During the COVID-19 pandemic, fencers are faced with something that we have never been faced with before – with a feeling of solitude in an absence of an opponent in front of them.
What is a fencer without an opponent? Are we really anything? Certainly we must be something. As this quarantine drags on, we find ourselves searching through deep and wide thoughts about how to define fencing.
The clubs are empty. The strips are bare.
Right at this moment, there is no next competition. There is no next opponent. Yes, we know that there will be, but we don’t know when that will happen or who it will be. That is a challenging place to be for a sport like ours, which is driven by the cycle of competition.
Rather than allow ourselves to be dragged down and fall into depression about this, we have decided to adapt. This gives us an opportunity to explore what fencing is beyond our comfort zone. I don’t know that any of us realized what a comfort zone we were really in until this global pandemic disrupted everything. Any experienced fencer will tell you that pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone is where growth is.
So let’s grow.
What does it mean to be a fencer with no opponent?
Standing alone on the strip, a fencer is completely on their own, though they are surrounded by a combination of referees, competitors, coaches, and onlookers.
There is no one else, only the fencer. Everything else is simply the trappings of the sport. It is outside. Separate. Different.
With fencing, there is no contact. Not with the opponent, not personally. For everything, they are a mystery and an object. We know that our opponent is a real person that is driven by their own experience and desire, but to us they may as well be an automaton. In one view of it, they could be a robot or a hologram moving through the air. The only feeling is the click of metal on metal and the press of a cold blade on our bodies. Would it work if there were no one there at all?
When we are running solitary drills, we imagine that an opponent is across from us. We think about what they would do, where their blade would cut towards us and how the breeze of their motion would push against. Sometimes in fencing, the bodies and blades are moving so fast and with such force that the action is done before you blinked your eyes.
We are alone when we are fencing. It is an aloneness of power. It is an aloneness of growth. It is an aloneness of fulfillment, but it is still an aloneness.
Are we really so separate?
Yesterday I saw a beautiful post on Instagram by Nathalie Moellhausen, a reigning World Champion in epee. You cannot say it more eloquently that she did that what drives us is a real connection to each other:
“My dear opponent, at the moment we cannot be together, but we will never be apart. For no matter what life will bring us, one day you and I will be there again, ready to break this distance to get the hit again. So please keep working by distance as I do, and nothing will break the bridge that connects us. I need you as you need me. If you are motivated, I am too. If you train everyday, I do it too. If you are studying me, I do it too. If you are changing, I am changing too. Whatever you do, I do it too, because we are both responsible to keep fencing alive, because fencing is our future. Distance doesn’t mean separation.”
Embracing the self through fencing
You as a fencer are not defined by your opponent. Though we count fencing points and matches, what we are really counting is our forward progress. That progress exists apart from those matches and those podiums.
It is hard for us to see sometimes, but it’s also something that we have always focused on. This is a fundamental philosophy of our fencing. It is not about the opponent, it never was. It is about you. Your fencing. Your growth. Your passion.
Without an opponent, you are the fencer that you always were. Your value comes from the passion that you bring to it. It is beyond any fencing club or any medal that you may have earned for getting a point more than another fencer.
Whether you are on the stage at Fencing Summer Nationals, or television at the Olympics, or in your backyard fencing against the open air, you are still a fencer. If your blade has not crossed another blade in a week, or a month, or several months, then you are still a fencer.
This seems impossible to explain, because it is something that you feel inside. It’s a deeply personal and deeply meaningful thing to put on the mask and the glove, then grab the blade and lock into that “en garde” position. It is primal but also thoughtful.
If you are not able to face an opponent, and you may not be able to for a while, do not let go of your identity as a fencer. Put on the gear. Pull out your sword. Don’t just watch videos or read books about fencing, BE a fencer, train. Because you cannot train the same way as you have before, that does not take away this identity. Explore yourself as you are now. Write about it, meditate about it. Live it, in whatever ways you can.
The more we go through this time of extraordinary solitude, the more it becomes evident that fencing is more than what we thought it was.