“My life wouldn’t be half as good without fencing”
Every Wednesday night during the open fencing time, a gray-haired, noble looking man rigorously works through the same sequence of warm-up exercises week after week. Then he goes on strip and fences with any one who will join him, putting his full energy and heart into each bout. He does not care who he fences against, be it a 12-year-old girl or one of our most advanced senior fencers, each he fences respectfully.
His name is Alan Buchwald and he is a 63-year-old foil fencer who trains with Coach Alexandr. He is gentle, kind, and inspirational. Frankly, watching veteran fencers, active at their age and taking the sport of fencing very seriously, would inspire anyone!
After his private lessons with Coach Alexandr on Wednesday afternoons he and I often chat a bit and time after time I am intrigued by him and his stories more and more. Until one day I asked him to be interviewed and he kindly agreed. Our conversation gave me a spark, so I did not want it to end. “Fencing is my life,” Alan told me at the end of our talk. Please read it, enjoy it, and be inspired by his life!
Irina: Tell us how fencing relates to your life?
Alan: Fencing is a big part of my life; it always excites me to fence and I like the challenge of it; I like foil especially because it has style and finesse.
Irina: It’s like a queen of fencing. Did you try epee?
Alan: A maestro suggested using epee for cross training a few years ago, but I developed severe tennis elbow, which took me five months to recover . It did help me to improve my reach, but it wasn’t worth the risk of not being able to fence at all.
I: Really, because you switched the weapon or it was too intense?
A: Foilist’s parry a lot and I parried more than epeeists normally do, and that triggered it. At one point I thought I might have to switch to left handed and even bought a left handed grip.
I: What is the main difference for you?
A: With foil it takes more energy and endurance than epee, that’s why more older people continue with epee and not foil.
A: I am emergency physician.
I: Do you think fencing helps you in your profession?
A: Definitely – it helps in everything you do. It develops confidence and being able to deal with unusual situations. On the strip, you are never presented with the same thing exactly. So I think it gives you a better way to respond to life situations.
I: You told me a little bit about the beginning and I think it is lovely story. Can you tell your story?
A: I started fencing because my girlfriend had been on the UC Berkley fencing team. I was intrigued with it, I wanted to fence with her and learn to fence in general. During the summer of 1973, I had what was called a medical student externship in Huntington Beach. In my free time I took an introductory fencing course at Fullerton State. After that my girlfriend and I would fence, and then progressed to local circuit fencing in LA.
I: Do you remember the feeling when you took the foil for the first time?
A: No, I don’t remember! It’s 40 years now! But it reminded me of “chess on wheels”. I played chess and it’s that type of strategy, but you are also moving.
I: You know fencing is called “Physical Chess”
A: No, I didn’t know that. Really.
I: Yes, really! You see, you almost invented the name!
A: Probably not.
I: For so many years you stay in fencing, and it is really impressive. What is your biggest motivation to continue?
A: Well, I think you always want to get better. Obviously, some measure of that is your rating. This year I wanted to get on the world veteran team; we will have to try again next year, as added motivation.
I: Oh, it was a wonderful year, I think!
A: Yes, it’s been a good year. I had some great experiences. There is no question I definitely improved under maestro’s care. Fencing has a big mental component, and in competition you have to learn how to totally focus on the moment, and on the concept of one touch at the time and not even think about the rest of it, and I think if you do that and fence well, then all the rest will just come. The best bouts I ever had were the ones I finished, won the bout and I didn’t even realize it until the Director called it. In the past I used to think I needed to get “in the zone” fence better, but now I don’t believe that is true.
I: What does it mean ‘getting in the zone”?
A: Well, it’s a state when you see touches hit the lame in slow motion and your actions are very precise and you fence well. But you cannot force yourself into the zone; it just happens spontaneously. But now I find times when I fence really well, but I am not in the zone either, which is fine, I don’t feel I need to be in that zone, and that is better. The point is the mental thing is a very key element.
I: You told me about constant improvement and that’s every year you have certain goals and you go towards these goals. Do you have a record of these goals and keep track of them?
A: I have overall goals, like life goals, not just fencing and fencing is part of these goals. Some goals are for this year, some for the next year, and some for the five-ten years, and beyond that there are certain goals that you think are unachievable, you list those too. Some of those are fencing goals, and some are life goals.
I: Interesting, so you put on this list some goals that you think are unachievable?
A: Yes, because unless you listed it as possibility you wouldn’t achieve it, you have to list what you think is beyond comprehension for you. The list is one page and I review it every 6-12 months, and some that I achieved I check them off, and some that I achieve but want to maintain I leave them on the list.
I: There are hundreds of competitions you participated in. Could you remember the one that left the biggest impact on you?
A: It was the first Canadian American Veteran Cup in 2011. I fenced in the combined over age 40 and also my age group, which was 60-69. First of all, it was an unbelievable venue, in Kingston, Ontario, which was the old capital, at Queens University, so the venue was gorgeous, like an Olympic venue. Even the medals were unique. There was a Canadian fencer that I faced in the pools, who I could tell was very experienced. He beat me in the pool bout pretty easily. Direct Eliminations ensued, and my third Direct Elimination was with him. It is a 10-touch bout in the Veterans, and I thought – how could I defeat him? And I remembered certain things from the pool bout that I thought I could take advantage of, and I changed how I fenced, and I was able to stay ahead of him by one touch, and it was 9:8 in my favor. There was particular faint action that I thought he would try to take, so I used it , disengaged and scored the final touch. It was the veteran combined competition and a young guy knocked me out in the next DE bout, but I went on to win the gold medal in my age group. So for me this bout was one of the best, because it was a bout with planned strategy that I was able to carry out meticulously.
I: This was your most special bout?
A: Yes, I think it was. It was not that big an accomplishment in itself, you know, but it was special for those circumstances.
I: How nice! I was expecting a story about a final bout and huge trophy or a gold medal! But your story shows that medal is less important that the journey to it… You know, when some people after 40 years of marriage are asked whether they ever considered divorce, they answer ‘“Divorce not, murder – yes”. Did you ever considered ‘killing your fencing, quitting?”
A: Yes, I have considered it, especially when I haven’t met my own expectations.
I: So why you did not quit?
A: Well, I actually stopped for about 4 or 5 years, but it had to do with responsibilities with my family and job that took precedence during 1990-1995.
I: What brought you back? Did you miss fencing?
A: I was out of shape and didn’t feel good. I was on a trip to Greece with my family and we were in Olympia, the REAL Olympia, and I wanted to run the oval track there, and I felt really out of shape and I said I am not putting up with that anymore. The year was 1995 and I seriously started again with fencing.
I: It is interesting, you traveled to Greece and it happened at this amazing place where Olympic Games originated and it gave an incentive to restart your fencing!
A: Yes, within 3 months I was back actively in fencing. When I was younger my medical training took me to San Francisco, that’s where I did my residency. I fenced at Halberstadt’s during that time, and then after that I came back to San Jose and fenced at The Fencing Center, but I didn’t have time to really focus intensively on fencing; I enjoyed it but I couldn’t do what was necessary to progress. But since 1995, I am better fencer than I ever was when I was younger, it is just I am not physically as good due to my age now. I feel this is due to intensive instruction and also fencing 2-3 times a week. I fence at Salle Santa Cruz twice a week and on Wednesdays I take my private lesson [with Coach Alexandr] and fence at night here [at AFM].
I: I know many athletes have their special rituals before and during competitions. Do you have your own ritual?
A: My thing is my warm-up. It’s a warm-up “ritual”, but I don’t do it for competition only, I do it every time before I fence the same way. The purpose is to settle me down for the competition, as if I was preparing for open fencing in the club, where the results are not as “important”. If I always do it the same way preparing for open fencing and competition, then I feel there is less pressure; it is also critical for an older fencer to avoid injury with a consistent method of warm-up.
I: What is your greatest accomplishment as a fencer?
A: When I got my B-rating, I think it was my best accomplishment.
I: When did it happen?
A: In 2007
I: What makes you really nervous during competition?
A: If I am way behind. But I have been way behind before, and I have been able to come back and even win, so I am not worried too much. Mostly I know I need to get that first touch. I feel if I get the first touch, and I am patient and use the remaining time correctly, then I have a good chance. I am not worried if I am down, until I am beat, basically, because you can always come back. I never concede the bout early and never give up. Recently, I was directing a young male teen and an adult woman in competition. They were doing a 15-touch bout, and she was beating him 10-1, and he said “I don’t want to continue” and conceded the bout. I couldn’t talk him out of it. But I will never concede the bout, even 10-0, I am not going to give up.
I: Who is your fencing hero?
A: Gerek Meinhardt. He is very special. He is not just an outstanding fencer, but he is self-assured without being arrogant. You know a true champion fencer is someone who does not “lord it over” people, knows how to interact with people in an “every man” basis, and he is like that. He is really sort of modest, unless you know about him, you might not think that he is that special, and that’s a true champion.
I: Tell us about your work with Coach Alexandr.
A: I took lessons with several coaches before. Now it is Coach Alexandr and he is by far the best I ever had, the best of my personal experience. He is very exacting; his is very particular about making you do it the right way, and he knows how to get fencer to be more economical in their movements. For example, I was fairly experienced before I started with him, but he has moved me to be less reactive, more calm, more focused and precise in my actions. I think he also teaches very good strategic approach. He adjusts the lesson and specific actions to the individual student. For example, he knew that I wouldn’t be able to do a flick. I am not physically very good at it and I do not really “like it”, and he saw that right away and said to me that he does not think flick is for me, and I said: “fine, lets forget about it”, and then we can work on that which is more specifically suited to me. There is something more with him, he has that way about him; he ihas a good sense of humor and you like him right away. I met him years ago at a Bay Cup tournament, he was directing a bout I was in and I could tell right away from the interaction with him that this was someone very special. I didn’t know than that he would be my Maestro, I had no idea. It was only later that I had this opportunity. He is no nonsense, of course, and you can tell he wants results, and I want to get good results, both for him and for myself. You remember the day when I showed him my Gold medal from Pan-American last year? The Gold medal is sort “antique” and looks more bronze in coloration. So I showed it to him and he looked and said “Not Gold?!”, and I said “No Maestro, It is the Gold!”. I do want do well for him as well as for myself, but maybe a little more for him, for believing and supporting me (and also Coach Natasha). It is pretty special for me and I have had a lot of coaches though the years to compare to.
I: What are biggest benefits of fencing for you?
A: Well, you know physically you feel really good. Mentally it also great – it clears your head if you had a tough day, it relaxes you. If you progress it instills confidence and you feel pretty good about yourself, most of the time. Sometimes you lose some bout or don’t reach the level at competition that you want. I remember one time I fenced at a competition in Davis, and I had “D” rating then, and the competition was D and Under, about 30 fencers, most of them younger than me, and the medal was gorgeous, and I wanted that medal. It turns out one of the competitors was unrated, but he was an assistant instructor and he was better than anybody else, and it ended up that I did have the Gold medal bout with him and he defeated me. You learn to accept defeat gracefully and put it all in perspective.
I: Last question: describe yourself without fencing.
A: My life wouldn’t be half as good without fencing. I mean physically and mentally I would more “soft”. There are many times in life that things depress you; fencing helps you adjust to life’s “slings and arrows”. Fencing is my life and it will be a big blow if I cannot do it. I often think of Don Appling who fenced all three weapons until he was 92 and consider if he could do it, perhaps I can too.
I: Alan, thank you so much, you are very inspirational and I believe our readers will love to learn more about you.