by Meg Floyd
Longpoint 2016 ended last weekend. Social media, expectedly, has exploded in the usual congratulations, navel-gazing, and general hurrahing of such a large event that’s center to many people’s fencing lives, at least here in the U.S. This Longpoint was unlike any other I’ve been to so far for many reasons–and I’ve been to all that were hosted so far, except for 2012. I went with the largest team my club’s ever fielded (six total), and most of my clubmates did really well. Four of the five were the pool winners and advanced to elims in open longsword. One person went on to elims in rapier. We brought home a couple of medals in cutting and one in paired techniques. It was a good year for the club. I won matches in all of my pools in both rapier and longsword, which is better overall than I think I’ve ever done at a tournament (unless you count events where I competed only in women’s longsword, because I’ve medaled in that a few times). I was really happy with how I fought, and for once felt like my competitive results are an accurate reflection of where I am right now in my training, particularly in rapier and dagger, which is what I’ve been focused on this past year.
And Longpoint this year was tough. Not just the usual old guard of instructors who seem to hog the medals, but their students who’ve been around for a few years are all getting much better. Eliminations this year in open longsword were brutal, many matches running down to the last exchange or sudden death. It’s a great place for the community to be, especially when I think back five years ago to the floppy Rawlings I owned and the football pads I wore under an XXXL sweatshirt to compete at Longpoint that year.
But that’s not what’s occupied my thoughts since I’ve gotten home. Late on Saturday night, after finals and the things that we don’t talk about happened, I sat drinking with a few people and listening to them talk about all the fencers they admire and all the great fighting they saw–what you might expect a swordfighter to be occupied with the night after the most prestigious tournament on the eastern seaboard when they’ve gotten into their cups. As I sat listening and trying to finish my wine, I reflected at how boring prodigies and prophets really are. They’re great exemplars, sure, but I have a suspicion they’re mostly the stuff of other people’s imaginations. I’ve never known a good fencer who called it easy or didn’t suffer or hurt for their knowledge. More importantly, the vast majority of fighters, especially in a sport like HEMA which is still grass roots and amateur, are not going to experience it as prophets or prodigies. It’s going to be hard work. It’s going to be a grind. And some fencers, some of the most interesting and best fencers I’ve ever met, are ones that have been shaped by the moments where they’ve lost or been unable to perform for one reason or another.
The prodigal son of historical fencing, Axel Pettersson, is perhaps the most well-known name in (and outside) of our community. When people look at Axel, they probably see and remember gold medals and victories or an intimidating opponent across the ring. When I look at Axel I remember the times over the years when I’ve seen him sidelined by injuries or illness, and whatever tenacity it took to get through that barrier and come back to retrain through the lost time and then become even better. I cannot make any elucidations as to Axel’s feelings or motivations during those moments where he faced the question of What are you willing to do to keep going at this?, but I have a suspicion they perhaps shaped his training more than awards have. Then again, perhaps not. I am not, after all, psychic.
I ran across a great article this afternoon from a UFC fighter musing about a fight he lost. He said:
I go to the shower, the one I’d envisioned coming back to after a win, and rinse the blood….I find myself telling a UFC employee I’m fine, although he hadn’t even asked if I was or not. Maybe it was his reaction when he saw me. The looks are always different after a loss. Perhaps it was me telling myself I was fine. I go back to the hotel, where everyone from the event is reliving the night. Hiding face has never sat well with me after a defeat. I feign my best act of indifference. It is disingenuous, and exhaustingly so. It’s a defense mechanism, but maintaining a “worse things have happened” response to failures can last only so long in the sports world. The sky may not be falling, but that doesn’t make me any less embarrassed…. The better fighter on a night is the one who was victorious. That’s the point of fighting, to figure out who’s better. The whole crux of sports is based on execution, and in no competitive event is it ever about what we could have done, or what we are capable of, but rather what it is we actually do. I wasn’t better that night, and that’s what matters; that night. That’s how I have to look at it because that’s how I grow. Consistency, night in and night out, that’s the only way this works. Mental errors are a tough thing to come to grips with, and it’s best for me to stay positive by refusing to have a fixed mindset when it comes to fight IQ. Instead, I keep one of growth. Physicality can be peaked, athleticism too, but what can never be capped is an ability to learn, if we make an effort to do so.
I’m not a pro UFC fighter, but the words hit home and brought me back to the moment of loss that has most defined my fencing career so far. Swordfish 2013, the only Swordfish I’d ever been to, was a devastating loss for me. I competed in women’s and open longsword and won not a single fight. I remember sitting in the gym lobby after the finals livestream, broken-fingered, covered in black and blue welts, dazed and still exhausted with jet lag, wondering how after an entire year of build up and training and working harder than I ever had in my life, that it had come to this. How could I have lost? I didn’t deserve to lose, after all the work I put in! I almost quit fencing that night, I was so angry and distressed. That moment of complete devastation would come to shape everything about how I make goals and the way I train for many years to come. It many ways, it still defines me internally.
It took a lot of soul-searching and hard thinking to finally come to accept that the beautiful thing about fencing is it’s not on a schedule. If I’m still fencing in ten years, a loss one year will be a learning moment among many moments instead of a soul-crushing defeat. This way a single event becomes both important and unimportant at the same time. I’m going to progress as fast and as far as I’m going to progress, and not any more than that. Some things–like injuries and illness–are out of my control. Some things, like my weight and the amount of effort and time I put in, are. How fast other people progress, how tall or fit or fast or sleek or talented they are, makes no difference to me. I’ll still be here fencing in the years to come, as long as my body lets me.
Three years and a lot of fencing later, I’m still here. I’m finally fencing the way I want to fence, things are finally clicking, and I’m finally figuring out how I need to train to make things work for me. I’m interested in different things now, like helping my students and clubmates, and watching them go through some of the same things I’ve experienced. I hope, at times, I’ve been able to make it easier for them by coaching or sharing my experiences. I’m not sure I have. Maybe writing this will help someone reading it. Things are often easier when you realize you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing.
My point, I suppose, is that the moment of loss will come. It might come sooner or later, and before or after you’ve won something, but it will come. It will force you to really ask yourself what you want from this, and what you’re really willing to give to get it. There’s no morality to the answer, truly. But it’s important to be honest with yourself. Harsh self-honesty has always been the seed to any of the real growth I’ve seen in fighters, myself included.