For those less familiar with fencing, there are three weapons: foil, epee and saber, each with a different style, in which different body parts are target and, as a result, tend to attract different personalities. Saber is for the hard-core!
In saber, the entire body above the hips, including the head, is fair game, based on the amount of body surface most available when fighting on horseback. Aggression is rewarded.
However unlikely — but true! — her presence in Rio this month is in part due to the first American women to fence saber in national competition, back in the 1990s, back when (yes, really) the governing body for fencing (old European men of course) said, “Noooooo, women can’t fence saber in the Olympics. Too dangerous!”
I was one of them.
Thanks to us breaking ground by fencing at nationals, U.S. women saber fencers have since gone on to win multiple Olympic medals. So damn cool!
When I arrived in New York, with no job, no family, no friends, I needed a place to go to connect with my new home. I’d long wanted to try fencing, as it combined many of my favorite things: French (many terms are French), a long and distinguished history, lots of terrific NYC competition, intellectual and physical challenge.
They say fencing is chess at the speed of boxing. It’s a fantastic sport, and I was lucky enough to find classes at New York University and a two-time Olympian coach, Steve Mormando.
He introduced a small group of women to saber and we soon began training twice a week (two hours each time), taking individual lessons and competing regularly at the local and regional level.
I loved it.
I went to nationals four times, each time getting eliminated just before making the final eight.
I’m thinking of taking it up again. I miss it.
I hope some of you will make time to check out the fencing and keep an eye on Ibithaj — Monday August 8 at 8:00 a.m EDT.
For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.
It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.
This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)
But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.
Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.
Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.
Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.
We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.
But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.
He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)
It’s a very male place.
But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!
We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.
The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)
I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.
I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.
I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.
I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.
After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.
My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.
But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.
I don’t normally look to the sober-sided Financial Times for career advice, especially on the value of sport(s) for women who aim high professionally. But here’s Gillian Tett:
In recent months Ernst & Young, the American consultancy, has been analysing sporting activity among senior female executives and leaders. And it has discovered that the higher the executive level, the more
likely it is that a woman played sport at high school or college. Most notably, some 19 out of 20 women who sit in the “C-suite” – holding the title “chief something” – were sporty as a teenager; indeed, seven out of 10 still play sport as a working adult, while six out of 10 played sport at university. One in eight C-suite executives played sport professionally. However, among the middle levels of working women, athletic skill was lower: just a third of mid-level women, for example, played sport at university..
A few examples:
IMF head Christine Lagarde (a former member of France’s synchronised swimming team), Condoleezza Rice (a keen figure skater in her youth) and Hillary Clinton (school baseball). Or Dilma Rousseff (the Brazilian president, who played volleyball to a high level), Indra Nooyi (the CEO of PepsiCo was a keen cricket player), Ellen Kullman (CEO at Dupont, who played basketball to a high level at college)…
Girls who play sport at school learn at a young age that it is acceptable to compete aggressively. They also discover that success does not depend on looking good and that it can be acceptable to take pleasure in winning. ..Being an athlete is one of the few socially accepted ways for teenage girls to compete, without peer criticism.
I’m such a huge fan of girls and women being athletic!
I’ve been sporty since childhood — when I had no choice in the matter, because we did sports after school every day at boarding school and all day long at summer camp.
Some of the sports I’ve played, and some I continue to play:
softball, hiking, cycling, downhill and cross-country skiing, kayaking, canoeing, ice skating, fencing, golf, tennis, squash, badminton, volleyball, basketball, swimming (competitive), diving, snorkel, horseback riding, sailing, solo and in a racing team (12 f00t to 60 foot boats).
I also studied ballet from the age of 12 to my late 20s, jazz dance in my 20s, and I still do a jazz dance class every Monday morning.
I include yoga and any form of dance in the same category of “sports” — requiring discipline, flexibility, training, practice, strength and determination to master them.
For all the endless paranoia/obsession about the size and shape of our bodies, what we really need is to be strong and limber, at 5, 15, 45 or 65.
If it weren’t for my athletic activities, I wouldn’t be able to control my weight, manage my stress, tap into my creativity or relate nearly as easily to the many men and women I meet who are sporty. I can always find someone to go for a hike with or play golf with my husband or take a jazz, modern or ballet class. For many years, I crewed every summer on more than a dozen racing sailboats on Long Island Sound, often trimming jib, a job requiring lightning reflexes and strong arms, shoulders and hands.
I moved to New York when I was 30, knowing no one, with no formal American education, no friends, relatives or a job. To stay busy while re-making my life, I took up saber fencing, coached by a two-time Olympian, and was nationally ranked for four years.
I learned a tremendous amount in the salle and on that narrow strip, all of which has helped me in life, work and relationships:
How to control my temper (at least during a bout!)
How to stay focused for 20 minutes, crouched in en garde, on a minute object to the exclusion of all distractions
How to compete with confidence against opponents far bigger, stronger, taller and more experienced
How to lose (and not freak out)
How to win (and not gloat)
How to buy a bit of time, even at nationals in the direct elimination round (tie your shoe)
How to control an opponent
How to stay focused and compete effectively even when injured and in pain
How to accept criticism and feedback from my coach
How to initiate an attack quickly and decisively
There is no doubt that my strength, stamina and flexibility still help me stay fit and strong in a crazy business in a difficult economy.
On the crummiest day I know I can still shoot hoops or swing a driver with the young ‘uns. I can hit to the outfield and pop a golf ball 150 yards.
Do you play sports? Do your daughters?
How do you think it has affected them or changed their lives?
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.
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.
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.
When I moved to New York, and was eager for a new athletic challenge, I trained with a two-time Olympian, saber fencer Steve Mormando, and was nationally ranked in the mid 1990s in that sport for four years.
Competing in sports, especially when you’re aiming for the top, teaches many powerful lessons, some of them of special value to women, in whom unshakable confidence and physical aggression can be seen as ugly, “unfeminine” or worse.
Some of the lessons saber fencing competition taught me:
— Saber (one of three weapons used in the sport), requires aggression and a sort of boldness that’s totally unfamiliar to many girls and women in real life. If you hesitate or pause, you can easily lose to the opponent prepared to start the attack. Go!
— In saber, you “pull distance” and create space between you and your opponent by withdrawing backwards down the strip and extending your blade. This buys you time, and safe space, in which to make a smarter or more strategic move. I’ve often slowed down in life when it looked like I should speed up or jump in quick. Fencing taught me the value of doing the opposite.
— Anger is wasted energy. I hate losing! But stressing out when I did lose, which is inevitable in sports, as in life, only messed with my focus and concentration. Move on.
— Pain will happen. Keep going. I was once hit, hard, early in a day-long regional competition and my elbow really hurt. But I had many more opponents to face and didn’t want to just drop out. Life often throws us sudden and unexpected pain — financial, emotional, physical. Having the ability to power through it will separate you from the weaker pack.
When I fenced at nationals, the first group of American women to do so, there was no option to compete in saber at the Olympic level, let alone world competition. It was frustrating indeed to work and train so hard, traveling often and far, competing regionally and locally, but never have the chance to go for the ultimate challenge, trying for an Olympic team position.
The sport was dominated by European men, and its organizing body, The Federation International d’Escrime, decreed that saber was (of course) too dangerous for women.
Now the U.S. has Zagunis, a young woman of 27, who dominates the sport.
As we watch and cheer and cry and shout over the next few weeks, remember all the women along the way, their efforts often initially dismissed or derided, whose hard work and tenacity break down these barriers.
Not what you think, smarties. Not tennis. Not sexual orientation.
OA. That’s osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease that grinds away your cartilage and bone and makes it really painful to walk, dance, lift, carry and just get on with life.
So the Arthritis Foundation is running a new campaign to get the arthritic among us — all 50 million of us! — to keep moving.
It’s a little bizarre, but true, that the more you hurt (and you do!), the more you need to get moving, as often and vigorously as possible, to lessen your pain. After only three or four days of inactivity, I feel like the Tin Man, the pain in my left hip so excruciating I wake up at 3:00 a.m. to gulp down a painkiller.
I recently wrote an essay about my addiction to exercise to stay flexible, fight weight gain and avoid depression from my constant arthritis pain for Arthritis Today. It has not yet appeared; I’ll link to it when it does.
Do you have a physical disability or chronic issue that makes your life tougher?
I grew up in a family of, if not lone wolves, non-joiners.
Team spirit? Not so much.
My father, mother and stepmother were all freelance creatives: film, television, magazine journalism, almost always done working from home, sitting at a desk piled with papers, an ashtray overflowing (step-mom), a cold cup of milky coffee defining our “office.”
No one ever worked for The Man, or could count on paid vacation and sick days or a pension.
No one went to church or synagogue or played a team sport or joined a club or organization. My two brothers and I have all been nationally ranked athletes and super-competitive jocks, but usually in individual sports (riding, rally car racing, skateboarding, fencing.)
So it’s been an eye-opener to see what pleasures lie within community, not defined geographically — as it classically is for most of us — but through interests. After my divorce in 1994, alone in the ‘burbs with little cash and no pets or kids to pull me into those groups naturally, I started racing on sailboats of all sizes as a crew member, and did that for about five fun years.
My communities, now, include:
— the board, and 1,400 membership of, the American Society of Journalists and Authors
— the board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, a body that grants up to $5,000 quickly to writers in desperate financial straits
— a co-ed softball team that includes a literary agent, a pastry chef for a Big New York restaurant, high school teachers, a medical editor, a retired ironworker, an orthopedic surgeon and a cantor. We’ve played Softball Lite for more than eight years right until the ground freezes and the snow flies, and I love them dearly. Here’s my love letter to them that ran in The New York Times.
— my Episcopal church, an uneasy fit for me and my sweetie (both career journos) in that most of its members are wealthy, conservative and work in finance, law or high-level corporate jobs. But I’ve been there since 1998 and have made a few good friends. St. B’s and its pastors and assistant ministers has seen me through some major crises
I never really thought about “community” in this way until I read the obit of the sister of a dear friend of mine. When I called him to offer my condolences, he said, “I never knew how many communities she had.” It made me realize how many we enjoy, far beyond our traditional and individual roles of friend, daughter/son, wife/husband, partner, employee/boss.
Being a member of a community, de facto, shapes you. Every group has its own character, standards, acceptable (and not) forms of behavior, interaction and address, how to handle conflict or disagreement.
In Softball Lite, for example, we all know (and love) that cell phones are verboten and no one is allowed to freak out or berate a fellow player for a bobble or error. The operative word — in hyper-competitive New York where we are all so hungry for a friendly break — is Lite.