It’s very difficult to climb the mountain.
It’s very easy to fall down.
I recently had the privilege of seeing a fencer get his A-rating. It’s a long, hard road that goes over a lot of years to get to this point, and it’s a huge accomplishment. There’s a feeling about this achievement that is something akin to getting to the top of a mountain, because it’s a long way up! It’s hard not to look at how far you’ve come up to this point and not marvel at the height of it.
What happens when you get to the top of that mountain though?
Staying at the top
What happens when you scramble up to the top of something? Do you stay there, or do you have to keep on holding on? After everything that you’ve put into the journey thus far, you want to maintain your position at least.
A big misnomer is that, when you get to the top, that you’re stable there. As though you can stand on the ledge and just look around, take a long sip of water and maybe a nap. Anyone who has ever been rock climbing will tell you that it doesn’t work like that.
When you’re actually on a rope and climbing up a mountain, there’s no real rest. There are moments of quiet and reflection, but you can’t just hang there on the rope all day. You have to put your hands back on the rock and keep on moving. Even when you stand on a ledge for a while, turning around to take in the view, you’re not stopping.
Once you get to that peak, that doesn’t mean that the work is over. The work doesn’t even slow down here, because life is a constant push to stay where you are.
The hard fall
If you don’t work hard to maintain your position, the fall down will be hard and terrible. There is a constant need to cling to the side of the rock and maintain where you are. If you let go, there’s a huge tumble and a roll back down to the bottom.
Staying on top isn’t about hubris – it is about survival. In fencing, we clearly aren’t intuiting that it’s life or death, but at the same time, we are invested in the work that we’ve done thus far.
The higher you get up there, the harder down the fall will be if that’s what it comes to. The A Rating, or whatever accomplishment it is, might feel really great in the moment, and it should, but it will be equally as bad to fall all the way down to the bottom.
The climbers below you
Below you, there are other climbers who are making their own way up the mountain. Though you might have put in a lot of effort to get to this point, now they are all putting in their own effort to get up the mountain.
Your opponents will not wait for you while you take a break.
The other fencers who are also chasing the same dreams that you are chasing are not going to slow down because you hit a peak. Before you know it, you’ll suddenly look up to see that those others aren’t below you anymore, they’re scrambling up ahead of you. While you stopped, they got past you and they aren’t showing any signs of stopping.
Though you are only ever competing against yourself, that doesn’t mean that those opponents aren’t offering you some motivation. It’s good to have a push from your peers to keep yourself focused and moving forward. When you stop, they don’t stop.
Fencers who want to continue to achieve have to consider the other fencers who are putting that great pressure on them just by climbing themselves.
Ledges up the mountain
There is no highest part of the mountain because it’s metaphorical. There is no pinnacle. Every time you make it up to one ledge, you can stop and have a look around at the scenery. Then you turn back and see that the face of the rock in front of you is still there and there is another ledge ahead.
This is not just true of that moment that you get a fencing rating, it’s true of all of the moments of success. When you get that podium finish in a local competition, there’s now a regional competition to go to. When you get that podium finish at a regional competition, now there’s a national competition to go compete in, this year and the next. On and on, even all the way to the Olympic stage.
Even Olympians talk about this. When they get to that ultimate goal of the Olympic podium, there are now other milestones for them to pursue. They take a breath and they get their bearings, and then they find new things to achieve.
It’s a blessing and a privilege to have this high mountain to climb up. We don’t ever stop, but to stop would be to fall off the mountain!
Appreciate your own work
The level of work that you’ve had to put in to get here is significant. You’ve worked a lot, given up a lot, and pushed through a whole lot to reach the point that you’ve reached. Think about the hours of training and the time sacrificed.
To get to the achievement that you’ve gotten, whether it’s the A rating or whatever it might be, you had to overcome so many very difficult obstacles. Each of those obstacles was you pulling yourself up with heart and dignity, and of course you don’t want to allow any of that to go to waste.
The feeling of mastery makes it all worthwhile! Part of that appreciation comes from pausing for a moment to look around and enjoy the feeling. Part of that appreciation comes from turning back to the hard work to maintain the status that you’ve achieved.
The mountain is your old friend
Instead of thinking of the mountain as something to conquer, what if you thought of it as an old friend?
When I look at this young person who had worked so hard to earn their A rating, it’s hard not to look at this milestone in the context of the rest of their fencing journey. This isn’t the pinnacle, it’s more like a midpoint. However, that really doesn’t capture what the experience feels like.
Competitive fencing is refreshing, but it’s also comforting. At the point that a fencer gets to that A rating, they have been in the sport long enough to become attached. You cannot put this huge number of hours into something and not feel close to it.
Mountain climbers rarely want to go up a route once, or even twice. They want to come back to that same place and climb it again. The mountain becomes their old friend, one that continues to challenge them every single time they wrap their fingers around the rock, but an old friend nonetheless. Even though the conditions might be different with each outing, and even though their body might feel different every time they make the attempt, there is still joy there.
This is an old friend that keeps calling us to come back. The intensity of hard competitive training is tough, but it’s also highly rewarding. We want to keep coming back to it, to revisit this old friend.
What I hope for this young fencer is that this accomplishment lights that feeling of fire in them. Rather than try to conquer the mountain, I hope that they are able to embrace the connection and beauty in this mountain.