I have fenced for over twelve years, but sometimes I forget that I won’t actually die if I lose a bout. This fear was especially noticeable when I started fencing. I was excruciatingly shy, and my previous training in ballet dancing had drilled into me the importance of perfect form. I refused to attack my opponent because I was too worried that I would mess up my technique and leave myself open to a counterattack. Nevermind that I still ended up getting hit when I retreated to the end of the strip—I was too afraid of taking that risk, too unable to trust my own judgement.
At first, it seems as if this sort of caution ought to be a good thing. I fence épée, where there are no right-of-way rules to ensure you will get a point for starting an attack, unlike foil and sabre fencing. Extending your point half a second too slow, misjudging how close your opponent’s point is to you, or choosing the wrong target can result in a double-touch or even lose you the point entirely. You need to carefully design a situation that will ensure that you will get the point by lulling your opponent into a footwork pattern, showing them false blade actions, essentially giving them a steady and predictable environment, and then taking it all away in an instant. This all requires a good amount of time to establish. However, once you have set all this up, you cannot hesitate. You need to commit yourself entirely to the moment you have chosen to act and hold absolutely nothing back. The timing for scoring a point in épée is so finicky that if you doubt your action even slightly, you will slow down enough to lose the point. It is both unforgiving and absolutely thrilling.
Years of patient instruction from my coaches, mentors and friends at Rain City Fencing Center in Bellevue, Washington helped me build up the confidence to start my own actions, and soon I was competing nationally and had earned a B rating in épée. Being recruited to Vassar was exciting for me, but it came with its own perks and challenges which to adjust. Suddenly, I was on a team. I wasn’t just fencing for my own satisfaction or my own personal growth—I represented Vassar. Winning or losing would affect the expectations put onto my teammates, and just one bout, just one touch, could make the difference in winning or losing as a team.
To make things even more difficult, Coach Soyka took the fencing style I had developed for years and quickly tore it apart. I had a knee-jerk reaction to parry four, a low circular blade motion intended to catch the other person’s attack and deflect it. It’s a remaining instinct left over from the years I spent fencing foil before I switched to épée. It was my security blanket. I still adore the action—it’s a lovely feeling when someone’s foible ends up in your forte, and you can feel the leverage shifting in your favor. You just lower your point slightly to their shoulder, and there, you’ve hit them. Suddenly, that satisfaction was replaced with the misery of doing five push-ups. Every. Single. Time. I parried. Four. Sometimes my arms would wobble so badly that I could barely keep my blade up. But my instincts still screamed that I needed to do the action.
That shock was completely outdone by the action Coach Soyka used to replace my comfortable lunge: the flèche. Flèche” means “arrow” in French, and it involves pushing off of your front leg to nearly leap at your opponent, then run past them after you’ve scored. Flèching was terrifying for me. Unlike a lunge, there is no way to nicely recover and retreat out to a safer distance if you mess up. Once you execute it, you have to fully commit to it. The action is quintessentially épée, and even more unforgiving of a moment’s reluctance.
I was shocked by these dramatic changes to my fencing style, and my body fought them tooth and nail. It was undoing years of training, years of instincts, years of…fear. Parry four was the safe action to which I ran away whenever I couldn’t figure out an opponent. Lunging and quickly recovering meant that I did not need to commit fully to my first action. I told myself I was a second-intention fencer. Really, my fencing plan was a collection of actions to execute assuming I would mess up that first attack—when I knew I would hesitate. After all this time I still couldn’t trust my own judgement.
Undoing my old habits to replace them with these new choices required a great deal of mental and emotional effort for me. Mostly, it took a lot of trust. Coach Soyka is like an uncle to me, and while it was easy to tell him I trusted him with my fencing training, it took an entirely new level of trust to throw away everything I thought I knew about fencing, just to follow his vision. It took a lot of practice to adopt this new mental mindset. It required losing bouts I know I could have won if I had retreated back into my back-up plan fencing. I needed to trust my teammates in order to feel comfortable taking these risks while practicing with them and fencing alongside them at competitions. Truly, I am forever grateful for the amount of support and advice they have poured into my fencing. In the end, I fence because it gives me a safe place to practice this self-trust. The real world is a scary place to try out new things, and fencing gives me an avenue to explore my relationship with myself. It started by flèching at practice, where I was scared of the action but safe and surrounded by friends. Then I began to trust my choices enough to try it at competitions, where the stakes are higher. Bravery and self-discipline are practiced skills, and other things in my life began to feel like risks I could take with the correct timing and commitment. I trusted myself enough to flèche at NCAA regionals, to ask out my current boyfriend, to challenge myself to take a 300-level math course. With every flèche and every action I make while fencing, I practice the courage and self-discipline I hope to bring to every decision in my life.