Testing the Water

I didn’t even try to blog Summer Nationals this year.

There were a couple of reasons for that. The less important—but completely unexpected—one was that driving home from San Jose, when I swerved to avoid a zigzagger on I-680 in Concord, I ended up off the side of the road with my car totaled, and spent the next several weeks in too-frequent discussions with my insurance company over the settlement. (I’m still amazed that I had the good instinct not to hit my brakes in the heavy, high-speed traffic, that my airbags didn’t deploy, and even more, that I had not so much as an achy muscle from the collision.)

The more important reason I didn’t write about this year’s SN is that I was so completely done with big tournaments. Despite the somewhat reduced number of entries from the huge 2014 SN (essentially a return to the previous year’s numbers, which were not exactly small) and a relatively decent least-horrible schedule, it was all I could do to make it through my 8 days on the bout committee. I spent most of my days in a barely suppressed rage, too focused on not losing my temper at some poor innocent who had nothing whatsoever to do with my long-simmering frustration over problems that could have been fixed years ago but have not been. Essentially, I confirmed my suspicion that I needed some serious time away from USA Fencing.

When Brandon sent out this season’s request for BC availability, I told him I would be willing to serve as a last-minute replacement in case of an emergency cancellation, but that otherwise I was not available at all for national tournaments this season.

So far, I’ve not regretted that decision at all.

I’ve popped in to a couple of local Bay Cup tournaments, just to watch the fencing and see friends. That, at least, has not been spoiled by my national-level disgruntlement.

But I also wanted to test whether my BC-crabbiness was limited to national events or extended to running regional events as well, so I was happy to say yes to Rochester Fencing’s request to come help run their Ben Gutenberg SYC a couple of weekends ago. (Of course, there was extra incentive to say yes—my younger daughter is a saber coach at Rochester FC, and I could stay over a few extra days for a visit.)

Not just a smoothy floor, but natural light made the SUNY Brockport SERC a preternaturally pleasant venue.

Not just a smooshy floor, but natural light made the SUNY Brockport SERC a preternaturally pleasant venue.

The Gutenberg turned out to be the single best regional fencing tournament I’ve ever been involved with, starting from the moment I first stepped into the venue (SUNY Brockport’s gorgeous SERC) for setup on Friday morning. Until I walked through that entry and stepped onto the sport floor, I had not realized how inured I was to bare concrete floors. And the novelty never went away for me through the end of the last event on Sunday—every time I walked into the venue, my feet were surprised. It wasn’t just the floor surface, either—this was the least concrete-boxish venue I’ve ever seen.

The tournament ran really well, too—events ran on time, we always had enough referees, and Alia (my BC co-chair) and I trained a raft of great parent volunteers on Fencing Time and tournament operations. It’s just too bad that Rochester is such a remote location—the RFC could put together a great local organizing committee for a NAC or SN.

And what about my little test? Right this minute, with one small caveat, I wouldn’t mind if I never ran another fencing tournament again at all. My caveat? It’s still really fun to talk with fencers as they bring their DE slips to the BC. If I could do that every so often without having to do anything else—no BC management, no hearing about fencing politics, no complaining from coaches or parents, no insane entry numbers or strip and referee shortages—I might one day come back to working tournaments.

My extra three days in town were a lot of fun. Aside from the Monday, when I worried about how much more tired than usual I was, until I realized that I normally spend most of the day after a big tournament asleep on a plane, we mostly just took it easy, eating good food, seeing a bit of Rochester and specifically, the new club RFC is moving to. I got to watch a few of Christie’s classes and lessons. (I knew she was good, but it was amazing to see how much better she’s become since the last time I saw her teaching.)

And Christie took me to a great brunch at the Highland Park Diner:

2014 SN Diary: Post Mortem

This will be one monster grab-bag of a post. I’m mostly recovered from Summer Nationals—the hypnic twitching has subsided, my muscles have quit yelling at me, and I no longer feel as though I will drop off to sleep any minute, but my ability to focus on the work at hand is not yet what it should be. So I’m not even going to try—I’m just going to throw stuff up here as it comes to me.

This was for me the most difficult SN I’ve ever worked. That’s not to say that it was the worst SN I’ve ever been to—Columbus 2014 was not nearly the threat to Austin 2003, the all-time champion of  horrible SNs, that I’d expected it to be—but it was easily the most challenging SN I’ve worked as BC chair. Partly it was the run-up to the actual tournament. Six weeks out we had no idea whether we’d have as many referees as strips. At the point where referee hiring is usually all but done, we were looking at only about 50 refs for the first half and 40 for the second half.  This for a schedule based on 61 strips and a venue with 65 strips. (We use the extra pod mainly to minimize delays  when an early event is still on strips needed to start a later event.) There were more than the usual number of problems with entries and eligibility, and figuring out BC staffing for 12 days instead of 10 turned out to be trickier than I had expected.

Mostly it was the unknowns I stewed over: Would we finally have enough referees? Strong enough referees? How would coaches and parents cope with the less-experienced-than-usual referee crew? Would the new BC process even work for SN? Would the 25% of the BC staff who’d never worked a SN before be more help than hindrance? Would the projected schedules hold up? How bad were the odds against June 30 finishing at the projected end time? Would we maintain at least a minimal level of competence through the whole 12 days? Would there be enough coffee in Columbus to keep us all alert enough to avoid the worst errors?

So I began the tournament more tired than usual. Fortunately, the first half was the easier half, the Vet/Div half, with a schedule that exemplifies what all of SN should be like. This gave us a chance to get comfortable with the new BC process before we got into the second half horrors, and gave all those eager new referees a chance to get acclimated to the unique pressures of SN.

• Favorite newbie ref conversation:

Newbie Ref (to Sharon Everson): Uh, I think there’s been a mistake. I just checked my report time for tomorrow and it says I’m assigned to Div I. That can’t be right—I’m only a 7.

Sharon (checking Newbie Ref’s name): No, you’re a 5. We promoted you. You’ve done well these first few days.

Newbie Ref (flummoxed): Really? I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

Sharon: You’ll do fine. Don’t worry—we won’t use you too far into the DEs, but you’ll be fine for the pools.

Most of those new and unknown referees were terribly excited to be at SN. They were enthusiastic and hardworking and eager to do their best. It was just heartbreaking that many were out of their depth, and simply didn’t have enough experience for the events they were asked to work. They did their best, but because of the shortage of experienced referees, they did not get the mentoring they needed and deserved. Much to my surprise, there were very few black cards this year—only 4 or 5 over the entire 12 days. We had one black card that was voided because the referee erroneously believed that failure to sign a scoresheet was grounds for expulsion, and there were a couple of sore losers who said something inappropriate to their referee or did something inappropriate with equipment, but nothing much out of the ordinary. By the time we got to the second half, when I’d expected more than the usual number of spectator black cards because of the less-experienced referee crew, coaches and parents seem to have grasped the idea that our refs were doing the best they could under the circumstances. (Either that, or those referees didn’t realize they could do something about abuse directed at them. I choose to believe it was tolerance and understanding.)

World Cup photo break:

So why so much trouble hiring referees for SN? There are those who believe it’s due to a few disgruntled troublemakers attempting to foment some sort of referee rebellion, but any such vocal complainers are not the source of the trouble—they are one symptom of a systemic problem. Our volunteer corps—in all categories—is so overextended, stretched so thin, that we’ve not been able to establish and run the recruiting and mentoring programs we’ve needed for years. Our tournaments—especially but not only SN—are so large and tightly scheduled and the economizing of the past several years to get our finances into the black have resulted in consistently terrible working conditions—hotels remote from the venue, inadequate meal options (both variety and quantity), unconscionable hours on concrete floors, etc., etc. Mix that with high-demand referees running out of vacation days or opting to use those days at better-paying, more pleasant tournaments, add in a lack of significant change despite years of complaints and warnings, and it’s all too easy for many refs to perceive such continued poor conditions as a lack of respect—even contempt—for the volunteers who make our tournaments even possible. Some referees who feel this way become vocal complainers. Others simply opt to do something else with their time and energy.

It will take us years to fix this.

The second half was what it was. There were occasional problems with the monitors, due to our original consumer-level equipment bought for proof-of-concept being overtaxed by the additional demands we put on it. (There’s a proposal for upgrading our equipment to handle the load.) By the time we got to the really ugly days, we were all in survival mode, focusing on getting through the next round, the next event, the rest of the day, hoping that meals would be palatable enough not to have to force ourselves to eat just for the fuel. (Hence the vacuum effect that occurred when candy or cookies or other treats were dumped onto tables in the referee corral.)

There was this:

JMETM checkin

This is what check-in for 65 teams looks like. (We’re still dazzled by how early the JME team check-in was done—especially considering it occurred while the JME individual event was in progress.)

Another favorite referee moment:

 Day 11, about 7:30 am. Most of the tables in the referee corral are filled with referees getting their morning coffee fix, waiting for their 8:00 assignments. Adam Brewer stands up.

“I have something to say,” he says. “How many of you have been here since the first day?”

Perhaps 60% of the referees there—along with half the BC staff facing the corral—raise their hands.

Adam proceeds through the corral, high-fiving every raised hand.

This is inexplicably encouraging.

Somehow we made it through. Eventually there was this:

The very last bout on the very last strip on the very last day.

The very last bout on the very last strip on the very last day.

And this:

The last bout slip of the 2014 SN.

The last bout slip of the 2014 SN.

Inevitably, there were travel problems due to Hurricane Arthur and other storms around the country. Too many people got stuck an extra day in Columbus or strange layover cities on their way home, but it sounds like we all made eventually made it.

And those BC staff who’d never worked a SN before? They rocked.

Oh, and there were carpets:

Update: One last item that I forgot to include: if you haven’t seen them yet, these 360-degree panoramas of the venue are amazing. Take a look!

2014 SN Diary: Travel Day, June 20

I’ve set this post to be published at around the time I board my first flight Friday morning. It’s rare for me flying anywhere for fencing besides Portland or Phoenix to get a flight that leaves later than 6:00 am, which means I get up at 2:30 or 3:00 to get myself to the airport in time. I learned long ago not to try to work on my way to tournaments—flights are for traversing the wormhole into the alternate universe of Tournament Time. My main goal is to stay awake long enough to board my flight, and then sleep. If I can’t sleep, I’ll watch the landscape out the window, and if it’s cloudy and I can’t sleep, I’ll resort to a crime novel or science fiction. The point is to avoid anything like reality, because that transition into the unreality of Summer Nationals is an important factor in how I survive it.

Over the last couple of weeks, in addition to working on the BC staff schedule and other SN prep (plus reviewing material for tomorrow’s board meeting), I’ve been creating the beginnings of posts for every day of SN. I think I’ve finally figured out a way to blog SN as it happens that I will be able to keep up with through the ever-increasing cognitive dysfunction.

The pre-written sections are a look at what each day’s competition is expected to look like from my point of view, and includes what I think of as the “big grid” in the strip planning spreadsheet we use. So this post will provide some basics about how that spreadsheet works and how we use it.

Here’s the big overview of a typical competition day:

whole sheet

The big grid on the left is the overall view of strip usage by the half hour through the whole day. The righthand two-thirds are columns for each event. What we do is enter the data for each event in the appropriate columns, and from that the formulas generate the grid view.

Here’s a look at the information on a single event:

eventThe category, sex, weapon, and number of entries are entered in the blue boxes at the top. On the left side of the column, we can enter the time. Traditionally, we enter the time as a half-hour later than close of registration, to allow for the withdrawal of no-shows, resolution of conflicts, and assignment of referees. With the new setup, using the referee auto-assign, we can now start as soon as 5 minutes after close, but we have chosen not to adjust the spreadsheet for that yet, since slight overestimating the time required works in our favor.

Below the number of entries, the worksheet gives us the range for the number of pools possible. For national events, we almost always choose the smallest available number because the rules require maximizing pools at 7 members whenever possible. (Veterans are the one category allowed to have pools of 5 even when larger pools are possible, but we don’t like to do that unless we’re really pressed for time, since the Vets, like most fencers, always like having more bouts.) Also in this section, we can set the promotion rate and whether the pools should be flighted, and the worksheet shows how many strips that will use and how long the pools can be expected to take.

The next section shows the DEs and how many fencers are promoted to that round. After indicating whether there is repechage (always and forever at national events, I hope that box shows “N” because a “Y” means 2-3 hours longer for that event to occupy 8-16 strips than without repechage. Again, we set the number of DE strips and the worksheet shows the time required.

If there is repechage, the next section down shows the strip usage from the round of 32 or 16, as applicable.

Finally, the last section shows the timing for the round of 8. The formulas have not yet been updated to show the effect of replay, so we sometimes bump up the “seeding minutes” between rounds to allow for the extra time replay takes.

What we do when we create the schedules for national events is enter the data for all the events for each day, and then we start playing around with the start times, the number of DE strips, and whether pools need to be flighted in order to make everything fit into the overall day, as shown in the big grid. Sometimes it’s a pretty easy process. Other times, there are long stretches of time filled with exclamations like “Ack!” and “Yikes!” and “Crap, that didn’t help at all!” and “Oops, so not going there!” as we try various options.

Note, by the way, the number in the top upper left of this column of information. That’ll tell you which column in the grid shows this event.


Looking at the whole-day picture, we can find additional useful information:


In the main part of the grid, each column represents a single event, with the weapon indicated at the top of the column, and each cell shows how many strips are used during that particular half hour. On this day, there are 5 individual events and 2 team events (those are further to the right, in the “T” columns). So looking at our event from above in column #2, we can see that the pool round will use 22 strips from 8:00 am to 12:30 pm and the DE round will use 16 strips (4 complete pods) from 12:30 pm to about 4:00 pm. The actual time will vary according to how fast the fencers fence and when the complete round of 16 can move over to replay. So the timing shown here for the final rounds will be only an approximation of the eventual reality.

Further to the right are three columns under “Weapon,” which show how many referees are needed in each weapon during any given half hour, and at the bottom, the maximum number required simultaneously.

The last column on the right shows the number of strips in the hall, and further down, ominous red numbers that indicate strip deficits. As a general rule, red numbers here are bad, but some are worse than others. A -1 or -2 when a final of 8 is finishing isn’t really a problem, because by then that 8 is probably in its semis or gold medal bout and not using all 4 of its allotment. And the -17 on this day is what I think of as a squishy negative—many of the 32 DE strips used by the #1 event will already be free as the last few finish up, so not too many of the pools of the afternoon events will need to be delayed. Unless, of course, that #1 event has a major injury or equipment problem that delays the last pool coming in, so that the DEs start late and then finish late, and suddenly we’ve got a competition day that’ll run later than projected.

Down at the bottom left, we can change the times allotted for each kind of bout and match. They’ve been where they are now for the past couple of years. It used to be that foil durations were somewhere between epee and saber, but that changed with the foil timings. It also used to be that saber generally ran faster than projected, and foil and epee more slowly, to the point that if the point weapons finished within an hour after their projected end times, I considered it in good time. Since we’ve started using replay, saber tends to run at or slightly later than projected, and epee often runs as much as an hour ahead. Foil these days consistently runs more slowly than both other weapons, though we haven’t quantified it well enough to change the timings yet.

So that should give you the basics of how to interpret the “how hard was today supposed to be?” grids I’ll be posting throughout SN.