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Summer Nationals – Day 3

I’ve actually arrived back at home by now, but I didn’t want to let more time go by before I finished up my posts on the 2014 Summer Nationals.

This final day of competition for me saw me in Division I-A. This was a tough event, and my opponents were at a level that I’m not usually used to fencing. 100MEDIA$IMAG1365

Unfortunately my legs had had enough of all the lunging and jumping back and forth and my fencing prowess went rapidly downhill from my first bout. The ideas were there, but I couldn’t execute them. At least I didn’t finish last.

I wanted to go back now to show some photos and video of the event. Here is a general view of the convention center from where I’m standing at the side of one of the instant replay strips.

If anyone would like to see the full results for any event in the tournament, you can look at this link on the US Fencing Association’s page.100MEDIA$IMAG1368

This next photo shows one of the equipment vendors. They have everything from blades to shoes.

The USFA also posts videos of the finals on their youtube account. These are great to watch to see some nice fencing, but also are useful to learn from.

Lastly, here is a video that I made with one of the club’s men’s sabre fencers (on the left) in a first round bout in Division I.

 

 

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Summer Nationals – Days 1 and 2

It’s been a whirlwind of fencing here in Columbus, Ohio. I had planned to write a post each day, but time got away from me yesterday. Too many bouts to watch, too much equipment to buy, and too many friends to see.

That’s one thing that isn’t obvious to a newcomer to such an event. For those of us who have attended, oh, more than a dozen of these, you will run into teammates, friends, and competitors that you haven’t seen in days, months, or years. It’s an opportunity to catch up, cheer each other on, and grab dinner and maybe a few drinks.

So the end result of that was that by the time I made it back to the hotel, I was overcome by sleep before I could blog.

Yesterday I fenced Division III – 12th of 100. Today I fenced Division II – 24th of 96. One more event to go. I’ll get some photos of the venue for tomorrow’s post.

I have to add that the sports medicine staff has been great. My back was stiff and sore after the 8+ hour drive to Columbus, before I ever fenced. I was afraid that after day 1 of competition, my back muscles would stiffen up worse than ever and I’d be ruined for the rest of my events. One short trip to Jeremy (who has worked on my back before), and I was as good as new.

Here is a video of the gold medal bout for the men’s sabre Division I-A event. This bout happened a few days ago, but it takes them a little time to get the videos edited and posted. A few tips for watching:

  • Yes, the referee is speaking French
  • There is a strange pause at 3-7. This is because the fencer on the left asked for video review. There is a second referee sitting in front of a computer that can show an instant replay of the action.
  • Once one fencer reaches 8 points, there is a one minute break.
  • On the last touch, there is another video review request.

I bought two more pairs of socks today. They’re the best fencing socks that I’ve found.

Who else fenced today? When you’re not there fencing, do you watch other events, shop, socialize, or head back to the hotel’s jacuzzi?

Summer Nationals – Day 0

It’s finally here! Summer Nationals started on June 22nd, and hordes of fencers will be converging on the Columbus Convention Center in central Ohio through July 3rd. If you missed my earlier post, you can catch up on the basic facts of the event here.

This year I decided to drive because I’m fencing on three separate days and the airfare was rather unfriendly. I packed my tournament equipment, which doesn’t differ much from my everyday practice equipment at this point. I threw an extra lamé in the car, double-checked that my competition mask was in my bag, and tossed a lot of extra socks in my suitcase. About nine hours later, I have arrived!

Dinner or fire?

Dinner or fire?

I have checked in at an Extended Stay America for the week, which features a kitchen. I unpacked my cooler, and since it was too late to order dinner anywhere, set to work cooking myself a carb-heavy meal. I searched out a plate, spatula, knife, fork, and colander, only to discover that I lacked a pot to boil water. With a quick trip to the lobby, I obtained two pots. The woman working at the front desk seemed surprised that I really wanted to cook. Wasn’t that one of their advertising points? She warned me to be careful not to set off the smoke alarms.

Nutella

Dessert – Nutella with strawberries

Well everyone should be happy to know that I managed to boil water without setting off the sprinklers. I don’t fence until the afternoon tomorrow, so I hope that this meal will stay with me through the day. I don’t like to eat much immediately before or during a tournament. Most importantly though, I remembered dessert!

Each event in a tournament is given a check-in window an hour in length. The first round of fencing typically starts thirty minutes after the check-in ends, although with the increased prevalence of computerized tournament software, sometimes this happens faster. I used to plan on arriving at the beginning of that window, but for tomorrow I’ll probably arrive earlier than that. I need to allow enough time for my warmup.

For the first day of competition, I’ll have to take my equipment to be tested and approved by the armorers. They will evaluate it for safety and conductivity. Once each piece passes for the first event, it doesn’t need to be retested on the following days.

I don’t have any particular rituals or routines that I need to perform before my event. I’ll bring an iPod with some music for my warmup. If I’m at the venue early enough, I’ll watch some of the other events. I might scan the vendors for interesting new gear, although I rarely buy anything until later in the day.

For other fencers, how do you prepare on the day before a tournament? Do you have a unique routine? Does it differ for a local event when compared to one where you need to travel?

Summer Nationals – US Fencing’s Super Event

On occasion, someone will ask me how long the fencing season runs. This isn’t really a fair question – as fencing has grown in popularity in the last decade, the season has expanded to the extent that you can find somewhere to fence any time through the year. You can look at several different aspects of fencing in this regard – the NCAA season, local events, national events, club practices, or training camps. Even with this variety, a lot of fencers still conclude their season by competing in the US Fencing Association’s largest event – the super-sized tournament known as Summer Nationals.

Summer Nationals has events for everyone – with all three weapons included, men’s and women’s divisions, and age groups stretching from under 10 years to over 70 years of age. The event is held at the end of June/beginning of July, and rotates through different locations across the country. This year, it will be in Columbus, Ohio and runs from June 22 to July 3.

Unfortunately, not every fencer can compete in Summer Nationals. The tournament has grown so large that, for most of the events, an athlete must qualify by competing in local competitions earlier in the year. The main events are divided into four divisions – I, IA, II, and III. Division I is restricted to the most elite athletes and can only be entered by those with a rating of A, B, or C. For more information on the rating system, see my post here. For Divisions IA, II, and III, the fencer must have finished within a certain percentage of the field in a local qualifier or a designated regional event. Divisions II and III also restrict the entrants to only those fencers of lower ratings.

After Summer Nationals concludes, many fencers may take some time off over the summer. Others will head to training camps held in a variety of locations either in the US or abroad. Local competitions typically start up again in September, with the first North American Cup (national event) held in October.

After my ankle injury last spring, I had to withdraw from the 2013 Summer Nationals. This year, I’ll be fencing in Division IA, II, and III, as long as I don’t have any other accidents before then!

 

Haitian machete fencing.

No mask, no padding, sharpened machete.

How is the old master still alive?

Link

Asymmetry in Fencing

With the fencing season in full swing, I thought it would be a good time to return to the topic here. Today I’m going to point out how strange fencers’ bodies are, how that may lead to injuries, and how it may influence any fictional fencers you are writing about.

For a beginner, fencing presents some unique challenges that can be encountered before one even picks up a blade. The en garde stance, the movements forward and back, and the lunges are not a movement that most people would encounter in day-to-day life. Compare this to a sport such as soccer, where anyone can start play on a basic level because you already know how to run. There are certainly rules to learn and techniques to practice, but even a newbie can run across the field. Many beginning fencers that I have watched over the years have a lingering level of awkwardness that will persist for a month, six months, even longer, depending on their development.

Lunging fencer. (c) Sylvain Sechet, reposted under Creative Commons license

Lunging fencer. (c) Sylvain Sechet, reposted under Creative Commons license

Fencing is also asymmetrical. It might be fun to swing one sword in each hand, but for now that isn’t in the rules for the sport. This will lead to more muscle development in the dominant arm, although fencers don’t typically grow “big” arms from their sport. The weapons are all lightweight, but the repetition will eventually lead to some disparity between your limbs.

This asymmetry extends well beyond the weapon arm. All that footwork practice builds muscle in the quads, hamstrings, gluteals, calves… really the entire lower body. Most fencers will find that as their footwork improves, their front leg grows larger than their rear one. Even the muscle on the front of my right shin is larger than that on the left. If you are writing about a character who is new to fencing, that person will be SORE when they are learning the footwork. I remember feeling this mostly in the quads. Nowadays, if I return to practice after a break, I will feel it more in my hamstrings and gluteals.

In my own experience, I have found that I can lunge all day with my right leg forward. After so many years, it feels like a natural movement to me. However, switch to the left and I nearly fall over if I try to lunge with any sudden force. (I also run into walls at home, though.) Switching from the use of your dominant hand to the opposite one will also require that your footwork reverses itself. This is more challenging than it sounds.

A few years ago, I strained a muscle in my side. I stood in front of a mirror and tried to figure out what exactly I had done. I raised my shoulder, poked at my ribs, and in the process, I discovered that I had weird muscles on one side of my body that weren’t present on the other side! Okay, that’s not completely accurate. The muscles existed on both sides, but on my right side (I’m right-handed), they were more developed, and thus more visible because of the nature of my fencing movements. Fencing requires a lot of strength and coordination in the core muscles – the abs and back. The legs propel a fencer, but the core muscles allow the fencer to remain upright and coordinated when changing the direction of movement suddenly.

Even more experienced fencers may struggle with long hours of footwork practice. That lunge is never quite good enough, and there are patterns of footwork that must be repeated in practice so that they become second nature in a bout. Most fencers would rather fence practice bouts than drill footwork, but good footwork translates to good distance, which is critical to putting all your skills together to score the touch. For more about the importance of distance, read my earlier post here.

Graphic by Jen Christiansen, Illustrations by MCKIBILLO; Source: Lars Engebretsen, University of Oslo

Graphic by Jen Christiansen, Illustrations by MCKIBILLO; Source: Lars Engebretsen, University of Oslo

In terms of injuries, fencers will be more likely to have bruises on the side that faces their opponent. For example, a right-handed fencer will tend to get more bruises on the front of the right leg, the right elbow (ow!), and the right shoulder. I have over-exerted myself and developed a minor strain in my right hamstring more times than I can count. I have jammed my toe into the front of my shoe on my front foot and had my toe nail fall off months later (also multiple times). I’ve had tendinitis in the elbow of my weapon-arm. I’ve had blisters on my right hand and thumb (and not my left). I don’t know that anyone has studied the incidence of front-leg versus rear-leg injuries when looking at more serious incidents. I have torn ligaments in both ankles. Overall, fencing is still an extremely safe sport. For those interested though, I go into more detail about other types of injuries here.

Has anyone seen a truly ambidextrous fencer? I have, and there are rules about how often you can change which hand you use. What other sports share the same type of asymmetry? Does anyone else have any experiences or injuries that might be related to this asymmetry?


Ready to fence in 3, 2, 1…

Wow, how time flies…

It has been almost 10 weeks since my ankle was surgically repaired after injury. At 12 weeks I can do “athletic things” again, and thus the countdown to fencing begins. During my recovery I went from completely non-weight bearing with a cast and crutches to a big plastic boot, an air cast, various ankle braces, and then nothing beyond a good sneaker. Physical therapy three times a week has also helped.

It’s amazing how much leg functionality you lose when you’re off your feet for a few weeks. Even up until a couple of weeks ago, my legs would tire after standing for a short time. I couldn’t stay on the elliptical machine at the gym for even 10 minutes because my calves threatened to cramp up.

I have very little pain in my ankle and it no longer limits my day-to-day activities. There is some reduced range of motion, but that should continue to improve. I have a little more physical therapy ahead of me. I can do basic fencing footwork, although I’m hesitant to lunge onto that leg with any force yet. I’ll wait out that full 12 weeks before I attempt that type of “athletic thing”.

So with the traditional fencing season that starts around September/October, I’m hoping to return to practice in the next few weeks. (Yay!!) And as tempted as I am to jump immediately back into competition, I’m not going to allow myself into a tournament until at least November. I mean, I still have to remember how to lunge…

What Is With My Ankles?

Well, I’ve been a bit lax on my blog here, but it turns out that I’ll have a lot of down time in the next month or two. I’m going to try to get back to regular posts on fencing, writing, and whatever else piques my interest.

It looks like my previous post on fencing injuries has been my most popular, and it just so happens that that is the reason for my newly found free time. I’ve managed to break the other ankle. Well, it’s not really broken, but as far as fencing goes, it is. In competition last weekend I made a counterattack and scored the opening touch in a second round bout. However, when I landed on my front foot, it rolled over and forward and made an unhappy crunch. I remember hopping on one leg for about a second before I half-fell, half-rolled down onto my back.

Right ankle, <24 hours after the injury.

Right ankle, < 24 hours after the injury.

In fencing competition, you’re entitled to a single 10-minute medical break. If it is determined that you were not truly injured, then you’re penalized. There’s not often a trainer present at a local-level tournament to bring this into question. I took full advantage of my medical break and slapped ice onto my ankle as soon as possible. I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to stand on it, but when my break was over, I did manage to finish out the bout, losing 15-9. Since this was the second round of the tournament, a loss meant that I was eliminated.

By the time I made my way home, it was starting to swell. Having had previous ankle injuries and a relatively high pain tolerance, I babied myself at home rather than run to the emergency room. As with injuries in other sports – P.R.I.C.E. is the acronym to remember. This means: P – protection, R – rest, I – ice, C – compression, and E – elevation, and is the standard initial treatment for sprains and other injuries. A good summary of the considerations and protocol can be found here.

Once I was able to contact my doctor, I ran through a series of tests – x-rays and an MRI. Most ankle sprains are inversion sprains – meaning that the ankle rolls in such a way that the three ligaments on the outside of the ankle are damaged or torn. In my case, one is torn and the other two are damaged. For your average person, this can still heal with rest, an ankle brace, and physical therapy. The ligaments don’t regrow though. You’re hoping that maybe the ends of the torn ligament will find each other enough to scar and that the remaining ligaments toughen up enough to compensate. The ankle is a pretty stable joint, so this can work out. But there is often more risk of future sprains due to the looser ankle joint.

Ankle Inversion. Photo by BarneyStinson13, shared under Creative Commons license.

Ankle Inversion. Photo by BarneyStinson13, shared under Creative Commons license.

For athletes, there can be a surgical option, and this is what I’ve elected to do. My doctor is going to sew the ends of the ligament together so that there’s a better chance of regaining full function without the risk of ongoing problems and surgery at a later date anyway. There’s more to it than that, but it should get me back on my (fencing) feet sooner. For now, I’m practicing on my crutches to build arm endurance over the next few days before the procedure.

Has anyone else had sprains like this from fencing or other sports? Have you been through physical therapy for an injury to the ankle or other high impact joint? Have you used the P.R.I.C.E. protocol for an acute injury?

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.

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