A Personal Report on the 2022 World Veteran Championships in Zadar.
I’ve just finished my first saber bout at the 2022 World Veteran Championships in Zadar, Croatia and it didn’t go well. I lost. Even worse, it was to the only other woman from any country (other than the US) that I knew, Beth Davidson of Great Britain. I believe she is one of the last saber fencers that I competed against long ago, when I used to compete internationally. How ironic to see her in my first bout, here in Croatia. She hasn’t changed a bit, except for her fencing, which is unfortunately for me, better than I had remembered.
“Geez, if this is a foreshadow for today, it’s not looking good,” I thought.
Just getting to World Championships felt like an anxiety filled, never ending episode of TV reality show, The Amazing Race. I had actually considered not going. Packing up and jaunting over to Croatia seemed like something I just couldn’t make happen. For starters, what to do with my 4 still at home kids (the 5th one is at college) plus Spanish exchange student? What to do with my club if I leave and take the only other coach (MY coach) Mark Stasinos, with me? I didn’t know if I could really spare all the energy that goes into the risk/opportunity of a World Championship. Tickets to Croatia were over $1000 each. Budgeting, piano lessons, homework and groceries filled my angst list from August through September. Then there was the actual training to consider. At Summer Nationals, I had enlisted the help of WEASK, Inc. with Jeremy Summers (a former elite fencer and USA Trainer) to go over my profile and target weaknesses that we might be able to strengthen. It’s a delicate balance, however, to train enough to be at your best but not so much that one causes injury getting out of bed in the morning. Who knows if that mysterious injury will appear the morning of the event? (Spoiler: That happened.)
As I inched closer and closer to our departure date, I began having unpleasant flashbacks to my competition days almost a quarter of a century earlier as I trained to make the 2000 Olympic team. It was very stressful and lonely back then and I had vowed to myself that I would never make my passion into my nightmare like that ever again. I wanted fencing to be for me and not for medals or for anyone else’s approval. But here I was, doing that very thing,...again. If only Championships were in Utah. Maybe the risk would be more believable.
We planned our arrival into Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, for almost a week ahead of time. This was only possible now in my 50s. Back in my 20s, staying for that long would have been out of the question, with hotel and food costs. Back then, I was sleeping in airports and on random people’s furniture in Europe when things got too expensive. I honestly don’t even know how I survived. But now, I was making plans to stay at resort hotels and drive down through scenic Croatia, with my husband and my coach. After 20 years as a state-side Mom of 5, this was so much change, and it felt a bit vomitous.
We arrived in Croatia after a long but easy flight. Part one of the competition before the competition (the “can I survive the travel” challenge) was complete. The country is fairly modern and actually pretty easy to navigate. The roads are long and winding through dense forest and over steep cliffs, just like in a Grimms Brother Fairy tale. The homes that are scattered throughout the countryside are often littered with bullet holes from the conflicts that happen in this part of the world. The people walk (not drive) a lot. Although they are inclined to mind their own business, they are always friendly, even to perplexed Americans who don’t understand that America is the only place that provides road trip bathrooms, free of charge. This is a European reality despite the copious amount of coffee. The weather is perfect and Mark, Rich (my husband) and I decide to visit two castles and an abandoned Sanitorium as homage to Mark’s favorite show, “Ghosthunters” which we always end up watching at NACs. Finally, we drove into the coastal town of Zadar. The hotel is right on the water and there are cobblestones, palm trees and yachts all around.
The day before the competition is filled with administrative activities like weapons control, check in and the most stressful: Covid Testing. All coaches, spectators and athletes must be rapid-tested 24 hours before their first event. It’s nothing less than horrifying to travel halfway around the world on an enclosed airship with hundreds of other sickly folks and then take a Covid test up the nose. All your hopes and effort ride on one q-tip, applied to each nostril, for 10-15 seconds. I passed. Luckily, (or whatever) I had caught Covid in Texas at an SYC one month earlier and I have never been so grateful for “tournament flu” in all my life. Part 2 of the “competition before the competition” was resolved successfully. I am one of the lucky ones though, and there were a few who didn't make it through. I have nothing but absolute sympathy for those folks. It would have been a difficult moment to deal with if things had turned out poorly for me then. I was reminded of so many athletes who suffered similar disappointment before the last Olympics. These last few years have been so hard on everyone, it makes the small triumphs (such as Covid testing) feel like a Herculean feat.
My second bout of the day feels a little more like me. It's a harder format than our usual Veteran NACs because every bout is livestreamed and scheduled. We finish the pool and I have a win record of 5-1. We will wait now for more than an hour for bouts to resume in the Direct Elimination Table. In between each bout, there will be a waiting time as well. The competition will ultimately stretch until the evening, more than 12 hours in the stadium. In the meantime, I am thrilled to get to know my peers from other countries. The most striking similarity between us all might be that we have all painstakingly carved this precious time of self indulgence from a life of adult responsibilities. I am astounded that fencers from long ago (legends of our youth) are now running around fencing and laughing it up with Moms and Dads that started fencing alongside their kids. The best part about it all is that the late comer parent/athlete fencing converts are doing just fine. Everyone wins a little and loses a little. Everyone is happy to be there. Everyone is tired. Everyone is paying for themselves. Everyone is having a beer (at the venue) after they finish for the day. In this alt-universe of older fencing, there aren’t as many barriers to friendship, and sportsmanship as there are when one is young. It is an amazing experience. It is fencing gratitude.
It’s especially satisfying to see how many of the competitors are also coaches. Some of them are on the forefront of the coaching frontier. Beth Davidson, who I will eventually fence in the final for the Category A Women’s Saber World Championship, is one of the leading online coaches in Great Britain. Much of her work came in handy during the Pandemic and she has kept at it ever since. It's thanks to her and other European veteran fencing enthusiasts that competition in an athlete’s later years has picked up more interest recently. New international European Veteran events are popping up with more frequency all the time. There is even a proposal to include the 40s category at Vet Worlds in 2024. It won’t be surprising when the intensity of these Veteran Competitions reaches the same frenzy as the rest of the FIE categories. After all, as my friend Michael Mehall said to me, “Veterans are most of the fencing world.” He’s right. We are most of the fencing world. Collectively, we have the most money for sure. Additionally we are the most likely group to give back to the sport in all aspects from financial to officiating to administration and coaching. It makes sense that we are ready to enjoy the activity we love so much on a performance oriented, global stage.
The final 8 of the competition gets the same red carpet treatment that every other world competition receives. All of our gear is confiscated and put into color coded fencing bags and caddied out to our assigned strips where we are announced with our competitors and officials for the bouts. I have found myself on the final strip with Beth. We are both genuinely thrilled and amused that we will fence the first and the last bout of this day with each other after so many years. This crazy turn of events have made us richer friends in only one day, even though we are each other’s biggest threat for the title. In that moment, as I test my weapon on her lame’, I realize that although I want to win (and I’ll be mad if I don’t) the real prize is this unexpected, friendship serendipity that has somehow been 20 years in the making.
I’ve decided to make an aggressive guard line start as my default for the bout. I’m going to be greedy in the middle. It's a good decision because the referees really want to call the most visible, assertive action. It’s also, conveniently, how I prefer to fence. I don’t know these referees by name but I have seen them on Youtube. They are so used to calling high level speed, my bet is that their eyes will follow the most movement. I score the first touch but right after I hit, my entire right leg freezes up in cramps. Honestly, it feels like I need an epidural. The pessimistic part of my brain says, “See?? You’re old.” Optimistic me tells pessimistic me to shut up because we are going forward 9 more times, pain or not. I stare into USA trainer Peggy Chin’s reassuring eyes for the rest of my five minute medical time out summoning all my belief in myself. She gives me some nasty tasting beverage that she assures me will do the trick and alleviate the cramps. I’m pretty sure it’s a placebo, but I decide to just believe her. Over the course of the day, Peggy has had to tend to all of my new psychosomatic injuries that have appeared like friends who drop by when you win the lottery or try to be a World Champion (either one). She is kind and absolutely supportive. She deserves a new car for all of the magic she did for me in Croatia. At the end of that 5 minutes, I have really memorized the hazel color of her irises while she gives me the most painful leg massage I can ever remember. Time is up. I apologize to Beth for my delay of bout. In my mind I am apologizing for old age. She is very gracious.
I go to my guardline and take a deep breath. “Forward”, I think.
“Prete? Allez!” says the referee. Everything is moving fast and slow all at once.
Then, somehow,…I have scored 10 touches. I win.
I am the 2022 Vet Women’s Saber Cat A World Champion.
It was probably more complicated than that but I don’t really remember anything other than lusting after every single hit. I didn’t feel any pain after the medical break until it was over and then I’m sure I felt pain for about 4 weeks. I decided to take a selfie on the strip before I unhooked because when else could I do that? The crowd didn’t seem to mind. They even posed for a second photo! I told myself I wasn’t fencing for a medal, and most of the time, that’s true. I’m fencing to win, medal or not. I will say, though, that FIE gold medals are nice to have.
I want to mention again the amazing support our veterans athletes were able to receive from our USAFencing. Peggy Chin, who I previously mentioned, was at the venue everyday from sun up to sun down. Of course, athletes over 40 tend to undertrain and over perform in remembrance of our younger selves. That is never so true as it is at World Championships. Peggy taped, iced, and advised us daily. She even followed us around while we competed, in order to be close in case of an incident, like the one I had in the Women’s Saber Final. Amanda Mastera was on hand to report on all of the exciting action, and we veterans appreciated feeling like we are part of the momentum in USAFencing. She helped with team photos and posted continuous social media. Rita Comes, Kaitlyn Litten, and Al Merrit all contributed to our team success in active, considerate fashion and were at the venue around the clock. Jennifer Yamin was a member of the tournament committee at Vet Worlds and was able to explain the process to anyone that needed clarification. There were many personal coaches that attended to support us including my own coach, Mark Stasinos. They didn’t get as much attention as the athletes, but I know that it was as stressful for them as it was for all of us. I think I speak for the whole team in giving them a huge “Thank you”.
My "take-aways" at the conclusion of this adventure are these:
I think that I’ve decided that risk is a luxury that we aren’t often willing to allow ourselves as we age. That works ok for coaching, because we are able to focus on others. However, that kind of risk observation/advisory doesn’t do as much for our personal progress. Risk pays immediate dividends. What do we tell our students: “Win or Learn”? It’s very good to do the things we ask our students to do. We rejoice when our students compete with sincerity. We can too, at least occasionally or more. Maybe we can even let the students coach us? We will all learn something.
Fencing after 50 is infinitely more fun than fencing before 30. Everyone brings their best game and their best selves to the tournament.
Veteran fencing is about to take off. It’s getting bigger and it will be a new space for coaches to find a niche. Coaching adults with physical limitations and adult problems is definitely not the same as coaching kids. It will probably produce coaches who are especially adept with veteran athlete performance, like USFCA member Wang Yung who has been successful with both his fencing and multi World Champion Jane Eyre.
Once again, I express gratitude for the experience of Veteran World Championships. Thank you to all of my USA teammates and coaches across all weapons and categories for being the best tribe on Earth. Thank you to the USFCA for providing me with greater understanding of fencing that has helped me not only with coaching but also with my competitive performance. Most of all, I’m thankful for my family for surviving for 10 days on their own, without death or illegal incident and for being so supportive and letting me “live the dream”.
The risk was not about the reward. It was about the adventure.
See you all soon!