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Fencing Tournament Report – 2019 Veteran Sabre Slam

This tournament was held on March 10, so I’m a bit behind on writing a summary of the event, but I still wanted to get to it. This is another one of the tournaments in the Tri-State Veteran’s Cup. You can find my thoughts on some of this year’s events here and here.

Travel to the Event

This tournament was held at Sheridan Fencing Club in Manhattan. I was able to take the train into NYC and then grabbed a taxi for a quick trip across town.

The Venue

This was my first trip to Sheridan Fencing Club and I had a little trouble finding it. Due to the train schedule, I arrived earlier than I really needed to, and the club wasn’t open yet.

I didn’t see any signage to indicate the club’s location, even though I appeared to be in the right general area. It turns out that the entire front of the club is a large glass window. After hours, a metal door rolls down to cover the glass.

After only a few minutes, someone arrived to open the door and I found myself in a chilly but compact space. The heat kicked on and I tried to move around to warm myself up, but my hands and feet were cold for longer than I would have liked.

The fencing space only has six strips, but for the purposes of this event, that was adequate. One perk that I did not expect was that they were able to run instant replay for all of the direct elimination (DE) bouts.

While I was warming up, coffee and bagels arrived. I definitely needed that coffee and soon felt more prepared for fencing.

Tournament Format

This tournament was conducted in a standard format, with a round-robin style pool followed by 100% promotion into a DE tableau. The women’s event had 8 competitors and there were 25 in the men’s event.

The women fenced one large pool of 8, followed by a quick DE round. The men were divided into 4 pools (7, 6, 6, 6) and then DE’s.

Full results from the day can be found here.

One of my favorite aspects of this tournament was the prizes! The winners went home with a set of Japanese swords and a stand. It’s nice to have awards other than the standard fencing medals.

My Fencing

I had an uneven day in the tournament, going 5-2 in my pool. That made me seeded #2 for the DE tableau. Through my DE bouts I never really hit my normal stride and I struggled to do what I wanted to do. In the end, I finished in 2nd place, so it wasn’t really a bad day. I just felt like I didn’t fence terribly well.

See more of my tournament reports here.

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Fencing Tournament Report – Capitol Clash 2019

The weekend before last, I traveled to compete in the 2019 Capitol Clash just outside of Washington, D.C. This fencing tournament has been held for ten years and has historically been a youth event. This year, they added a non-regional Veteran’s category, and several fencers in my club (youth and veteran) entered.

Event Schedule and Travel

For the Veteran events, the tournament was simply a local tournament, with no points or qualifications up for grabs. However, for sabre, it ended up being well-attended, with 16 women and 38 men. The youth tournament featured Y-8, Y-10, Y-12, Y-14, and Cadet events, and was designated a SYC, so fencers could win regional points.

With all of the events for age groups, all three weapons, and men’s and women’s divisions, the tournament stretched over 3 days. I woke up very early and drove to the tournament on Saturday morning to arrive by close of check-in for Vet WS at 12:00 p.m. The organizers had communicated minor changes in the check-in time in the weeks prior to the tournament.

Location and Venue

The tournament was held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, just south of Washington, D.C. The Gaylord chain of hotels are enormous self-contained resorts, with multiple restaurants, spa and fitness center facilities, pools, and convention spaces. I had actually been to a work conference at this same Gaylord a few years ago, so I knew what to expect.

The hotel offered a discounted rate for fencers, but I didn’t stay there. The parking was discounted for the event, and both self-park and valet options were available. The Gaylord is located within National Harbor, a larger development along the Potomac River featuring shopping, restaurants, and entertainment.

Vendors on-site.

The tournament was held in a large convention hall. It felt like a mini-NAC, having the same types of strips, scoring equipment, raised bout committee area, intercom announcements, and finals strip. Several vendors were on site for equipment needs, although I didn’t pay much attention to them, not needing to purchase anything.

The organizers did insist that all fencing bags were placed in a particular area, in delineated rows on tables and the floor. The strips for the Vet events were off to one side, near an empty part of the hall where no one seemed to mind the bags. I ended up arranging my bag near a column in a vacant area of the hall.

Format and Referees

The tournament was conducted in a standard manner, with one round of pools followed by 100% of fencers advancing to a direct elimination round and no fence-off for third place. For the women’s event, we ended up with two pools of 8. Larger pools mean more bouts of fencing, and I think most fencers prefer that to smaller pools.

We did end up delayed with the start of the event by about an hour. I’m not completely sure what led to the delay. I had warmed up, intending to be ready to start on time, but I didn’t feel that stiff or cold after sitting for an hour. I was sore going into the event, so more warm-up may have actually been detrimental.

Once we finally started, the rest of the event ran smoothly. The referees were consistent with their calls, although I had some trouble hearing one of them (and other fencers did too).

The gold medal bout was held on a raised strip and was delayed a short time because other events were also finishing up. Video replay was available for the gold medal bout.

The Capitol Clash also hosted a competition in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). I had never seen this live before and had hoped to watch some. However, the HEMA events had concluded early in the day, so I missed them.

My Fencing

I had a good day! I had been fencing pretty well in practice and had been working on a few new things that had finally started to click. However, this tournament was also practice, with nothing in particular at stake.

I had been out late the night before my early-morning travel, so I wasn’t feeling great, being a bit dehydrated, sore from my triathlon training, and just tired.

Despite all that, my fencing was very consistent and stable all day. I stuck to my plan, took a few risks when needed, and managed to pull off some of the old/new maneuvers I had been practicing (sky hooks, mainly).

One goal of this tournament was to work on my attacks against people I don’t know. I’ve been trying to get faster while still being able to see the distance properly. It sort of worked, but I have more work to do. I also found that I was more patient when pursuing an opponent down the strip, which was something I had failed to do in my last event.

By the end of the day, I found myself in the gold medal bout where I kept my cool and won 10-4. This earned me a shiny new C19! You can watch a video of the final bout below. My bout starts at 1:30. The men’s gold medal bout is at 1:38.

The final results for all the events can be found here.

My teammates in the men’s event had a great day also, with 3rd place, 3rd place, and 7th place finishes.

To see more of my fencing tournament reports, look here.

Fencing Tournament Report – The Achiko Sabre Cup New Years Day 2019

This tournament was hosted by the Tim Morehouse Fencing Club at its newer facility in Port Chester, New York. I had decided to compete in this event because it was part of the Tri-State Veteran Sabre Cup for this season. I was also able to arrange my work schedule in a way that allowed me to fence on the holiday, and was only an hour’s drive from home.

Registration and Events

The Achiko Sabre Cup featured a variety of events (all sabre, go figure): Y12, Y14, D and under, Unrated, Open, and Vet Combined, with all but the youth events split for men and women. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for more than the Veteran event.

Registration was run through askfred.net and you can see the results of all the events here.

Location

The Tim Morehouse Fencing Club has expanded and this location is one of the newer sites. It was easy to reach, and I didn’t hit any traffic because of the New Year’s holiday. There appeared to be a lot associated with the club, but it was roped off as full. I was able to easily find a spot to park along the road behind the club, and had a relatively short walk to the entrance.

The club itself was clean and bright. Check-in and the bout committee were directly to the left, with an area for bags and warmup on the right, and the tournament held in the larger space on the left.

One downside of this event was that I only found two bathrooms in the club. An additional closet was marked as a changing room, but there was a wait for the bathroom at times.

We weren’t required to have our equipment checked for this tournament and no vendors were on hand.

Format and Tournament

I fenced in the Vet Combined Women’s Sabre event, and unfortunately there was not a very large showing of local fencers, with only five people competing. We fenced a single pool, followed by direct elimination bouts.

We had a single referee for our event, and I didn’t disagree with the calls. I felt stiff at the beginning of the pool bouts as I hadn’t fenced at all since the Cincinnati NAC. But in the end, I fenced well enough, ending up 4-0 in the pool, then taking first place overall after two DE bouts.

Overall Experience

Despite the small field, it was an enjoyable event. I was able to chat with friends, watch some of the men’s event, and get some fencing in on a day where I wouldn’t normally have had the opportunity.

Downsides of this tournament were that there were limited strips free for warming up (at least at the time that I was there). Lack of equipment check could arguably introduce some safety issues or put the fairness of the event into question (I don’t feel like it did on this day, but in theory, it could).

I’d definitely go back to this club for another tournament. The most important aspects for an event for me are proximity, day and time (to arrange around my non-traditional work schedule), and solid and consistent referees.

Did you fence at this event? How did your event go? Let me know in the comments below.

Inside the World of Longsword Fighting

This video from the New York Times has been making the rounds on Facebook, but I thought that it also may be of interest here.

Inside the World of Longsword Fighting

If you are writing a story with this style of fighting, this group may be able to give you some invaluable practical tips about what it is like to practice this style of sword fighting. I didn’t know that this existed, and while the clothing and armor are not intended to be historically accurate, it sounds like they are trying to faithfully recreate the techniques out of the fencing manuals that we still have.

Video

Fencing Travel and Fiction Research

This past weekend, I had the fortunate opportunity to combine both fencing and fiction research together in one trip. I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri for a North American Cup (NAC) event. This is a series of tournaments run by the United States Fencing Association (USFA), held all over the United States, and on occasion elsewhere in North America. From October through April, these events are held once a month. Each NAC is comprised of different levels of events and age groups. This year’s schedule can be found here. The final event of the season is a combination of Division I National Championships and Summer National Championships. This is held over about a ten day time span from the end of June through the first week in July. It is a massive affair, with events for every age group and level.

St. Louis – Gateway to the West.

The October event was a Division I, Division II, and Cadet event. Division I is the highest level of national competition. If a fencer finishes in the top 32 of a Division I event, he earns points that go toward a national ranking. The Cadet event is for fencers under sixteen years of age and is also a point event, but with a separate tally for national rankings. I fenced in just the Division II event. This level restricts entrants to those with a C, D, E, or U rating (leaving out A and B fencers). If you missed my earlier post on ratings and rankings, you can find more of an explanation here. The Division II event awards no points, but rather awards new letter ratings depending on how high you finish.

Fencing venue. For most of the day, these strips were full of fencers. But earlier in the day, I was busy fencing so this was taken toward the end of the day’s events.

A NAC is an immense and overwhelming thing to a first-time competitor. The venue is usually a large convention center exhibit hall. Fencing strips stretch as far as the eye can see. Scoring machines buzz and beep, fencers scream and shout, and blades clash together on all sides. The bout committee runs the event and is sequestered on an elevated platform in some central location. Equipment vendors, merchandisers, equipment check-in, equipment repair services, and stenciling services can be found around the periphery of the hall.

The bout committee. The section to the left is for referees to gather and rest.

When I first arrived at the event, I had to check in. Everyone has to pre-register for a NAC event. Walk-in competitors are not allowed. At the posted time, the competitors for a given event line up at a booth which is usually in the hall outside the venue. They scan your USFA membership card and then you’re confirmed for the event.

Instant replay station.

The next step is the equipment check. This is within the venue and the line can vary from non-existent to a 45 minute wait. This is where your mask is checked for safety, and the conductive pieces of equipment are verified to be working.

This tournament had several instant replay stations, more than I’ve ever seen before at an event. But despite all the technology, each fencer has to cluster around a simple bulletin board to find out which strip her bouts will be fenced on.

One of several bulletin boards around the venue where important details are posted.

Overall, it appeared to be a well-run event. If you knew where to look, you could even glimpse some of the recent Olympians in action.

At the end of the day, I did not fence as well as I had wanted to, but after my injury and surgeries I was happy to be able to even compete again. I’ll likely enter the Division II NAC in the spring.

The Missouri Historical Society Research Library.

The rest of my trip was spent working on research for my novel, Badge of the Black Dragon. Since this story is set in St. Louis, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to explore the city’s history. The first day of research was spent at the Missouri Historical Society’s research library. I delved through old photographs and books, taking notes on a variety of topics.

This was the type of library where you need to come in with a specific area of interest. I had to request specific files of photographs, and a little research about this ahead of time had at least prepared me as to what was available. The librarians were very helpful when it came to my other topics. They suggested several approaches to search for what I was looking for and brought me about a dozen books. My favorite item was a reproduction of a map of St. Louis showing which blocks were destroyed in the fire of 1849. The library also had newspapers from the mid-1800’s which were filled with fascinating headlines and advertisements.

A section of the map showing the extent of the fire’s destruction in 1849.

On the last day of my trip, I traveled to a local cave system and then returned to the city to explore the St. Louis arch and the Missouri History Museum. These excursions were less specific for my novel research, but sparked some ideas that I hope will add to the depth of my worldbuilding.

I finally returned home with some additional books for study. My favorite is The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions – a reprint of a guide to pioneers that was originally published in 1859. I’m not sure that I would have found this small publication if I hadn’t investigated the local museums.

Also this week, I was interviewed by Michelle Carraway over at Reality Skimming about my writing process, ideas, and influences. Please go check out her page here. I’ll even tell you a little more about Badge of the Black Dragon in the interview.

Are there any readers out there who are thinking about taking a trip to research for a novel or story? Have you already done this? If you could do it again, would you prepare any differently?

Fictional Fencers – Conditioning and Athletics and Zombies

Oh hey, it’s time to return to a post about fencing! Today, I’m going to talk about what types of athletic activities a fencer might participate in outside of regular practice. Or another way to look at it would be – what athletic feats might your character be good at if he has done some fencing? What would he struggle with? And most importantly, would he be able to effectively run from zombies?

First off, any character has motivations and goals. How often is she fencing and why? If your character is obsessed with swords and uses every opportunity to train at fencing or other martial arts, this person will have a different physique and abilities than one who runs daily, trains for marathons, or perhaps picks up a fencing weapon only once a month. Maybe your character used to fence ten years ago, but hasn’t picked up a blade or made a lunge since then? What skills would this character retain?

What other types of exercise would a fencer do?

I think it’s easiest to group our fencers into three types. First off, you would have the novices. This group would include those beginners that may have aspirations for competition, but are still trying to figure out the footwork, rules, and proper blade positions. You could also put those who fence more as a hobby than a sport in this group. These fencers would have some degree of fencing skill, but since they either have not been working at it for long, or perhaps pick up a blade once a week or less, their physical condition can vary greatly. Fencing alone at this novice level is unlikely to give this character much additional strength or endurance for other sports, running from zombies, or trying to fight off a serious threat.

The second group of fencers will be those who have the basics down and attend practice regularly (or at least seasonally). This type of character will have more muscle development in the legs and the weapon arm. She will also have some degree of cardiovascular conditioning from footwork drills or bouting practice. However, since fencing uses a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers, this character may have limited endurance for a long day of competition or running further than a few miles from those zombies.

The last type of fencer is the elite athlete. This fencer will be attending regular practices, but will also work out in other arenas. Weight-training and conditioning are critical to a fencer who wishes to compete and win in anything other than a local tournament. This article gives a great overview of the types of exercises that are helpful. Some competitive fencers may work with a trainer to maximize the benefits of training and to minimize the risk of injury. This type of fencer may be able to lift heavy objects, run several miles, or sprint short distances faster than an average person. Any athlete that has done cross-training in multiple types of activities will be more coordinated and could tackle unexpected obstacles with more success than the average person. One caveat to this would be that the elite athlete would be more likely to have sustained injuries due to the intensity of the training. So while your athlete may have the cardiovascular fitness, coordination, or mental toughness to survive that run from zombies, at the end of the day, she may also have caused an old knee injury to flare up to limit her activity the next day.

The elite athlete cannot be good at everything, and fencing is still more similar to a boxing match than a marathon. If you need your character to be able to run a marathon for your story, then the training associated with fencing will contribute less to this and he had better be doing a lot more running than fencing.

An additional category of fencer that could be involved in a story would be the character that used to fence, but has not done so much as a lunge or a parry in several years. I have seen many high school and collegiate fencers that stop training and competing once they have graduated. What if one of these fencers picked up a sword after a long absence from the sport? What would he remember and what would be tough?

Unless this former fencer was physically active in other sports, his footwork would be awkward and clumsy after such a break. He might remember how to do a lunge, but his legs and core would not cooperate in the same way that they used to. The bladework would be more easily remembered. The muscle groups there are more localized to the fingers, wrist, and elbow, and there is less overall balance and muscular strength needed for these motions. Of course, if he fences for very long at all, he will certainly have muscle soreness afterward. This would be most pronounced in the legs, but could also involve the forearm or back.

Lastly, for a specific example. What do I do for my training and conditioning? I practice specifically fencing three times a week, for an average of two hours each practice. I lift weights at the gym at least twice a week, although on occasion I manage it three times. Cardiovascular conditioning is split between short runs (1 – 3 miles) and cycling (5-11 miles). I throw in interval training and sprints, yoga classes, other cardio (elliptical machine, rowing machine, etc), jumping rope, and footwork drills, depending on my energy level, schedule, and any soreness or injuries.

Could I outrun the zombies? I don’t want to find out, but I think I’d have a better chance than others.

So, what type of feats have your characters performed when forced to it? Have you written a zombie chase scene? You don’t have to outrun the zombies, right? You just have to outrun everyone else.

Ouch! Fencing Injuries

When someone mentions fencing and injuries, probably the first thoughts that come to mind involve bloody stab wounds. In sport fencing, actual stab wounds are rare, even though we’re playing with swords. However, there are many other injuries that can happen to a fencer. The goal of today’s post is to discuss the common injuries, aches, and pains that happen almost every day to fencers, as well as some of the more debilitating injuries.

My injured ankle. No, I wasn’t stabbed. It was a bad sprain.

If you’re writing fiction that involves a fencer, it would be good to keep in mind that this person will likely have all types of bumps, bruises, calluses, and other minor afflictions that can annoy them on a regular basis. Fencers have a different level of tolerance for these things. While one fencer might whine about any small bruise, others will show off their scars. What type of character are you writing about?

I think that bruises have to be the most common minor injury in fencing, so much so that I can’t even consider them to be anything unusual. It’s just part of the sport. You’re going to get hit and sometimes it will hurt a little. Sometimes it will sting. Sometimes it will leave a mark. Other times it will make you suck in a deep breath and have to stop to shake it off. Blows on the hand or the elbow can hit a nerve and cause you to drop your weapon. This can make your arm tingle or not respond correctly for a few moments.

The types of bruises vary with the weapon that is being fenced. Since foil and epee are point weapons, most of the bruises will be round. Sabre is a slashing weapon, so most of the bruises will be linear and will fall on the shoulders and arms. Sometimes a sabre attack will have more of a stinging sensation to it. Of all the weapons, I have seen the worst bruises in epee. The epee has a stiffer blade than a foil, so it is less forgiving on impact. I have seen bruises from epee in which not only was there a bruise as large as my hand, but the central part of the bruise was more of a bloody scrape (through the protective equipment). Sometimes novice sabre fencers can get too…enthusiastic. A beginner tends to swing the sabre and to put more of their shoulder strength into the attack. This also makes for more bruises when they land, and will quickly cause the more experienced fencers to show the novice how to lighten up their attacks.

The off-weapon hand has no protection below the wrist. A fencer is supposed to keep that hand back and out of the way, but sometimes it will still get struck. With no glove, it is more likely that the skin will take the brunt of this blow. I’ve often had my knuckles or the back of my hand scraped up, but at least for me, these injuries have never needed more than a few band-aids. On both hands, you can also get your fingernails smashed and bruised.

Oddly enough, the hand seems to be a common place for stab wounds to occur. I know of three fencers that have had a blade go through their hands. I know of another fencer that had a blade go up the sleeve of her jacket and into her arm.

Blisters and calluses are commonplace. As a sabre fencer, I have calluses on my weapon hand – on the thumb and along my palm at the base of my fingers. I’ve had blisters in the same places. Foot blisters and calluses are inevitable for anyone that engages in athletic activities regularly and I’ve had my share of these too. I’ve also slammed my toes against the front of my shoe in an overzealous lunge. A few weeks to a few months later, my toenail fell off.

Fencing is an asymmetric sport. Fencers have one arm that is larger than the other. Fencers will also have a disparity in the size of their legs. Even though both legs are used strenuously, the front leg will tend to be the more heavily muscled one. With all of the quick footwork and lunging that is involved in fencing, it is very common to suffer minor muscle strains in the hamstrings or quadriceps muscles. Some fencers will also get cramps in those muscles or in the calves.

One hazard of sabre fencing is that when an opponent is making at attack with too much of a swinging motion, the blade is flexible and can whip around the weapon’s guard, the shoulder, or the mask. This will sting and can cause more bruises, but one special type of unpleasantness happens when the blade whips around the mask and hits the back of your head. There was a rule change in 2000 that made the sabre blades stiffer, so this is not as common as it used to be.

After being used for some time, the blade of any of the fencing weapons will break. If it breaks near the tip, there is a small piece of metal that is launched out at great speed. I don’t personally know of anyone being injured by this fragment, but I suppose that it is possible. Once the blade breaks, it isn’t sharp, but it is sharper than the unbroken blade. There is a greater chance that this piece could be driven through the opponent’s jacket or mask, but even so, this is rare.

The broken tip from a sabre blade.

A fencer’s mask fits tightly around the chin. If the fencing action becomes too close, sometimes one fencer will inadvertently slam the guard of his weapon into his opponent’s mask. This force can be transferred to the chin and can cause a scrape or bruise there, depending on the exact style and fit of the mask. I don’t know of any fencer that has been knocked out by this.

The non-electric masks (used for foil, epee, or sometimes in practice in sabre) have a painted coating on the mesh surface. When the mask is struck by a blade, sometimes pieces of this paint chip off and can pass through the mask. I have had bits of this go into my eye. It has never been more than an annoyance to me, but I know of one fencer that had to see an ophthalmologist because of a piece that went into his eye.

While I don’t know if there is something officially known as “fencer’s elbow”, the motion used in fencing is repetitive and there is a risk of having various overuse types of injuries like in other sports. I have had tendonitis in my elbow, and I know of other fencers that also have dealt with this.

My foot in a cast. Ow!

As far as serious injuries go, it is much more likely for a fencer to injure a knee or ankle than it is for her to be stabbed. Anything that results from overextension or twisting of a joint could happen. Some of the specific injuries may include a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, meniscal tears, ankle sprains or fractures, or Achilles’ tendon rupture. I’ve also heard of fencers falling and breaking a wrist or arm. My own ankle sprain involved torn tendons and cracked cartilage, ultimately leading to three surgeries, but was also a bit of an unusual case.

So, are there any fencers out there that have had your own experiences with injury? How did you deal with it?

For the writers, do you need to give your character a weakness – why not an old fencing injury? Or if you’d like to add more realism to a fencing scene, you could use some of the details above.


Competition – Formats, Rules, and Oddities

For anyone who has been watching the Olympic fencing events over the last couple of days, if you’re not already familiar with fencing, you may have found it rather confusing. I thought that this would be a good time to talk about tournament formats and some of the rules. This might be useful to urban fantasy authors if you’d like to sneak a fencing tournament into your story. Even if you’re writing an alternate world fantasy, elements of the tournament format could be extended to your own world’s version of a tournament or duel.

There are so many details and rules – the ninja is confused.

First off, the Olympics are different than any other fencing event. I’ll mention the typical format used in most local, regional, and national tournaments in America and then I’ll go over some of the exceptions (Olympics, collegiate, team events).

Each tournament is categorized by weapon, age group, and skill level. In a smaller event, the women and men will compete together. If the event is larger, separate men’s and women’s events will be held. Most fencers are awarded letter ratings to indicate their skill level. These ratings run from A to E (also U = unrated) and are earned by winning or placing highly in competition. An “Open” event is open to all skill levels. Some tournaments are limited to lower rated fencers, others are restricted to higher rated fencers. For example, if a tournament is listed as a “D and under” that means that any fencer with a D, E, or U rating is eligible to compete.

For national events and some regional tournaments, the terminology can be different. A Division III event is a “D and under” while a Division II event is a “C and under”. There is little practical difference between calling a tournament a “D and under” versus a Division III event. The same fencers can compete. At the national Division II and III events, the ratings that are awarded to the winners are strictly defined, while for a local Division II or III event, the number and level of ratings awarded will be determined by how many fencers competed and where the top rated fencers in the tournament finished.

For tournaments restricted to higher rated fencers, there is Division I. This event is only for A, B, and C fencers. I suppose that someone could hold an event for only A’s or only A and B’s, but I have not seen this done.

A fencer’s rating also has a year. So one fencer could be a B11, meaning that she earned her B rating in 2011. If she re-earns that B rating the following year, it becomes a B12. After four years have passed without re-earning a rating, it drops to the next lowest rating.

Fencers can also earn points. There are National and International points – these are what determine the national rankings and teams and are earned at Division I events or World Cups. There are also regional (ROC) points – these are used to determine who qualifies for some of the events at National Championships. The point system becomes very complicated and more information can be found here.

As far as age groups go, there are Youth events and Veterans events. These are further subdivided into brackets like U19 (under 19) and V50 (Veterans 50+).

For your average fencing tournament, there are two rounds. In the first round, the total number of fencers are divided into small groups called pools (usually 5-7 fencers in each). Each fencer in a pool fences each other fencer in that pool. Bouts are fenced until 5 points. When all of the pools have been completed, the results are lumped together and the fencers are seeded into the second round. In some national events, only 80% of the fencers make the cut to the second round.

This second round is called direct elimination. Most fencers will say something like, “I just fenced DE’s,” or, “This is my second DE bout.” In this part, the bouts are fenced to 15 points. Once you lose, you’re eliminated from the competition (but of course, there are some exceptions. I’m not getting into that here). There is also a time limit to the bouts. A DE bout consists of three 3-minute periods with a one minute break between each one. Even if there is time remaining, the bout is over once 15 points is reached. In sabre, each point is over so fast that it would be exceptional for the first 3-minute period to even expire. In sabre, once one of the competitors reaches 8 points, there is a one minute break.

There are penalties that can be doled out by the referee. A fencer can receive a yellow card, red card, or black card. Yellow cards are for minor infractions and the first one has no effect on the score. A second yellow card penalty becomes a red card and the opposing fencer receives one point. For more serious infractions, a red card can be given right away. In egregious cases of misconduct the referee can give a fencer (or coach or onlooker) a black card. This means that the fencer is thrown out of the competition, or sometimes the building. There is a list of the type of actions that will result in each level of penalty here.

If the speed of the Olympic fencing causes your eyes to cross, don’t worry – there is instant replay! Most of the online coverage shows each touch in slow motion, although there isn’t any commentary beside the referee’s hand signals or final call. Each fencer can request two video reviews of a point in each bout. The fencer draws a rectangle in the air with her index fingers to indicate that she would like the touch reviewed. If the call is upheld, the fencer uses up one of her video challenges. If the referee changes his call, the fencer does not lose one of her video challenges. The video review process is partially used in the national level events (Division I – III) in America, but may be restricted to one strip or the final bouts of an event.

Some fencers may use a variety of delaying tactics during their bouts. There are some situations where a fencer may request a video review even if he knows that the referee was correct. If the bout is nearly over and the fencer still has two video challenges, he may wish to use the time of the review process to catch his breath, stretch a tense muscle, or rethink his strategy. Many other delaying tactics exist and I have seen about half a dozen already in the Olympic coverage. A fencer can stop to re-tie her shoe, fiddle with her weapon, change her weapon, change her glove, remove her mask to wipe sweat from her eyes or to fix her hair, walk to the end of the strip and back, or fuss about a potential injury. The referee will call the fencers back en garde but if the athlete already has untied her shoe or walked down the strip, it will take a few more seconds to be back on the line. If the fencer is not making some movement toward resuming the bout, she can be penalized. If a fencer claims to be really injured, a trainer is called to the strip. If the trainer thinks that the fencer was not injured, there is a penalty. If the trainer concurs on the injury, the fencer has ten minutes to deal with it and to decide if she can return to fencing.

There is another odd thing that you may notice if you watch a few bouts. Sometimes one fencer will hold up an index finger after a touch. This is an acknowledgement that the opponent scored. It is used more often in practice when there is not a referee or when the fencers are being courteous and are helping out a fellow fencer that is trying his best to make the calls. In competition, it is more like saying, “Touche.”

The ninja acknowledges a touch.

International fencing competitions are refereed in French. Tournaments in the United States are refereed in English, although you may sometimes hear French. The referee will say things like, “On guard,” followed by, “Ready,” a little pause, then, “Fence.” In French this is, “En garde. Prêt, aller.”

Now for the Olympic stuff. There is no pool round in the Olympics. All of the fencers are just seeded into the DE round. Also – in most other fencing tournaments, there are two third place winners. In the Olympics, the two fencers that lose in the semi-finals have to fence off for third. There can only be one bronze medal.

At some competitions, there are also team events. The team is made up of three fencers and one alternate. Each (of the three) fencers fences each one of the opposing team in a set rotation. The scoring from one bout to the next is cumulative. In the first match up, the bout is over when one side reaches 5. In the second bout they start with the score from the first bout (let’s say it was 5-3), but then the bout runs until one side reaches 10. So from that 5-3 bout, if the leading team reaches 10 and the other team doesn’t score much, you could have a score like 10-4 at that point. Or, if the trailing team rallies, you might end up with a score of 7-10. As the match continues, you could have scores that stay close (35-33) or one team could stay clearly ahead (40-22). The last bout will bring the score up to 45 for the winning team.

In the Olympics, there are also team events, but not every possible event (out of men’s/women’s foil/epee/sabre) is fenced every year. Historically women only fenced foil, but in more recent years the epee and sabre events were added to Olympic competition for women. To accommodate the extra numbers of fencers, only two men’s and two women’s team events are held at each Olympics. This year the men’s epee and women’s sabre team events will be left out.

There are other formats for some local tournaments or collegiate events. The NCAA team events are scored a bit differently.

So hopefully that provides a little more information about tournaments to anyone that is interested. Coming up next time – what types of injuries are common among fencers?

If you would like to watch any of the individual Olympic fencing events, there’s not much time left. Wednesday 8/1 is the final day with women’s sabre and men’s epee. The team events begin on 8/2.

And if all this talk about fencing makes you want to try some yourself, check out this video that explains the basic footwork.

The Most Important Thing

What makes one fencer better than another?

Is it the speed of their blade or the strength of their attack? What about hours of practice and drills? Is it their strategy and mental toughness?

The answer to all of these questions is: sometimes. But in all of fencing, there is one aspect of the sport that can always override these other factors. What is this nebulous factor that allows the experienced fencer to out-maneuver the novice? It lets the skilled fencer execute their blade work and attacks against a weaker opponent. It makes the strategy possible.

What is this amazing thing? It is the ability to judge the proper distance and to manipulate that distance. By extension, this also relates to footwork and athleticism, but even the most fit fencer’s game will falter if their sense of distance is off.

Please bear with my ninja artwork.

In the movies, sword fights are flashy and dramatic. The focus is on large sweeping moves and the clash of metal as multiple attacks and parries are exchanged. In a real fencing bout, most actions are simple and blade actions are brief exchanges. Especially in sabre, it is MUCH easier to hit your opponent than it is to block the attack. This blocking action is called a parry. If you parry your opponent’s attack and then return the attack, that is called a riposte.

A fencing point is over quickly because it does not take very long for someone (or both fencers) to get hit. The referee will call a halt and will award a point to one fencer, neither fencer, or both fencers (only in epee). Whether or not a particular hit translates into a point in the match is a separate discussion.

So how does distance become important to this? In a simple attack (one fencer advances, the other runs away), the attacker must close the distance and strike the target area. If the attacker judges the distance correctly, he will score the point. If the defender is a better judge of distance and can manipulate that distance, he can trick the attacker into falling short. Once the attacker has missed, he loses the advantage and the defender can take over. Or even worse, the attacker may be off balance and will be unable to defend after missing his attack.

At the next level of complexity, the defender is no longer going to let the attacker simply hit her. She is going to take a parry (block). In order to do this, she must do two things. First she must pay close attention to her distance. If she fails to keep enough distance from the attacker, she will not have time to see where the attacker’s strike is aimed. In this case, she may still try to parry, but it is more risky and can become a guessing game. If the defender can use the distance properly, she may even throw out feints or stutter her footwork to entice the attack. As a result, the attacker may decide (wrongly) that she has the proper distance and timing to finish her attack. The second part of the parry is the physical movement of the blade to block the attack. If the defender has judged the distance correctly, this is the easy part.

So if the defender just scored that last point, what will the attacker do if he wants to still make an attack? He might think that the defender will try the same move again. If it worked once, why not twice? The attacker does not want to lose this next point, so he must adjust his strategy. Let’s say that the attacker starts out the same way and chases the defender. The attacker thinks that the defender will try the same parry-riposte strategy. This time when the defender makes those feints and stutters his footwork, the attacker ignores it. The attacker is patient and advances more smoothly. When he sees the defender hesitate to attempt those feints again, he takes a larger step and finishes his attack with a quick lunge. The defender has overcommitted and does not have enough distance (which translates to time) to see where to parry. Unless he makes a lucky guess and can get his blade there in time, the defender is struck.

This can become much more complicated and is part of the reason why fencing has been called physical chess.

The use of distance by itself can be best demonstrated by watching an experienced fencer bout against a very new fencer. When someone first starts fencing, they can be a dangerous opponent. This new fencer does not attack smoothly, moves unpredictably, parries strangely, and does not react to feints or other body language. She is so awkward that it can make it tough for another fencer to figure out what to do against her. The best strategy for me when bouting against someone very new is to just keep my distance. I will stay away until the new fencer makes enough of a mistake that the way is clear for me to attack. If I choose to attack, I make sure that I’m extra patient. I will advance, but I’ll stay just far enough away that the new fencer cannot reach me with any surprise attacks (which would not necessarily make sense to do when retreating, but a new fencer will do them anyway). Once the new fencer is off balance or stops moving her feet I will close the distance and finish my attack.

I would venture to say that distance is critically important in many other martial arts. However, this may be a difficult detail to translate into your writing. It will be tough to describe and it may be tedious to read. I think the take home messages should be: 1) a real sword fight will be over fast, 2) it is more risky to parry with the blade than to just jump back, 3) inexperienced fencers can occasionally do something bizarre that will catch an experienced fencer by surprise.

Oh, and the London Olympics start July 27th. Fencing at this level can be tough to follow, but if you’d like to give it a try, here is a guide that might help. The fencing events begin on July 28th.

This is NBC’s Olympic fencing page.

And here is the schedule for the online broadcasts of fencing.

Does anyone out there practice a different sport or martial art? Is distance important to your sport? Or are there other things that play a bigger role in the game?

What’s In That Bag?

This week, I thought that I’d step back from the official fencing equipment and play a fun little game. It’s called: What’s In That Bag?

Here’s the idea. Suppose you are writing about a character that fences, knows fencers, stumbles upon a fencing tournament, or even finds a closet of old fencing equipment. I’ve mentioned the types of protective equipment and the weapons that would be used. I’ll get to scoring boxes, reels, and strips later. But what other interesting tools and equipment might be found alongside fencing gear? Let’s go take a look.

First off, there are several types of fencing bags. I’ve been through three or four different ones. The bag that I own now is a bit of an unusual design, but it works for me. Most bags are of two types: a teardrop shaped bag carried on a single strap over the shoulder, or a wheelie-bag which is usually a larger rectangular bag with wheels on one end. For routine practice, I carry a separate duffel bag for the sweaty stuff.

Plastic jump rope.

On an average day, I only carry those pieces of equipment that I need for practice. That means that I probably have one mask and an older lame. I don’t routinely use my newest mask and lame in practice because the conductive material will wear out after too much abuse, and these are expensive pieces of equipment. Eventually all kinds of detritus finds its way into the pockets and recesses of my bag. Those are the corners that I’m going to explore today and here’s what I found:

1) A jump rope – I use this to keep my heart rate up between bouts on days at practice when I’m feeling extra-motivated. If your characters have a situation that requires a rope, a stash of fencing equipment might be reasonable place to find at least a short one. I also found a pair of extra shoe laces in a side pocket of my bag – another item that might be useful as part of a trap, magic device, or hey, just to use as shoe laces.

Extra shoe laces, a frighteningly old energy bar, and a roll of tape.

2) A water bottle and an old energy bar – The water bottle in my bag today was empty, but sometimes I leave a partially full one in there. Perhaps your character needs water. Or perhaps your wizard needs a container for a potion. Or a poison. The energy bar may have been in that side pocket for years. I’m not going to eat it, but a desperately hungry character might.

3) Vise-grips – This is the primary tool that I use to assemble a sabre. The pommel needs to be tightened a little more than I can do by hand. Many foil and epee fencers use pistol grips which require a hex tool to tighten. A larger pair of Vise-grips would probably be able to hurt an enemy if your character used it like a club.

Vise-grips.

4) Electrical parts – This consists of extra pieces of wire from defunct body cords, electrical tape, soldering iron, and an Ohm meter. I no longer carry the soldering iron or Ohm meter, but when I had the patience to repair body cords, they were useful. If you’re writing a science fiction story, there could be numerous uses for these items.

Two rolls of foam underwrap, Biofreeze, and an elastic knee support.

5) Medical supplies – Today I found a roll of foam underwrap, a few Biofreeze packets, and an elastic knee support in my bag. I’ve never used the Biofreeze. I think it was a free sample and claims to be a pain-relieving gel. At other times, I have carried those instant ice packs and various other supports and braces. I think that I own every type of ankle support in existence. I don’t think that it would be unreasonable for your characters to find bandaging materials or simple pain-relieving medications (Advil, Aleve) among fencing equipment.

6) USFA Card – This is something that currently lives in my wallet, but it used to be in my fencing bag. It also used to be a flimsy piece of paper, but now it is a hard plastic card that could probably be used to shimmy open an easy door lock.

7) The rest of it – I also discovered a notification that TSA had searched my bag at the airport, assorted pieces of plastic and packaging, and spare and broken pieces of fencing equipment. Maybe a survivalist could figure out some practical uses for these things. At least the packaging material would burn. I have hung a banner using broken sabre blades as supports.

So for any fencers out there, is there a non-equipment item that you absolutely MUST have in your fencing bag that is not listed here? Does anyone carry something odd for luck?

If you missed my last post, follow the link in the next older post to see the interview with two-time Olympic gold-medalist Mariel Zagunis. AND today’s goodie: Here’s another link to an interview with a member of the US Olympic Fencing Team, Tim Morehouse.

For the next few months, I should be back to posting every 2 weeks. Next time – THE MOST IMPORTANT THING in fencing, and likely other martial arts and combat sports.

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