A Love Letter to the Fencing RefereeDear Fencing Referee,

We know that the most hated person in pretty much any sport is the referee. No matter how hard you try, no matter how evenly you call a match, somehow you always end up with someone unhappy with the choices that you make. Whatever decision a fencing referee makes, one side or the other is going to be on the receiving end of bad news. In the eyes of many fencers who get on the wrong side of the call, you are taking the side of their opponent and keeping them from winning their match. This is of course a totally unfair assessment.

We know that you aren’t a fencing referee because you’re looking to make friends.

It’s got to be tough to be the bad guy sometimes, because we all want people to like us. But you didn’t become a fencing ref to make friends, did you? Maybe you did it because you just love the sport of fencing. Maybe you started refereeing because you knew you could do it well and it was needed. Maybe you enjoy the challenge. It’s definitely not because people love referees.

You wear the intensity of the emotions that swirl around you so well. You stay calm even when a parent approaches you after a match with a raised voice as they argue why you’re the worst. You keep your wits when a young fencer gets frustrated and throws their mask to the strip over your point call.

You stand between two people with swords as they grunt and yell while trying to swipe and poke each other. Sometimes these people might be much bigger than you, and they are almost always brimming with intense emotion. Being in the thick of it must be intense! When coaches start to jump up and frantically yell out instructions during a match, you stay calm and cool.

While you might not be in it to make friends, we can tell you that people respect you and admire you.

We know that you know your stuff.

All of that vast knowledge of fencing didn’t just miraculously plop into your head. You had to study hard to learn everything you need to know about the official rules and who should get the point. You had to spend years in action learning the sport to become a better ref.

Even if you were the best fencer out there before you started to ref, when you went to ref your first bout you were a rookie. And you got a lot of abuse from all of us – the fencers, the coaches, the parents. You were called names, you were called the worst possible referee ever born on this planet, you were accused of a bias, of having an inability to read a simple fencing phrase and make the world simplest call. But you had the grit to not get all this hatred under your skin.  You learned and learned, and with each next competition your skills, knowledge, and understanding improved time after time.

You are a super smart cookie there fencing referee. The piles and piles of fencing information that you’ve got to know is astounding. Heck, it’s a mountain! A massive mountain! Not only that, it’s a mountain that’s always changing. It takes brain power to keep all of it straight, to make sure that you know what calls are right to make and what calls are not right to make.

There are a thousand things happening at once at a fencing tournament. The venues usually have cacophonous sounds, echoes of parents and kids and other fencing matches ricocheting through the hall. Then in the middle of it you have to focus on just the two fencers in front of you, all the while their coaches and parents are hollering from the sidelines about what they should do and how you should call what they do. Focus is the name of the game for fencing referees.

Thank you for your study and mental acuity. It’s no small thing!

We know you’ve been where we are.

Once upon a time you were a fencer yourself. You probably fenced competitively once upon a time too, and you probably still fence.

What’s great about knowing that you were/are a fencer yourself is that you definitely understand where we fencers are coming from. You know what it’s like to go up against an opponent, and you know what it’s like to have a fencing referee make calls that go in your favor or not in your favor. You know the feeling, you know the emotions, and you know that deep down in our hearts we are not really accusing you in our lost match or missed medal. It is just how the emotions erupt when things do not go our way, especially when it is 14:14.

We know that you sometimes make mistakes, but you are always trying.

You do make mistakes. You do make the wrong call. Everyone does, we’re all human and no one is perfect. But you do always try to get it right, you do always try to make the call what it should be. Sometimes situations in fencing are murky, and that’s something you know all too well. You know the murkiness, you know the hard calls, and you know that you wield a great deal of power over the fencers on your strip.

It’s obvious that it’s about integrity for you. How you conduct yourself in the tournaments and off the strip, how you keep things even and fair as possible. Honesty. Fortitude. Humility. Steadfastness. We can tell that you struggle with it sometimes, that the pressure can be overwhelming. You stand strong anyway.

When you do make mistakes, they can’t always be undone. That gotta be tough. There’s no taking it back if you look back in hindsight and realize that you made the wrong call. It’s a great deal of pressure and expectation, and we appreciate that you are willing to take it on. Not everyone would be willing to step up and make things happen!

We know that you’re essential to fencing.

Fencing would not happen without you. That’s just the honest truth. Referees like you are just as essential to fencing as the mask or the sword.

In fact, let’s take a moment to imagine fencing without referees. It would be pandemonium! Chaos! No one would call the points (well, not totally unbiased at least). Gosh, no one would even start the matches! We’d all just stand around the strip in our fencing gear, no one knowing when to start or how to proceed. If somehow two fencers did start to fence with each other, they’d just go on and on and on – no one would stop it! Then heaven help us if someone didn’t think the machine scored the right way, or if there were simultaneous touches. Think about right of way! That sticky technical aspect of fencing only works because we have great referees.

We love you our fencing referees. For a million reasons, but most of all because we know that without you, this sport would be impossible. People can be hard on you, and that’s not always fair. In the heat of frustration and the passion of the fencing match, things get intense for fencing referees. People can be very unkind, and yet you weather it well. We don’t know how you do it! Thank you, thank you for everything that you do for all of the fencers.