One of our Y12 epee fencers, despite being very early on in his fencing career, wowed us all with a great performance today. Michael started fencing just last fall and has very few competitions under his belt; we don’t have many Youth epee competitions in the Bay Area. Prior to this tournament, his biggest competition was the Northern California RYC with 8 or 9 epee fencers in the Y12 age group. Prior to today, he had not yet won his first bout.
Today he competed in the biggest competition of his life, surrounded by more experienced fencers and with every excuse to question his place and belonging. Our hope for him was to have fun and score at least a few touches in his first Summer Nationals. No one truly expected him to win a bout. We were all blown away when he WON a bout 5:3! His first win EVER and it’s at Summer Nationals. You can imagine how he felt, how his parents cheered, and how every AFM fencer and coach in the venue went over the top with excitement.
A bit later as I was cheering for other AFM fencers, Michael’s dad rushed to me with the live results from the pool. The referee had reversed the score and the pool sheet said that Michael LOST 5:3! I jumped up to correct the situation. I found the other fencer who immediately agreed that he had lost. Together we went to the Chair of the Bout Committee, Mary Griffith, whom I respect tremendously.
I was expecting an easy fix. The pools were still in second flight and both fencers agreed the result was inaccurate. I was wrong. We were told that since both boys had signed the protocol, the result could not be changed. No exceptions. It did not matter that the pools were still ongoing, that final seeding had not started, or that it was Michael’s first national competition and first bout win. It did not matter that Michael, with just six months’ fencing experience and only four local competitions, was overwhelmed, excited, and too scared to point out the mistake, and not even sure of the right way for results to be recorded. It also did not matter that tomorrow was Michael’s 12th birthday. Rules are rules and both boys signed; both boys, but especially Michael, learned an important lesson to always read and confirm before signing.
As a parent, coach and fencer, I was devastated. It seemed so unfair. Yes, I understand the planning and coordination it takes to run an event such as Summer Nationals with 9,000 participants; I know that the rules and procedures help things to run smoothly and that exceptions do just the opposite. Yes, I sympathize with the bout committee and referees who put in 15-hour days for the last two weeks, who stick to the rules for structure and clarity, and must do so without caving to emotional pulls.
I understand and respect all of that.
But then I think of Michael: a young boy who has just started fencing and has yet to create his own sense of right and wrong within the sport. He’s left to make sense of what seems like an injustice created by adults, one that it’s surely difficult or impossible for his young brain to justify. Thankfully he doesn’t yet understand how one victory changes seeding and impacts who he faces in DE, but he knows what it feels like to win for the first time ever and then to have that win taken away.
Michael went on to compete against a much higher-level fencer in the first round of Direct Elimination. He scored five touches; that’s five more touches than anyone expected him to score. We are certainly proud of him today.
It’s tough to know what’s going on in Michael’s mind as he processes the day’s events. All I know is that he seems okay. However, I do know what’s going on in MY mind. Rules are important, and it’s also important to teach children the rigidity of some rules, but I just have to wonder if today could have been handled differently. Do some situations warrant an exception? Could we find a better way to teach the lesson without the heartbreak?