the match.

Overtime stared, and the first thirty seconds ended up even. Finally, Mike caught me off-balance and got a solid hit on me for the victory. It had been a terrific match, and he plain out-fenced me. We both practically collapsed into our chairs after the match. As bad luck would have it, Greco, Miller, and myself all finished up 2-3, and I had the least total points out of any of them…still, I took 5th place out of a field of 36 in my first-ever competition, which was victory enough for me. We all got handed our qualifying notices for the Sectional Championships in New Hampshire while we were helping clean up. And, some good news! So many people had turned out that the top nine finishers qualified, not just the six finalists. Jordan had finished 8th, and he qualified as well. I still felt badly for beating him, but it took some of the weight off my conscience.

Up to RimRod's Fencing Autobiography
Back to Chapter Five: Hitting Bottom
Forward to Chapter Seven: Lightning

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