How waving a sword changed my life

English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Ta...
English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Task Force demonstrated the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program as well as displayed weaponry in support of Fleet Week 2010. More than 3,000 Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen will be in the area participating in community outreach events and equipment demonstrations. This is the 26th year New York City has hosted the sea services for Fleet Week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I moved to New York in June 1989, I arrived just in time for the worst, (of two since!), recession in my industry, journalism. I knew not a soul, had no job and had not attended university in the U.S., which, I belatedly realized, makes a huge difference in getting ahead here.

I wanted a fresh, fun challenge unrelated to work, and decided to take up fencing, through night classes offered at New York University. They’d supply the equipment. I just needed to bring energy, commitment and a pair of sneakers.

I’d taken ballet for years, and loved its grace, French terminology and history. But I wanted something ferocious and competitive, not endless plies and tendues going nowhere. Classes were taught by the NYU coach, Steve Mormando, a former Navy guy and two-time Olympian.

It was deeply, quickly humbling, as new muscles announced themselves with aches and pains. I was too slow and clumsy for foil and didn’t like epee. So Steve decided to make a small group of 30-something women into saber fencers, an unheard-of ambition in the early 1990s, when women had yet to compete nationally in that weapon.

I and my team-mates would make history by doing so.

The lessons I learned in the salle have stayed with me, helping me in work and private life. (NB: An epee, foil or saber is actually called a weapon, not a sword. But using the word “weapon” in my headline seemed unwise!)

Here is some of what fencing taught me:


Fencing bouts have only five touches. I was once down 4-0 and once would have simply thought “Fuck it” but Steve taught us that every point is a new bout. I won that bout, which changed how I see life’s possibilities. If I assume I’m defeated, I will be.


In sabre, the weapon’s style is based on cavalry fighting, with only the body above the hips as target, including the head. Getting hit on the head is always a bit of a shock, even wearing a metal helmet, and I always came home with bruises on my arms and legs. No biggie. If you’re scared to get into the game, how can you compete effectively?


Fencing has been called “chess at the speed of boxing.” Like chess, the sport is very much a mental one, a matching of wits and temperament and the ability to look multiple moves ahead in order to win. This skill is essential to any sort of professional success.


The only way to win in fencing is to observe each opponent carefully, before and during the bout, in order to pinpoint and penetrate their weaknesses. Everyone has one, and likely several; I once had to fence a much larger man but used my smaller size and greater speed to my advantage.


Fencing often hurts and, like many athletes competing in a sport they take seriously, pain becomes a mere distraction. The end goal is to stay focused and win. 


Of all the lessons fencing taught me, this was by far the most valuable. I learned to stand back, to wait for an opening, to pull distance, to not react. Becoming emotional  — often a default female choice — is self-indulgent and useless, as anger and frustration simply impede the ability to fight (and win) with a clear head.

Here’s a fun story from The Globe and Mail about a Toronto businessman who fences extremely well with all three weapons.

American designer Vera Wang, best known for her wedding dress business, was a former competitive figure skater and ballet student, both of which shaped her drive as well. She told Allure magazine:

It was my life. I think the training and the discipline, the loneliness — you have to develop a core of strength — helped me in my career. And I danced at the American School of Ballet. That is is intense, intense shit. You know, feet bleeding, Black Swan.

Ralph Dopping, a Toronto designer, blogged about how his sport, martial arts, has shaped his perspective as well.

What does it take to get to the black belt level?


What else?

Those are just words.

But they convey a mindset toward learning. The martial arts are centered in lifelong learning whether you practice consistently or not. The principles that are taught behind the study of the art is what stays with you.

For life.

What sport or physical activity has shaped you?

28 thoughts on “How waving a sword changed my life

  1. I liked that, Kaitlin. It’s so true that activities like sport – any enterprise that requires us to put ourselves out there to perform to our highest level – will help shape our character and assist in our everyday lives. I was never good enough at anything to achieve that level of skill myself – though I’ve observed them at close hand in professional dancers and athletes – for me the life lessons came through deep meditation, and observation.

    1. I TRY to sit still. 🙂

      I was lucky enough to spend some time writing about the National Ballet of Canada and got to watch class, rehearsal and performance. I’m forever in awe of dancers and athletes.

  2. I like this a lot. I did not do much sports, yet my most physical activity was on stage as a performer. It is always a great thing to have an activity that helps shape you as a person. I am more self-confident because of my performance experience, and it has been the best thing to ever happen to me.

  3. Steve

    What an interesting concept you discovered for your life that made you a better person. Why is this the complete opposite of what our government does for we the people? Instead of rewarding hard work, self confidence and sheer grit to accomplish whatever task we are confronted with in that conflict called life, the government seeks to punish those qualities and reward incompetence, slothfulness and surrender. I just don’t get it.

    1. Oh, it’s been tough. I’ve had “the government” — municipal, regional, state and federal! — banging on my door all day insisting I stop being active and independent, trying really hard to hand me HUGE checks for doing nothing.


      Steve, seriously?! What is your obsesssion with “the government”? I find my life negatively affected by a whole host of things — usually corporate greed in all its forms — but rarely “the government.”

      1. Steve

        I was just making an observation in general and agreeing with you. Sports and competitive activities are great carryover activities in obtaining life skills. I have five sons and each one has competed in different levels of competition. Their sport of choice was wrestling. The skills they obtained from competitive sports has most definitely made them able to be productive in life. I merely observed that our government puts forth just the opposite example and expects the same results. I do apologize for being so close minded. I enjoy your blog and I do get carried away with politics sometimes, I was just making an observation of life principles that you brought up and i made it political. I’m sorry I just found it ironic is all

      2. I actually think it’s very cool that we stay civil and keep our senses of humor! Especially with all that testosterone in your house, channelling it into sport is a good choice! I have two half brothers, one 10 years my junior who plays a lot of hockey and one who in his teens did dressage and was a highly ranked equestrian. Kelly’s tend to be super competitive and sports are a great place to put that.

  4. SnowfoxBandit

    I love this! My past six years as a part of a kung fu studio have shaped my entire life in ways I never expected. For a non-athletic, introverted girl, walking into the studio in the first place is something I never thought I would ever do. In fact, this coming weekend marks the start of my 7th year as part of that family — I may need to write about this at my own blog!

  5. what a nice post, I took really beginner foil at the University of Guelph, and LOVED it. Before foil it wasd highland dance. I’m the world’s most uncoordinated person, and I didn’t really have the opportunity to do these kinds of things when I was a kid, so I love anything physical that requires skill and finess. It’s just so rewarding when you can peice it all together and come up with something, it’s a bit like a puzzle.

    1. Foil was WAY too hard for me! Good for you. And Highland dancing…you can NOT be that uncoordinated. I’m super-impressed.

      I actually think there is a very direct link (bizarre as it sounds) between dance and fencing. Both require being able to isolate your top and bottom halves, doing very different things with each simultaneously, hold your center, do fine, quick movements — and not fall down! 🙂

      It is rewarding to be skilled at something complicated.

  6. I apologize for this long reply. I have so much to say about the sport I love. The first text I usually receive in the morning is, “Good morning, Love, have a good ride.” To think of how cycling has shaped me becomes an exercise in discerning how it has not. Cycling has become a means of measure–what is happening when I am riding and when I am not riding–e.g., a common text is: ‘No ride today, have to write for website and clean house,’ or, ‘Taking road bike to Ann’s, will ride 50 through Potrero Canyon New Year’s Day. Riding Fixie local tomorrow.’

    Cycling can be a stable forum for a mindful practice. To explain briefly, cycling allows for these possibilities: times to sort through grief and other emotions; to observe the flow of thoughts while riding 100 miles; to observe my determination and pain calmly and to breathe with patience to keep climbing that hill after 85 miles in 93 degree heat; to race and learn to lose and win, to accept fast and slow, to be humble, to be grand, to accept the abilities and failings of others, to ride with a good friend as we talk about life.

    Safety while cycling depends on attention in the moment. A coach once gave me advice about going down a winding and steep hill, “Wherever you look, the bike will go there. Don’t look over the edge.” Cycling is a great way to cultivate awareness and bring it back to center, it matters on the bike. It could be any sport, it’s just that I think bicycles are just about the best invention ever made. I am a 57-year-old woman, I write ‘The Fixie Chronicles’ on my blog about tales from the road and the addition of a fixed gear bike—the stuff of much younger riders—to my cycling.

    1. Love this. All of it!

      I just walked an hour up some really steep hills — in 30 degree cold (and I have a really nasty virus I cannot shake.) Getting sweaty and tired from vigorous exercise is so powerful. And I love how cycling, and walking, reveal our landscapes so differently. This afternoon (!) I discovered a house set back in the woods I had never noticed before, and which was only visible by walking far from the road.

      Canoeing does this as well. You are preaching to a grateful choir!

      1. Thank you! And, oh yes! I agree about cycling and walking revealing landscapes so differently. I have added the riding of a fixed gear bike (one gear only), which is a slower form of cycling and thus a new world can be discovered, and new routes explored. Walking provides more intimacy with nature.

  7. Lynn Daue

    Gymnastics. I started when I was 6, and for years afterwards, my entire life revolved around the sport. My week was always so packed with practice that everything else is my life had to be rigorously scheduled. I learned discipline, order, leadership, fearlessness, and many, many other lessons from my coaches and my teammates. I’ve finally learned to let it go a little, but it took getting back in the gym and learning one of the competitive floor routines the year I turned 30 to do it!

  8. I started taekwondo shortly after turning 43 and it has added such a great dimension to my life. I’m getting ready for the first test towards becoming a full black belt. I love the strength and confidence it has given me. My first love will probably always be running – I love that high and being able to “meditate in motion”.
    I like this post – physical activity is so incredibly important and the discipline you gain from training can be applied to most other areas of one’s life.

    1. Thanks for the kind words and appreciation. I tend to stay away from awards because they usually require a lot of links and I am insanely pressed for time these days…and slowing down my posting to accommodate this.

      But I’m glad you’re enjoying Broadside!

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