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:

Tenacity

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.

Fearlessness

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?

Anticipation

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.

Observation

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.

Persistence

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. 

Detachment

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?

Training.

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?

Yes, Canadians Are Nice. We Also, At The Olympics Or Not, Compete Hard. Get Over It!

Handshake
Image by Aidan Jones via Flickr

Canadians are nice. Yes, we are. We also want to win.

The two, to the intense confusion of every (yawn) American commentator (OMG, why aren’t they just like us?) are not in total opposition as cherished values.

Anyone who’s had a Canadian punch to the face during a hockey fight knows that Canada isn’t wholly against sporting aggression. It’s simply a nation with other sensibilities.

Its murder rate is around one-fourth of the United States’ (2007 homicides: America, 14,831; Canada, 594). And while homicides per capita isn’t generally considered a harbinger of Olympic success, there’s no arguing that offing someone is about the most aggressive of human behaviors. When you’re from a culture where it’s somewhat common, elbowing a competitor for position on a short-track speedskating race can seem like second nature.

Even in their most popular sport, rough-and-tumble hockey, their greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, was known as smooth and sportsmanlike, not a cutthroat competitor.

Still, the Canadian government is trying to usher in a new mentality. The signs of “Go Canada!” are everywhere, from the sides of 7-Eleven coffee cups to signage hanging around British Columbia.

“This phrase, ‘Own the Podium’, isn’t this a little arrogant for Canada? No it’s not,” Canadian Olympic Committee chief Chris Rudge told the Associated Press. “Being self-confident and being the nice people we’ve always been at Games, these things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be both. You can be aggressive and win with grace and humility the way Canadians always have. But let’s do it more often. Let’s win more often.”

To most of the world, this seems second nature.

Why is this idea that winning doesn’t automatically come with a middle-finger salute to the vanquished — instead of a pumped fist, a smile and a gracious handshake to your competitors, whatever your podium position, so alien?

Maybe it’s having 10 percent of the U.S. population. Or offering everyone free universal healthcare, or having the best colleges (all of them public) costing $5,000 a year, not $50,000. You compete hard in Canada for good housing, jobs, promotions. But, getting to the starting gate of life has fewer obstacles, and maybe that’s part of why Canadians are more mellow. There’s more room at the table so shoving hard to get at it all seems…tacky and weird.

I know a Canadian middle school teacher, who taught on Long Island and in Canada. The differences between how kids are raised, socialized and praised for their behaviors in the two countries was profoundly different, she told me. Canadian kids want to win, but not at the expense of making others feel like crap. American kids, certainly those in suburban New York, didn’t give a rip if the losers ended up in tears of humiliation. They were losers, weren’t they?

If that’s the only lesson these bewildered-by-niceness Yanks finally take away from these Olympics, terrific.