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:

Layout & Strips, Part 2: Numbering Strips

Seriously? She’s going to write a post about numbering strips? Don’t you just start at the beginning with 1 and go on until you run out of strips?

Once upon a time, it was almost that easy. When strips were set up in rows from one end of the hall to the other, the only question we had to decide was whether to go back to the other end to start numbering the next row or to snake the numbering back and forth. When I first began working bout committee, I favored going back to the start, so that the numbers all increased in the same direction. It seemed to me that way was the easiest for fencers and coaches and spectators to grasp. But snaking has its advantages, often allowing strips across both rows at the same end of the hall to be numbered consecutively. (This only works at one end of the hall, though.)

But straight rows aren’t the only way strips are laid. Sometimes we get one row straight down the length of the hall and several clumps of strips at right angles to those, with or without large gaps between groups. (Structural columns and power access plates in the floor are often the reasons for such odd layouts.)

With pods, we number consecutively within the pods, and then down the rows through the pods in order. Not only does this make sense to fencers looking for their strips, it makes it easy for the strip assigner to keep track of which events are where—pods are always contiguous numbers on the chart we use to track our assignments.

(One time a few years ago, I arrived on setup day to find that the strips had already been numbered. Unfortunately, whoever’d done it had put the numbers up before the pipe barriers had been installed, so that the numbers went straight down to the rows with no regard for the pods. This meant that the first pod had strips 1, 2, 15, and 16, the second had 3, 4, 17, and 18, and so on. Keeping track of which pairs of strips matched up into pods would have been ridiculously confusing—we changed the strip numbering immediately.)

With some layouts, such as the one we had for Summer Nationals this year in Atlanta, there is no obviously good way to number the strips. When I first looked at the map of the layout, I thought, “There’s got to be a better way,” but after looking at it for a few minutes, I realized that it was already numbered in the least horrible order. (Sigh. So much in Atlanta this year amounted to “least horrible” options.)

With a good pod layout, good numbering can make the strip assigner’s job much easier. When pods are strips 1–4. 5–8, 9–12, and so on, it’s easy to visualize where strips and events are. In Atlanta, with that less-than-optimal layout, the first pod contained only two numbered strips (along with the Wheelchair frames), so that the pod numbering was off—whole pods were 3–6, 7–10, and so on. Combine that with the odd groups of two and three strips in half the hall, and it was almost impossible to assign events without constantly referring to a map. The layout and numbering were so unusual that it never began to feel familiar over the whole ten days.

Another issue to think about when numbering strips is whether a finals strip should be included in the numbering system. Actually, this is an issue that shouldn’t take any thinking—unless it’s absolutely the last strip, it shouldn’t be numbered at all. Anywhere else, that single strip will mess up the pod numbers and make the strip assigner’s job half again as difficult as it might otherwise be.

Next time: Figuring out which strips to use.

Tournament Layout & Strip Management, Part 1

For years, we bout commitee people have known we need to get better at collecting and organizing the expert knowledge we’ve accumulated while running national tournaments. We need to know what we know in order to transmit that knowledge—it’s tough to train new staff when we can’t explain what we do. So I’ve been thinking about how to figure out what I know about strip management, and being a writer, the obvious course is to write about it and see what comes out.

In 2000. when I first started working national tournaments, there were no pipe-and-drape barriers around strips—no barriers at all between strips and spectators. Not to mention that there was often not even any carpet for referees to stand on—usually there were just strips and concrete. Strips were not grouped into pods but were laid uniformly from one end of the hall to the next, with breaks only for structural columns or access aisles sought by the local fire marshal. The halls we used then were smaller, too. A NAC might use 24 strips; Summer Nationals might have as many as 40. or even 44. (For the 2009–2010 season, we used 40–48 strips for NACs and 66 for Summer Nationals.)

One big problem with this layout was the lack of barriers. It wasn’t just the people constantly cutting across strips or walking in front of referees during bouts, but even well-behaved spectators tended to crowd in ever closer while watching fencing, making it difficult for referees to do their jobs.

Over the next few years, we experimented with pipe-and-drape barriers. Sometimes we had sections of 12 or 16 strips set off by barriers, with entries only in one or two places to limit access to fencers and officials only. We experimented with the placement of the openings—two at opposite corners weren’t quite enough for convenient fencer access, but two openings directly opposite each other created major traffic through pods.

Such large pods also made it difficult for coaches to even see their fencers, let alone give them advice during bouts. Spectators could often watch bouts only from the ends of the strips.

Eventually, someone thought of trying pods of four strips, with pipe-and-drape barriers along the long sides of the pod (two strip-lengths) and the ends without barriers at all. I’m not sure this arrangement would have worked if we’d started with it, but by this time, fencing crowds had learned not to wander through pods during bouts, so the open ends provided plenty of access for fencers and officials without causing extra traffic through the pods.

A couple of years ago, when the budget crunch hit, we even went to barriers of pipe only—no drape. Christy Simmons told me at the time that eliminating the drape saved USA Fencing several thousand dollars per tournament. And it not only made it easier to see the strips from the bout committee stage, but tended to reduce the litter and random abandoned gear left in the pods, too.

Pods of four worked well for people-handling. But they turned out to be a good choice for managing strip assignments, too.

More on that later, though.

Next time: numbering strips.

Tournament Time

A repost—one of the first pieces I wrote for my old fencing blog:

National tournaments are weird events, if you’re a fencing official.

You show up when it’s time for you to show up—7:45 or 8:00 am, if you’re a referee; 7:00 or 7:30 am, if you’re a bout committee member; and usually even earlier if you’re an armorer.

Your day is a bipolar experience—stretches of waiting around for something to happen interspersed with mad frenzies to get the next event or the next round started or finished, sometimes with the operatic accompaniment of coaches’ tirades or lengthy asides of Talmudic discussions of the application of obscure rules.

Time expands and contracts in mysterious ways. At 10:00 am, you despair of your épée pools ever coming in, so you help someone else get their big foil event started. After about two hours, you discover it’s almost 10:15. Finally, you get your pools in and your DEs out and find those DEs moving along at a remarkable pace—after only a couple of hours, your almost-full table of 256 is nearly to the finals. The only problem is, the clock says it’s 7:45 pm, and you can’t remember whether you’ve had lunch or not.

This is Tournament Time, recognition of which is helpful for surviving NACs and essential for surviving Summer Nationals. Tournament Time means that once you get to the tournament, it doesn’t matter what time it is or what day, except for knowing which events are supposed to start when. The world is the tournament, and you never even notice the continual noise: The blade contact. The referees calling “Fence!” and “Halt!” The fencers yelling in triumph and frustration. The endless—and often garbled—PA announcments.

Until suddenly a single high-pitched electronic whine from one of the dozens of scoring boxes left on too loud penetrates your consciousness like a dental drill, and just when you think you’ll throw something at the next innocent who asks which strip her great-granddaughter’s Youth-10 women’s saber DE will be on the day after tomorrow, some merciful soul turns the machine off and brings you back from the brink of hysteria.

Is, was, and ever shall be. That’s Tournament Time.