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The movements are lucid in my mind: Lunge – contre de sixte – paré en cédant – feinte de riposte. Right on the arm to finally lunge and touch the foot. Green light. I got her. 13-13; only two more touches to win. I can hear her breathing through the dark metallic grid that shields her sweaty face … or is it my own?
“Prêtes? Allez.” I advance over to her end of the piste. She’s aggressive: I can provoke her gently by faking a – red light. No! I get back en garde. Focus. I can still win. She’s tired. I catch a brief glimpse of her eyes before she dons her mask after fixing her dishevelled ponytail. She’s lost her concentration. Two minutes left: plenty. I take my time, nimbly skirting back and forth along the piste. She submits right into my steady rhythm. Confidence often leads to heedlessness. Inattention can be fatal. Back, back, one more, … green! My flèche hits her directly on the shoulder. Her furious roar is deafening. Back to the two-metre line. Just one more, this time no dawdling. “Allez.” Her adrenaline is clearly flowing. She tries to engage, but abandons the idea and starts to rapidly gain territory. Overly aggressive. I push back. 15 seconds left. Her coach screams something in Italian and she falls back towards the warning line. My coach stays silent. Five seconds. Four. Three. She lunges. Beeeep. Done
Sometimes it is better to attack, to be faster and mightier than the blade. In fencing, I’ve found that patience and precision are much sharper weapons: David versus Goliath. To be honest, it’s quite intuitive; would you really run towards a loaded gun with no incentive? I like to wait. Goliaths get tired and anxious; under pressure, a countdown usually does them in. Impatience leads to imprudence. Hold off that extra second and that window of opportunity flashes just in time for you to lunge to victory. As it reads in la Fontaine’s fable, “Patience et longueur de temps font plus que force ni que rage”; meticulous persistence trumps brute force.
The deepest understanding of myself is the understanding that I have acquired through my many bouts. While some adversaries squeal in victory or defeat, I walk over to hear my coach’s advice, then quietly get back en garde, thinking only of my next attack. What happened in the last touch? Utterly unimportant; all that matters is the point I am about to make. She won the last bout? I will win this touch. I beat the last opponent? I will do it again.
In truth, my development of this mindset has been a far greater challenge than improving my fencing. While friends are worrying about football scores, I am fretting over my non-extant post-college housing. My worst nightmares have been about my broken car, which I am a long way from owning, or forgetting my guitar for the talent show – a month before the event. My biggest obstacle is “seizing the day,” “living in the moment,” “YOLO”-ing. Despite this inherent anxiety, I’ve trained myself to adopt what my coach calls “the Hungarian method”; one touch will win the bout. I ignore the past and future points; all that matters is what I am doing now to win. I’ll focus on the next bout later. I’ll think of lunch when I get hungry. I’ll consider what’s next when next comes. When needed, I can clear my thundering brain and converge my thoughts onto my current situation.
Buzzers sound all around me, followed by triumphant shouts or defeated groans. Looking around, I see a gym full of desultory ghosts. Some run in circles to purge themselves of thoughts, headphones jammed into their ears, keeping them away from dreaded conversation. Others sit, contemplating blank walls, retrospective images of their previous games echoing through their minds. I take off my meshed mask, shake her hand, unclip myself from the piste and walk away.
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