We talk so often about the things that fencing brings to us. It brings us physical fitness and mental sharpness. It helps us to grow and find personal fulfillment through overcoming challenges. It allows us to find the best version of ourselves. All of those things are wonderful, they’re great. But I would say the greatest gift that fencing gives us is friendship. Not just friendship, but the lifelong friendship that enriches our lives in ways that no one expected when we first stepped foot onto the strip and picked up a sword.
It’s not the medals we are after
This past weekend, we held our customary graduation party for our fencers who are ready to step out into the world. It’s become an important tradition for AFM that includes sharing memories, connecting our community, and sharing our excitement about the future.
Last year, COVID pushed us into a virtual celebration. We made the most of it, highlighting our graduates with an online party and driving by their houses with signs. It wasn’t the same, but then nothing was the same during the pandemic. This year, we were ecstatic to be able to hold our party in person!
What I didn’t expect, what I never thought about happening, was for our graduates from previous years to come to the party. It was truly joyful to see them. These young people of the Class 2021 had gone on to different, fantastic places – Brown, Columbia, MIT, Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, Brandeis, and more. These were great fencers who had fantastic national achievements. They each brought something special to their training, and it was an enriching experience to have them back at AFM.
Surrounded by these wonderful people who are making their way in the world, they asked me for some wisdom. When I looked around at them, all I could see was the friendships they had forged through fencing and how those continued long after they left the club.
The thing is, they will forget that they were United States Champions or National Medalists. Those achievements are made up of long months of work, but they only flash for a moment. The medal is hung around your neck for a day or an evening. Family, friends, teammates, and coaches celebrate with you on social media and over festive meals. Then the next day comes and you go home, hanging up your medal or putting it in a drawer. We don’t celebrate our medals and our achievements every day, we keep on moving forward. The rank doesn’t make you shine, and even a wall full of certificates of national achievements don’t give you value.
The next day after that amazing competition and that walk up the podium you’re back to your routine. It’s like nothing happened, but something remains with you.
After the peak that is winning those big competitions, what remains with you are the connections. The friendships that are forged through shared experiences don’t ever go away. In fact, with time they only grow deeper and more meaningful. The glow of getting that final point in a championship match is fleeting, but the bonds of friendship are long-lasting.
Champions cannot just sit back on their laurels and wait around for something to come along. They have to continue to get up out of bed every day and do the hard training. They have to continue to do the diligent work that makes those medals. The medals aren’t what we’re really after – it’s something else we’re looking for. That’s why fencers have a hard time stepping away from the strip, and indeed why many of them never do. The medals are part of the journey, but they are not the destination.
Medals don’t define you.
Reflecting on fencing friendship
When I looked around the table at this group of twenty or so kids, it was clear to me that they weren’t kids anymore. They had crossed over into early adulthood, these fencers who I’d watched grow from awkward young teenagers into full-formed grown-ups. Each of them was making their way in the world. Each of them was creating a life in their own unique way, some of them with fencing still at the heart of their world and some of them having followed their passions to other ventures. What stayed the same was the bond they formed through fencing.
This group of former fencing teammates were not teammates anymore, they were now friends. Watching them laugh and connect, it’s clear that they carry this friendship with them when they are scattered to the four winds. They think about each other. They constantly communicate over group texts and social media. They pass the rumors and gossip from the club over innumerable miles. They’re on each other’s speed dial should one of them need an ear or a word of support.
Beyond fencing, these friends are in one another’s lives. Past the long days practicing their parry or the years that have gone by since they were in the club.
Through fencing, they have become a circle. It’s a circle of relationships that were built between matches and over the yell of referees. It’s a circle that is no longer defined by the thing that first brought them together. It’s a circle that clearly has not been broken by the pandemic or the shifting nature of their dreams.
From where I sit, the most important thing is that they come back to celebrate their old friends. No one has been left behind, and they look to carry their strength forward to the fencers who follow. That circle is strong, but it can grow to share space and support with the people who follow them out of the club and into the world.
Our new graduates will now step into that group of similarly minded, high achieving young people that share a past passion and a future strength.
In this fencing community that we have built, we absolutely train fencers to become champions. The skill of fencing is the nuts and bolts of what we teach, through talented and dedicated coaches. We teach fencers to use their talent and their intellect to pursue goals that they didn’t know they were capable of. I thought this was the heart of what we did at AFM. What I didn’t understand until this weekend was how much we train fencers to be there for each other and to build a community themselves that they carry with them long after they walk away from our four walls.
Seeing old friends come together with the love and laughter of uncountable steps along the strip and immeasurable green buzzers, it brought me a swell of joy that is hard to describe. This is the real value of what happens in our fencing club.