Colin Chock's Book Report--Sort Of...
Editor's note: I gave this article the title above. Colin had not given it one as it was part of a series of columns under his byline for "Hawaii Sports."
Colin is Hawaii's foil champ and the founder of Salle Honolulu. He was born and raised in Hawaii. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Before I moved to Oregon, my primary window on the world of fencing was my subscription to "American Fencing," America's only fencing magazine. In one of the issues was an ad for a paperback fencing novel. This wasn't a swashbuckling novel like THE THREE MUSKETEERS, which I had eagerly gobbled up in Mrs. Sanders' 7th grade reading class. No, this was a rarity, a novel that was actually about modern sport fencing.
Of course I sent away for it. I received it a few weeks later. The author was a Canadian fencer named Craig Bowlsby and the novel chronicled the adventures of a group of Canadian fencers as they trained for and then competed in a big tournament in Paris. The novel was so corny that I did something I now regret. After I finished the novel, I walked into one of my favorite used book stores and simply left the book on a shelf. No bookstore, I thought, would actually want to pay me for this potboiler. Fast-forward a few years. I am now based in Portland, Oregon, where I am living my dream of fencing in earnest.
As with any sport, there is usually an element of "us" versus "them." When I compete in local Oregon tournaments, it is our club (the Salle Auriol Fencing Club) versus the other Oregon clubs. When my teammates and I travel to Seattle, we band together with other Oregon fencers and it is Oregon versus Washington.
One weekend, a few of my teammates and I drove up to Vancouver, B.C., for the Lazar, a foil tournament held at the University.
Arriving at the gym, I greeted the few Seattle fencers there. This weekend, they were no longer rivals but teammates. It was now the U.S. versus Canada, the U.S. being represented by a handful of Oregon and Washington fencers.
Not counting once when I was a baby, it was my first time to Canada. Unfortunately we had no time for sightseeing; all I saw all weekend was the inside of that gym.
Inside the gym, though, perhaps the most striking sight was the beautiful technique of a tall, friendly, dark-haired man. He was movie-star handsome and, in fact, I was told that he had done some modeling and acting. His name, someone told me, was Craig Bowlsby. Why, he was the author of that terrible novel I had read a few years back!
He was also one of four A-rated fencers in the tournament; all four were from Canada. (An A-rating is the highest rating a fencer can achieve. I was C-rated.)
The format of the tournament was: three rounds, followed by a double elimination, followed by a final of eight. The bouts in the first three rounds would be to five; after that they'd be to ten.
I fenced my first five bouts and was promoted out of the first round.
I struggled through most of my next five bouts and barely made it out of the second round.
In the third round, I was dismayed to find out that Craig was in my six-man pool. Well, at least he and I were the last bout, which gave me time to prepare. Craig dominated his opponents. I struggled. After my fourth bout I looked at the score sheet. I was on the verge of being eliminated. I had one bout left in the pool and had to win it to advance. That bout was of course against the top fencer in the pool -Craig.
Craig, on the other hand, already had enough victories in the pool to be promoted out of the round; he didn't even need to beat me. This could either help or hurt me. It could help me in that he might not fight me with enough intensity. On the other hand,in the heat of competition, many fencers generally fence with too much intensity and a lessening of intensity actually improves their fencing.
To put it another way, sometimes when you need to perform well, you don't perform well. And when you don't need to perform well, you relax and (paradoxically) perform quite well.
But enough of Craig's mindset; I had to worry about my own. I went to get a drink of water. On the way back to my strip, one of my teammates asked how I was doing. The anxiety evident in my voice, I told him the situation. He scolded me for my lack of confidence and gave me a quick pep talk.
My bout was called. I stepped up to the strip. The referee said, "Allez!" [French for "Go!"] and Craig came at me with his beautifully fluid moves. I tried to bring my technique up to his level.I wasn't able to, but I was somehow able to match him touch for touch. Before I knew it, I was one touch away from defeating him. I tried not to think about it.
He came at me with one of his picture-perfect lunges. I made a quick and tiny "parry four" and riposted. My tip hit him square in the chest.
"Halt!" yelled the ref. To my amazement, I had beaten an "A" fencer and had advanced into the direct elimination table.
Bouts were now to 10 points.
I huddled with the other Americans to discuss strategy. One of the fencers on my side of the draw was Nan Sang Ho, the oldest of the "A" fencers. Steve Werre, one of the Seattle fencers, trying to pump me up, told me that I would easily dominate Ho. "You will crush him like a bug!" His tone was emphatic. I wasn't so sure.
My bout with Ho was called. I stepped up to my on guard line. When the ref said "Allez!" I, trying to take advantage of my youth, launched myself at Ho. Our blades clashed. I scored. The ref put us back on guard. "Allez!" I quickly scored again. Back to on guard. "Allez!" Again I flew at my opponent. Again I scored.
Three to zero. When next the ref called out "Allez!" I didn't immediately spring out. I was winded and wanted to rest a little. Ho took advantage of this and sprang out. His attack deceived my defense and caught me in the gut. He had scored his first point.
That galvanized me. No more resting, I told myself. I pressed the action and scored the next couple points.
But again I had to stop to take a breath. Again Ho immediately scored on me. Though past his prime, this guy wasn't an "A" for nothing. He wasn't letting me breathe. It was a good thing for me we weren't the same age.
And so it went. I would score two or three on him, stop to take a breath, and he would come back and score on me. I didn't quite "crush him like a bug," but I did eventually win. I could hardly believe it; I had beaten another "A" fencer.
Soon I had earned the 8th and final spot in the finals.
During the break before the finals, the youngest "A" (whom I had eliminated) told me that it had been a long time since he hadn't made a final. He graciously congratulated me and wished me luck in the final. I thanked him.
The finalists were introduced. When they announced my name, I walked to the stage, foil in hand. It was a thrill to hear applause and to look up to the scoreboard and see my name and, next to it, "USA." When I reached the stage I turned to the audience and saluted them with my foil.
Craig was the 2nd seed. A Seattle fencer named Hunter was also in the final.
Being the 8th seed, I had to fence the top seed on strip number one. I'm afraid I can't remember the man's name, but I do recall that he the only "A" fencer I had not yet faced. He was also the best. Craig may've had the best form, but this guy was the better fencer.
Our bout started. Then somehow, all of a sudden, the score was six to zero in his favor. I didn't know what hit me. Then on top of that, my blade broke.
The referee called a time-out to allow me to change my weapon. Turning my back to the audience to try to hide my shaking hands, I took some deep breaths and gave myself a good talking to.
By the time my new weapon was plugged into my bodycord and tested, I had regained my focus. The break had been to my advantage. Almost as quickly as my opponent had jumped out to a large lead, I had evened the bout at six to six. Through the metal mesh of his mask I thought I could see my opponent's expression change subtly.
He scored the next point, stopping my momentum.
I scored the following point, attempting to regain it. The score was now seven to seven.
Once again, I thought I detected a change in my opponent's expression, a hardening. Then he reeled off three lightning touches and just like that I had been eliminated. I realized I had just taken 8th place.
As I walked off the strip in a daze, one of my teammates, Cevin (pronounced "Kevin"), introduced me to a beautiful woman he had just met. She shook my hand solemnly and told me I had fenced wonderfully. I thanked her before excusing myself.
I wasn't sure if Hunter had seen my bout so as I walked past him I shook my head and said, "you're the only one left," meaning that he was the only American still in the hunt. Appropriate that his name was Hunter.
I believe Hunter ended up 4th.
In the final, Craig upset the number one seed to take the gold.
After congratulating Craig, I went to the scorekeeper's table. The scorekeeper introduced himself to me and then surprised me by giving me his congratulations. He noted, as he showed me the score sheets, that I had gotten stronger as the tournament progressed. He commented that I must be well-conditioned. I smiled and grunted noncommittally.
Fast-forward another few years to another tournament, this one in the U.S. This time Craig and I were spectators instead of competitors.
When I saw Craig I said hello to him. He was coolly polite, his face not registering recognition. I said, "I don't know if you remember me..." and started to tell him where we had met. He interrupted me.
"I remember you," he said, his tone flat. "You beat me."
Taken aback, I paused to think of how to respond. I was about to say something like, "Well, yes, but not in the final..." when he broke into a smile and stuck out his hand. He had been having me on. Smiling also, I took his hand and shook it, remembering the weekend I had first met him.
One of my fondest memories of that weekend was a conversation I had had in the car on the way back to Portland. A teammate commented to me that I should be happy: I had fenced all of the "A" fencers in the tournament, I had beaten three of them, and lost to the fourth and best (though "the best" was later upset and took silver).
I replied that yes, I was quite happy. "But what is more," I added, "is that I had the opportunity to subdue with a sword the hack writer responsible for writing the worst novel I have ever read!"
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