Her blade sliced through the air, leaving a faint ringing sound in its wake. She was poised perfectly for the touch; her lunge extended well into my target area, and her blade flew point first into my left side while my own blade, deceived, uselessly defended the top of my mask. The buzzer rang. She had scored her tenth touch while I had only scored my fourth.
My coach, the Dominican Republic’s lead fencer, called a ninety-second time out.
“I know you know this girl,” he said. “I know you think she’s good. But she’s not. She’s doing the same thing over and over again. All you have to do is look at her, see what’s happening, and respond. Fight. Don’t cheat yourself by giving her an easy win.”
But the problem was that I did know this girl. I knew she was one of the nationally lauded early recruits for Northwestern University’s elite saber squad. I knew she was brilliantly agile, creative, and adaptive on the strip. I knew that the minute she strapped on her mask and hooked up her cords, her opponent was done for. I knew that exceptions to this simply didn’t exist.
I now realize that it was what I didn’t know, or didn’t realize at the time, that ended up costing me the match and the State Championship: she was only human too.
At the time, this thought eluded me. In the remaining few seconds of the time out, I lowered my visor, cutting myself off from my coach’s advice. I allowed the sight of the gold trophy in her hands and the blazing medal wrapped around her neck to flood my vision.
This is right, I thought to myself. This is how things are supposed to turn out.
My opponent subsequently scored the next touch, and the next, and all the remaining touches that separated her from indisputable victory.
The nanosecond the tip of her blade grazed my side for the last time, cheers ripped through the tournament hall. I had just lost the finals of my division of the Connecticut High School Fencing State Championship fifteen to four, but I was content with winning a silver medal as a freshman in the most anticipated tournament of the entire high school fencing season. I was content with getting as far as I did, which was already miles further than I had originally expected. I was content with the results my half-hearted final efforts yielded. To this day, I am disgusted at myself for my satisfaction with this.
Today, it is clear to me that at that tournament I sold myself short by mentally resigning before the bout had even been won. This lack of self-confidence and bravery made me prey to my greatest enemy: myself. I alone allowed my flaws and fears to swallow the fight in me, and as a result, I disgraced something bigger than myself.
As the sport of courage, fencing is the act of getting on the strip knowing full well the possibility of failure but doing it anyway. Fencing, simply put, is honor wielding a sword. That bout should have been me giving my utmost passion and conviction and fight to counter my opponent. It should have been me finding confidence and being stronger for it, but instead, my bout dissolved into me being content with a result I hadn’t really deserved.
In another sense, my desperate belief in my opponent’s invincibility and the foregone conclusion that she simply had to win reveals how insecure I was during that tournament and how, in general, I tend to overestimate people. Today, I am ashamed that I never even considered the possibility of my victory, which was something I simply owed to myself after all the sweat and time and tears I’d poured into training for the state championship. In retrospect, I am saddened, even frightened, by the fact that I could have ever held a blade without believing I could win battles with it.
In many ways, fencing itself has helped me remedy my lack of self-confidence and courage. When I realized how much I’d let myself down by not believing in my abilities, I began to make a conscious effort to fence each and every one of my bouts with a positive, go-getting mindset. In pivotal matches in recent tournaments against well-established opponents, I went into and out of my bouts fighting. Slowly but surely, I became someone significantly stronger in the broken places, and though I was in no way bulletproof, I began to forge some of my own plates of armor.
Just last week, I had my first opportunity to be strong for someone else. Greenwich Academy and Brunswick School’s saber squad had its first official meet of the 2014-2015 season, and the captain of my team, who’d clinched fourth place at the State Championship last spring, was struggling against a fencer from Hackley School who didn’t even know how to hold his blade properly.
It was clear that Grant, my captain, was unaccustomed to opponents simply charging at him, which was the Hackley boy’s sole strategy. After Grant lost three consecutive points to three identical bull charges, I called a time out on behalf of my team, and I walked up to him.
“This isn’t you,” I said.
“You know this boy can’t fence. He didn’t even know where the en garde line was. You’re better than he is, and you have to trust that.”
“He’s too tall.”
“He’s too fast. Make him fall short while he’s charging, and hit him before he can process what you’re doing.”
Grant nodded. He resumed his starting position, and his shoulders rose up and down in staccato breaths. I knew he was ready. I knew he could win.
The second the referee raised his hand, Grant surged forward and mirrored the Hackley boy’s movements. At the last minute, he pulled back, and the boy leapt forward and narrowly missed his mark. A beat later, Grant slapped the top of the boy’s head with his saber. He had scored his first point in the bout.
“That’s it!” I roared from the sidelines. “Now four more, that’s all you have to do.”
The next two points were easy for Grant to score using the same strategy. After realizing the trap he was falling into, though, the Hackley boy smartened up and began to pull back as well. Once he scored his fourth point of the five-point bout on Grant, I saw Grant’s shoulders visibly sink. I realized that he, too, was becoming his own greatest enemy.
“It’s not over yet!” I screamed. “You have to keep fighting!”
Even though Grant didn’t end up winning the bout that day, I discovered something incredibly important from being there to support him when everyone else on my squad had stopped watching or caring: being strong for someone else could actually make me stronger for myself. Despite Grant’s unsuccessful result, I had faith in him to win his bout, which he did in a sense when he overcame the initial psychological hurdles involved with losing the first three points.
In addition, I became stronger when I projected confidence onto someone else. To me, stoking the fighting spirit in Grant was a courageous act on my part that required empathy and charisma. It not only made me understand that I had the power to believe in myself, but also allowed me to realize that I, too, was someone worth believing in.
Katherine Du is a sophomore at Greenwich Academy. She writes a column for the Darien Times, edits for Polyphony H.S., and interns for the Greenwich Free Press and the Blueshift Journal. I have been recognized by Scholastic and published by Teen Ink and Eunoia Review.