A Necessary Missive

Wrote a letter to the USFA board today:

Dear USFA Board Members and Staff,

I was disappointed and disheartened to see or hear no public statement from USFA after the recent reports of at least two of our members having been singled out for unusual attention going through U.S. Customs when returning from fencing-related international travel. Perhaps, I thought, there was a statement being worked on, to be posted to the USFA website. Or, failing that, maybe there would be a formal motion or resolution to come out of the February meeting of the Board of Directors.

When the agenda for that meeting was posted today, I therefore read through it in search of such a resolution or proposal, and the only item I could find even plausibly related to this issue is Mr. Alperstein’s motion in the Good & Welfare portion of the agenda:

“RESOLVED: USA Fencing remains committed to the principles of diversity, inclusion and openness, and reaffirms that it welcomes and embraces members and participants without regard to ethnicity, religion or national origin. In furtherance of these values, USA Fencing reiterates is commitment to pluralism and its opposition to any practices, policies, rules or laws that discriminate against or stigmatize individuals or groups, that mark them for special treatment, or that deny them the full enjoyment of liberty, opportunity and equality on the basis of superficial or pretextual criteria.”

This statement is, to be blunt, a “Miss America contestant” statement—one that uses a lot of pretty words to say virtually nothing. Is it intended as a statement of support for those USFA members and others who have experienced unusual attention when traveling internationally? How can we tell?

To fail to take a strong public stand against policies and procedures that have already affected at least two well-known USFA members and may yet affect others is to implicitly approve such actions. While I understand the desire to avoid making a public fuss, this is exactly the sort of situation which requires a public fuss. That two United States citizens could be pulled aside on what can only be interpreted as the basis of race, religion, or culture is chilling. That effect can only be more threatening to those of our members who are legal residents, but not yet citizens.

A significant number of the referees and other officials the USFA depends on to staff our domestic tournaments and serve as part of international team cadres are immigrants and permanent residents. Impingements on their freedom to travel on our behalf have the potential to discourage their service and hamper our operations. Were such incidents to continue or increase, we could also expect to see fewer international competitors and officials willing to travel to the United States, and might find our ability to win bids to host World Cups, Championships, and even the Olympic Games compromised.

Beyond any practical potential effects of these troubling incidents is the simple fact that what happened to Ibti and Abdel was simply wrong. Like that of the United States itself, the history of the United States Fencing Association is not free of policies and periods of which it now has reason to be ashamed. Do not allow these incidents to join that part of our history. Do not allow these incidents to pass without notice or protest.

I urge you to strengthen the language of this motion to make clear that it is meant to specifically address threats to our members’ ability to travel freely, and then to approve it and urge other sports NGBs, as well as the USOC, to take similar strong public stands. I also recommend that the USFA provide appropriate information about travel rights and contacts for legal representation to any and all who travel internationally on the USFA’s behalf.

Mary Griffith


Ooof. Hearing today that Gerrie Baumgart died is a tough one to wrap my brain around.

I first became aware of Gerrie Baumgart during the 1999 Summer Nationals in Charlotte, when my older daughter, competing in her first national tournament, signed a pool sheet that showed her winning one bout fewer than she’d actually won. Gerrie was the person who met Kate and her coach at the bottom of the stairs to the BC stage (like all good fencing parents, I was across the room, though paying close parental attention) to explain that verifying that her scores were correct was part of what Kate had done when she signed her scoresheet and that the scores would stand as entered. Gerrie was nice about it, even sympathetic, explaining that this was something most young fencers did once and only once, but Gerrie was clearly not someone who would be moved by piteous looks from fencers or rants by angry coaches.

When I began working as a bout committee trainee the following year, Gerrie was even more intimidating. She understood that some of us were new and just learning the ins and outs of running events, but she also expected us to pay attention and learn quickly. Making a mistake was regrettable but forgivable, as long as any regret didn’t interfere with the smooth running of the tournament and was not repeated. Repeated errors were likely to earn the offender one of Gerrie’s ferocious but discreet little chats in an out-of-the-way corner.

Gerrie was almost always head referee at the March NACs, back when they were the Division II/III/Veteran combination and always the tournament that brand new half-trained bout committee chairs—including me—were handed. I may have been terrified of Gerrie but I recognized immediately how much she could—and did—teach me about running strips, handling complaints and protests, and managing my crew. More than anything else, she taught me how to think not just two or three rounds ahead, but through the entire day, to make sure I knew when bottlenecks could occur and to assign strips to allow for possible double-stripping or other impromptu rearrangements as conditions changed throughout the day.

Mostly, though, Gerrie was a referee, and a developer of new referees. One of the most fun talks I ever had with her (after five or six years, I wasn’t scared of her anymore, and she seemed to think I’d become acceptably competent) was when I was writing this article about referees for American Fencing. She had great stories to tell from her decades fencing and refereeing—more than I could use—and we laughed a lot. With fencing daughters, including one who herself became a referee, I especially appreciated her stories about becoming one of the earliest women referees with an international license.

Baumgart says attending an engineering school for college got her used to bias against women. She wasn’t happy with it, but it wasn’t so unexpected to find it in fencing, too. “But I’m competitive and wanted to be better than I was, so I worked at it.”

“Ralph Zimmerman was good at seeking out younger referees and taking chances on them,” she says. “Women were chancy assignments. He asked me if I was willing to do whatever I was asked to get to the Olympic Games. I said yes.”

It turned out to be a huge commitment. She worked 17 world cups in about a year and a half to build her reputation as a suitable selection. But in 1996 in Atlanta, she became the first American woman to referee at the Olympic Games.

Occasionally—and considerably more than occasionally in recent years, at least when we were done in time—Gerrie would join the BC gang for dinner. Especially on the last night of a tournament, she liked a good steak, often followed by an Irish coffee—and stories and laughter and more stories and more laughter.

The last couple of years were pretty rough on Gerrie, with the death of her husband, along with her declining health. Though it might have been better for her, she wasn’t the type to abdicate what she viewed as her responsibilities to the fencing community. I hope that same fencing community recognizes how much Gerrie Baumgart gave us.


The Agony Indicator

[WARNING: This post contains discussion of statistics by a non-statistician (last stats class I had was 44 years ago, a political science methods class I wasn’t much interested in even then). The numbers discussed are for entertainment purposes only and have not been analyzed for validity or reliability or any other measure of accuracy or usefulness. Not only that, while anyone is free to run amok playing with the potential implications or flaws in these numbers, I have no interest in doing so myself and will not participate in any discussion of them.]

Last week, while I was looking through old blog posts for something completely unrelated, I came across this Playing with Numbers post, which I’d forgotten about. It was a serendipitous find, since I’d been thinking about entry numbers since I saw the unexpected jump in entries for last month’s NAC in Richmond.

In that March 2011 post, I played with what I then called fencers-per-strip but is more accurately individual entries-per-strip (BC lives and dies by the number of entries, not by the number of fencers), and which I am now naming the Agony Indicator, after Hipmunk’s agony view, where you can see flight itineraries sorted by how awful the times and layovers are.

Back then, I looked at that season’s NACs to see whether the Agony Indicator correlated at all with what I called “perceived difficulty of tournament”—not the quality of the fencing but the difficulty of the schedule (flighted events, delays, strip & ref shortages, late nights). That year, as was often true with the event combinations then, the December and March NACs were significantly easier tournaments to run than the others, and October, November, and January (then mostly either Junior/Cadet or Junior/Division I combinations) were noticeably more difficult to fit into the available days. Here are the indicators I came up with for those NACs:

October NAC: 44.8

November NAC: 51.98

December NAC: 19.7

January NAC: 45.47

JOs: 40.1

March NAC: 34.63

There appeared to be some correlation—the size of the indicator varied directly with the perceived difficulty of the tournament, and the more difficult tournaments had indicators above 40.

Since I had been looking at those Richmond numbers a couple of weeks ago, I wondered how recent tournaments fared with my Agony Indicator. With a bit of research (I still have most of my Masin spreadsheets from tournaments I’ve chaired over the past few years) and a calculator, I took a look:

October 2012 NAC: 49.898

November 2012 NAC: 49.184

JOs 2013: 43.102

October 2014 NAC: 47.143

November 2014 NAC: 55.265

January 2015 NAC: 33.816

JOs 2015: 47.551

Those line up in the same range, reasonably correlating with the challenges. (One caveat: some of these tournaments also had team events, which are not included in the Agony Indicator calculation.)

So what about this season? Just for fun, I ran the numbers for the Gutenberg SYC Alia and I ran last month, and it came out to a not-at-all-agonizing 20.759. That’s the only regional tournament I’ve calculated the Agony Indicator for, though, so I’ve no idea whether my indicator correlates across a range of smaller regional tournaments.

The Richmond NAC last month came out to 57.984, the highest I’ve yet seen, which seems to be in line with what I’ve heard about how things went—multiple flighted events and very late Saturday and Sunday nights. The NAC coming up this month in Kansas City looks to be slightly better, at 57.164, and that number should improve slightly with the no-shows there. Baltimore in December, using the entry numbers as of last week, is in between at 52.776.

What about Summer Nationals? The Agony Indicator for SN calculates out to a completely different range, since the numbers are often three times those of a typical NAC, with only half again as many strips. The 2010 SN in Atlanta was 108.84. The more recent SNs worked out like this:

2013 SN Columbus: 107.369

2014 SN Columbus: 137.4

2015 SN San Jose: 114.344

Note: The entry numbers for 2013 and 2015 were almost identical, but 2015 had 4 fewer strips. Columbus 2014 had  as many strips as the year before but nearly 2,000 more entries.

What’s the takeaway? If you happen to come upon entry numbers and the number of strips planned before an event, you can calculate the entry/strip ratio for yourself. If the Agony Indicator works out to more than 40 for a NAC or for SN, more than, say, 105, you can expect multiple flighted events and late nights.

Got any spurious statistics of your own?

[This is my last post about (nonfiction) fencing for the foreseeable future, though I will blog on other topics occasionally while I work on finally finishing what I hope will be a publishable draft of my SN murder mystery.]