Why We Play: Fencing

Courtesy of VC Athletics

[TW: This article discusses depression, substance abuse, forced enrollment in a psychiatric facility and self-harm.]

Full disclosure: I began fencing after seeing it on iCarly. My dad was just excited that I was expressing any interest in a physical activity, so he eagerly took me to the basketball court at the YMCA in the rustic mill city of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. There, I met the coaches who taught me the sport, and who have since largely assumed parental roles in my life. In a sport packed with ego-driven coaches all too willing to bleed upper-class parents of money to produce uber-competitive athletes belonging to a quasi-athletic class, these salt-of-the-earth people were down-to-earth locals. Although I haven’t trained at Blackstone Valley Fencing Academy since moving to New York, that parental relationship perseveres there and in Poughkeepsie. Now, I find it at the Phoenix Center, on Hooker Avenue, where I have an uncle, an older brother and a grandfather whom I would never have if it weren’t for fencing.

While I spent my formative years grinding away on the fencing piste, my club a home away from home, my contemporaries were enrolled in lavish sleepaway camps, forming bonds with other children of the bourgeois from coast to coast. They flew to ritzy North American Cups to compete in youth tournaments as early as age 10. I didn’t.

As I grew older, I began to embrace the socioeconomic divide between kids like me and kids like my rivals. Don’t get me wrong, my family was and is supportive of my athletics. However, in a stereotypically “rich kid sport” that can easily devolve into a spending war of attrition between Wall Street execs on behalf of their children, to ascend to the higher rungs of American fencing is incredibly difficult without significant financial help. And this isn’t necessarily bad—once I started working in high school, there was something edifying about working for my own equipment, a cost-related worry my prep-school companions didn’t really need to concern themselves with.

As I began to struggle with my mental health in high school, this sense of fulfillment from wrestling with obstacles didn’t go away; it only changed forms.

Every year in the early spring, the New England Division of the United States Fencing Association holds a qualifying tournament for several events at the National Championships. Many a year I had competed there and failed to qualify, failed to fulfill my pipe dream of going somewhere even in one of the country’s most obscure sports.

The week before qualifiers in 2016—a crucial year, might I add, as athletes in their junior year of high school fight tooth and nail for recruitment onto a collegiate roster—I was committed to an in-patient psychiatric ward. While my competitors were training for the big tourney, ready to seize onto any opportunity needed to gain a foothold in fencing and the connections that lay beyond it, I was restrained against my will, dangerously close to the gory end of a road wrought with alcohol and substance abuse, self-harm and suicidal ideation. I will never forget the words a social worker spoke to me before ordering that I be transferred to the shittiest, illest-equipped psych ward in Massachusetts, which marked the beginning of the worst week of my life: “Kids like you don’t last long in the world.”

In the ambulance ride to the psych ward, in my last moments before my cell phone was confiscated, I sent a text to my childhood coach, whose guidance kept me in the sport and has helped me be a better man. It was something to the effect of “In the hospital. Almost died. Will explain later. See you at tournament Saturday.” It was Tuesday, and I was convinced I’d make it to that tournament. I was going to prove that pessimist bastard in the hospital wrong.

I spent several days stripped of privacy, liberty and connections to the outside world. I lost more than six pounds in four days because I was not fed enough. I was given double my usual dose of antidepressants, putting me in too much of a slumber to outwardly try to die, but leaving me trapped in a confused internal paranoid hysteria. My cuts and burns were not treated, and I was given a single set of disposable paper clothes to wear for the week. My only toiletry was hand sanitizer from a bathroom wall dispenser that I used to wash my hair, wash my skin, brush my teeth and treat my self-harm wounds. My roommate was an accused arsonist who was in the facility as part of a plea deal.

Unbeknownst to me, while I was stuck in the psych ward, my parents were advocating for me, and I was discharged Friday afternoon. My parents and I drove home, and when I got there, I did what anyone who’d just spent a week in hell would do. I packed my fencing bag and went to practice, paper pants and all. This week was but another obstacle to be overcome.

The next morning, my dad and I drove up the same road the ambulance had taken me, the same road we took home after my discharge. The venue awaited. To skip-along, cliché romanticization of a sporting event: Plainly, I put on the greatest athletic performance of my career. I went to the 2016 Nationals five months later, where I placed 13th out of 147 competitors in my event. When I was finished fencing, I embraced my dad in the greatest expression of love I have ever witnessed. I fenced that day on behalf of the kids who killed themselves, perhaps after hugging their parents one last time. Despite a years-long conflict with depression, two years later, I was able to join the varsity roster of the school I had dreamt of attending since watching a crew of Vassar fencers dominate a tournament when I was a younger boy. Most importantly, I’m almost four years clean.

I have a tattoo of an epee that I had done the day I finished high school, complete with a flaming backdrop and the maxim I’ve adopted in the years since my brushes with death: “Carry the fire.” The tattoo covers my cuts, evidence of self-hatred paved over by the ink strokes of self-love and the fervor of permanence. My full-body fencing uniform covers these and burn scars never to be seen again, thankfully faded to oblivion. When I pick up an epee, it’s not the mere pageantry of some trust-fund kid fencers. Nor is it for sport, as it is for my opponents, whom I truly respect. When I compete, it’s not for me, and it’s not just for Vassar. I fence on behalf of all the kids who reached the end of the road, never to return.

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