Tag Archives: USA Fencing

Voodoo & Vroom?

The 2013–2014 USA Fencing season has been a tough one for me.

It’s not that this year’s NACs have been anything out of the ordinary. They’ve run reasonably well, with most days finishing at or earlier than the projected times (though. as always, there were a few exceptions). I worked the October, November, and January NACs as BC chair, and was surprised to discover how much more like Summer Nationals this season’s NACs felt compared to previous years. I’m not sure if it’s the entry numbers, the general stress, worry about how the rest of the season will go, or just that I’m getting old, but this season’s NACs have pretty well wiped me out for the rest of the week by the time I get home.

So I was looking forward to working as a mere minion for this year’s JOs in Portland, especially since there were board working sessions and a formal board meeting attached. It would be nice, I thought, just to run events without being responsible for fitting events onto the available strips at the right times or dealing with testy coaches or over-involved parents.

And it was nice. It was fun getting a chance to chat with the fencers in the events I was running, and catch up with BC and other staff, and not need to keep one eye continually focused on the overall tournament. Practically relaxing, compared to a BC chair gig.

(Of course, there were a lot of meeting-related discussions going on all weekend, building consensus for proposals coming before the board, but that’ll be for a separate post.)

Part of the fun of this tournament, though, was because it was the Junior Olympic Championships and it was in Portland. Getting to Portland is always a bit strange for me, because it’s a short trip with no layover in my home time zone. Normally, this leaves me somewhat disoriented through the weekend without the all-day travel itinerary. But my early-morning flight, unusual for the Portland trip, left me groggy enough that I made a successful transition through the Tournament Time wormhole. Or maybe it was just spending most of the day after my arrival watching the referee numbers as we received updates on their travel woes—at one point Thursday, 29 of the 69 hired referees were affected by flight delays or cancellations, so we were doing lots of contingency planning for running events with only half the planned referees. In the end, only about 11 referees didn’t make it to Portland in time for the Friday morning start, though we heard some interesting travel sagas. (One example: Brandon, our BC chair, had his original 6-hour itinerary turn into an 18-hour trek, getting loaded and unloaded three separate times onto the same plane—including once when they were completely unable to detach the pushback cart—before its final departure from O’Hare.)

That this was JOs made it fun because it was was a championship, which meant that we once again had Larry and Dwayne, from Socket Events, to help run the show-and-tell parts of the tournament. In addition to helping with setup (not least with an awesome playlist on setup day), they handle the gold medal bouts on the finals strip. Because JOs is a championship, we had a formal spectator area for the finals strip, which made those late last bouts in the evenings far less depressing than they normally are. (Usually they remind me of that old Dick Van Dyke Show Christmas episode, where Van Dyke quips (in a Bela Lugosi voice) that working alone late at night is like “being the last living cell in a dead body”—a sad state for a national championship bout.) It’s about time we treated our championship bouts like championships.

We had an unexpected vendor booth at JOs, too. Kirsten Crouse (she’s our current Parent Director member of the USA Fencing board) put in a lot of hours working with Mark Lawrence, USA Fencing’s new Strategic Marketing Consultant, to bring in Tesla Motors:

The Tesla people had a second car outside the convention center, so people could take test drives, and the car inside attracted steady attention throughout the tournament. Kirsten told us at the board meeting that the Tesla reps said they had 4 Tesla owners drop by to chat, so it appears that our demographics are a indeed a good match for them. Pairing an emerging sport like us with an emerging manufacturer like them seems like a good basis for a potential long-term sponsorship relationship. I hope we’ll see them at future tournaments, too.

There are fun details being in Portland, too. The Trimet light rail lines make it easy to get around for dinner after the fencing is over (for me, only two of the five nights I was in town), the Foucault pendulum in the lobby is always mildly hypnotic, and lots of visitors took the trouble to acquire stashes of Voodoo doughnuts:

And I can’t neglect the carpet samples:

I just wish I could decide whether the cold I brought home is a new one or just a relapse of the one I brought home in January.


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Times Change . . .

Word for the day:


nos⋅tal⋅gia /nɔstældʒə/


longing for something past

ORIGIN: 1770, Modern Latin rendering of German heimweh, from Greek nostos “homecoming” + algos “pain, grief, distress.” Originally “severe homesickness,” transferred sense of “wistful yearning for the past” first recorded 1920.

Allowing fencers to feel they’ve reached the big time is not the only argument I find unpersuasive for keeping national fencing tournaments as large as they are now.

Another claim I hear fairly often—typically from a middle-aged or older coach or referee—is that large tournaments are important for young fencers to meet and develop friendships with others from all over the country, that such friendships are essential components for the development of young fencers—not just into accomplished athletes—but into competent and responsible adults.

This one’s easy for me to dismiss. After all, when these proponents of large tournaments as educational institutions were young, our large tournaments weren’t large at all by today’s standards. Even as little as a decade ago, USFA’s Summer Nationals were smaller than some NACs are now. Local tournaments were purely developmental, entered mostly by fencers who’d just begun to learn the sport. Outside the very few fencing centers around the country (the New York metropolitan area, and perhaps Los Angeles and Portland) any fencers who sought serious competition had to enter and travel to national events to find real challenge. Today, though, national events are no longer the only places to find the friendly rivals that were so important to the proponents of this argument, and there’s a good argument to be made that national events are now so large and ungainly that they actually hinder the formation of such valuable relationships.

But I find this argument interesting as an aspect of a more comprehensive problem within the sport of fencing:

USA Fencing is a deeply nostalgic organization.

Of course, there is a lot to like about the history and traditions of fencing. There are the salutes and handshakes, and at least a tradition  of courtliness, however much it may now be honored in the breach. There’s the huge and growing Hall of Fame collection that Andy Shaw maintains, and it’s rare to have a chat with George Masin without hearing about some interesting new artifact he’s just acquired or bid on.

And there are the stories! I’ve been in the sport long enough now to have accumulated some of my own (Austin 2003, Reno & the lost equipment train, the Tucson home & garden show NAC, for just a few), but the stories are part of what first caught and then kept me around the sport—tales of weird calls, novel ways of cheating with equipment, stylish and original means of provoking the presentation of black cards, coaches reenacting competing versions of entire bouts . . .

But there’s a dangerous downside to nostalgia.

We can look back too fondly at the past, remembering people and friendships and feelings, and forgetting the reality of that past. We can long for a gentlemanly once-upon-a-time and forget that it excluded complete categories of people we take for granted now in our sport.

Nostalgia can make us believe that our memories represent reality, that way the world was is still the way it is, that the beliefs and behaviors that allowed us to survive our past still equip us for the future.

My nostalgic middle-aged coaches and officials are right to want those valuable relationships for their young students. But those students inhabit a different world than their mentors—they’ll find their friends and rivals and memories, all right—but not in the same way or in the same places. In 20 years or 50 years, those kids will look back on their own past, and worry that their own successors will miss out somehow because the world has changed too much, while their own kids will—like every generation—do just fine creating their own memories.

However valuable its history and traditions are, USA Fencing—specifically, USA Fencing’s governance—can no longer afford to indulge in nostalgia. We’ve outgrown the structure that served what we used to be. We need to look clearly at who and what we are now to create the structures that will serve and support the different organization we already are.

Times change. There’s no going back.

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By the Way, There’s This Election . . .

USA Fencing is once again electing members for its Board of Directors. We’re choosing two At-Large Directors from among five candidates, one Club Director from among two candidates, and one Volunteer Staff Director from among three candidates, which is the category I’m running in.

I hadn’t planned to run for the board at all, except that the email soliciting nominations happened to arrive at a time when I’d been more than usually frustrated following a board meeting. As Tournament Committee Chair, I don’t miss many board meetings, whether they’re in person or by conference call, and I often text with both board members and a few of my fellow spectators/auditors during those meetings. I realized, though, when I read that Nominating Committee email asking for potential candidates, that I often had points to make that weren’t being made by current board members, and that my perspective as a long-time national bout committee volunteer could be valuable.

So I updated my resume, wrote my cover letter, and sent them in. When the Nominating Committee declined to select me as one of their nominees for the Volunteer Staff slot, I collected a few pages of signatures and qualified by petition as a nominee. (One of my opponents signed my petition; the other declined but said he would have if I’d been running for one of the other board slots. I’d have done the same for them—we’re amicable rivals.)

If you’ve been reading my blog for even just a few months, you’ve got a good idea of my views. And I’ll be writing more off and on over the next few weeks. If you’d like a quick summary, or something you can print as a handout for others, here’s my candidate flyer. If you’ve got specific comments or questions for me, I’m including a contact form at the bottom of this post.

You can find information about the election and the rest of the candidates on the USA Fencing Election page here.

Voting will be conducted online from May 23 through June 10.

I’d appreciate your vote.

firstname sig

If you’ve got questions or comments for me, you can contact me privately via this contact form; otherwise, use the normal public comment field (moderated):


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Signs of Spring

Spring is well and truly here: blue skies, sunny days, green hills (not that “golden” of which my mother fumes, “They’re not golden! They’re dried-up brown!”), poppies and lupines, open windows, fresh air, sense of impending doom.

You didn’t really think this would be an ode to nature, did you?

Spring is the time for recruiting and hiring officials for Summer Nationals. Recruiting and hiring bout committee staff means poring* over the schedule and pondering how much larger this year’s entry numbers will be than last year’s, and trying my damnedest not to remember what SN feels like.

A decade ago, I’d wait anxiously for the email that told me to book my flight, that I’d been hired, that I’d get to run away and play for the whole noisy fantabulous ten days of fencers and coaches and parents and vendors and officials running amok within their concrete bunker. And once my flight was booked, the two months until the start of SN seemed like forever. My most frequent thought, looking forward to my annual SN excursion: “This is going to be so much fun!”

Now I’m the one who sends those emails, after I sort through everyone’s availability and figure out whether we even have enough staff to cover all the competition days. Some BC staff volunteer for all of SN, while others are only available for 5 or 6 days. Some compete and others have family or friends who are referees or armorers, so they need specific days off. It’s always a bit suspenseful charting it in a spreadsheet to see whether I have enough people for each day or they’re all clumped at one end or the other. And will I have the right mix of chairs and computer leads and data entry and table staff to make it work?

We had almost enough this year, and only had to do a bit of finagling to get the combination we needed to be sure all the necessary functions were covered. Though a surprising number of us are still masochistic enough to volunteer for the whole 10 days, more and more of the most experienced and capable staff—perhaps those who remember better than the rest of us from year to year what working SN is like—are available for only 5 days or not at all. Dread is not an emotion conducive to volunteer retention.

I can’t blame them. After all, I’m not entirely immune, with that pesky sense of impending doom. Instead of my former cheery anticipation, what will be running through my head off and on until I board my plane for Columbus will be something more like this (the relevant content is at 1:15).

I’ve been whining about the size and stress and challenge of our national tournaments for years now, and some people tell me that’s exactly what it is—whining—and that I should just stop, suck it up, and deal with it. (Dare I add, “like a good girl”?)

But those entry numbers keep going up and up, and the competition days keep getting longer and longer, and I keep thinking back to that article I posted about after the 2011 SN, in which I immediately recognized the symptoms SN causes in those of us who work it. I’ve read a bit about partial sleep deprivation since then (for instance, here and here), which has not relieved my concerns. Sleep deprivation affects different people to different degrees, but the consequences are real: more than 4 or 5 days with less than 6 hours of sleep can cause cognitive impairment equivalent to a .05-.10 blood alcohol content.

We do what we can to try to mitigate the effects of our cumulative sleep debt. The plane trip always starts the process for me—my typical 6:30 am (or earlier) departure means I have to get up at 2:30 or 3:00 am to get to the airport in time, and when I finally reach what airline people call my “ultimate destination,” my sense of time is so messed up that I’ve made the successful transition to what I always think of as Tournament Time, where it doesn’t matter what day or time it is but only where I need to be and what time the next event is supposed to start.

I try to track the progress of my cognitive impairments as they develop. Talking myself out loud through previously routine tasks usually starts around the fourth or fifth day, though some years it’s been earlier. Around the sixth or seventh day, I usually have to start thinking consciously about how to manipulate my lips and tongue and mouth in order to form the words I’m trying to say. Part of me is interested in trying to determine what my own personal BAC would be if I exhibited the same symptoms due to alcohol consumption, but unfortunately for that analysis, I’ve never been that drunk.

As tired as I may feel toward the end of a 14- to 16-hour day, I’ve learned that I need to make the next day’s strip plan on the previous evening, usually while the final 8 of the last event is fencing down to the gold medal. If I decide it’ll be easier in the morning when I’m more alert, I’ll usually be wrong. I’ll be better off with the extra half hour of sleep.

My condition is not unique. Look at the referee corral around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, and you’re likely to see unassigned but unreleased referees staring into space or napping with their heads on the table in front of them. Then think about the referees who are working, who’ve probably been working the whole day already and might have 3-5 more hours left before they’re done for the day. Standing, signaling calls, focusing on actions, coping with athletes and coaches and parents—sore muscles, achy joints, tired brains, testy moods. Cognitive deficits? We don’t allow referees to consume alcohol while they’re working, but we let them work while suffering from the same symptoms excessive alcohol consumption would cause.

Or take a look at the trainers’ clientele every so often. They handle a constant stream of fencers in need of ice or taping or stretching, punctuated by emergency calls out to strips, and they  treat a lot of referees, too, keeping them on their feet and functioning. Might our long competition days adversely affect our trainers’ skills and judgment, too?

Are we really serving the best interests of our athletes?

How did we reach a point where 14- to 16-hour competition days are considered even remotely acceptable?

This is wrong. We need to change it.

* I can’t use that word now without giggling (and more weirdly, worrying about my coffee), and we know whose fault that is, don’t we, Peach?


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