The floor resembled a sloppy crime scene. Fencing gear scattered in disorderly manner while the referee, mimicking a detective, stood holding a yellow card. The final score, 13-15. I hadn’t only lost the bout that day, I lost some self-respect. Hearing the term sore loser was something I never thought I would ever be called. I had thrown my mask in fury prompting disapproval from the ref and warranting a yellow card.
As time passed, I progressed, but still found myself with a feeling of contempt and anger upon exiting the strip without a winner’s bout slip. With hopes of giving myself an excuse for my defeat, I often gave up towards the end instead of giving it my all and still losing. Whenever the tide of the bout would shift to my opponent’s favor, my hand would start to drop, my footwork would get sloppy, my strategizing would become stagnant. As a sport that takes pride in its sportsmanship, I felt ashamed but became all too familiar with this habit. Although, I didn’t lose nearly as much as in my first tournaments, this practice was perpetual. I told myself that as I got better, my losses wouldn’t carry as much weight, but I soon came to realize that they actually started to carry much more. Flying to multiple Summer Nationals and Junior Olympics, I started taking losses harder. My growth as a fencer was unproportioned to my growth as a person.
When the pandemic struck, I knew I would not be able to fence for a while. At this point, I was lost in my journey to become a better fencer and could no longer find my way in extra practice. I was offered the privilege to start teaching online classes to beginners at my club. Maybe I could find answers as to why I handled my losses the way I did.
Darius was the first kid with whom I bonded. Throughout training exercises, his bursting energy kept my other fencers pushing for one more lap. When I taught him a slight clockwise turn of the hand when performing a parry, one of the techniques that I had polished over the years, he jumped with joy like Barney the Dinosaur. His radiant face always jumped out of the Zoom screen. What I found most remarkable, however, is that he never worried about losses. Whether it be bouts or games, he never dwelled on a loss. Darius simply enjoyed the teamwork, sportsmanship, and fun that fencing brings.
My first tournament in over a year finally approached. Despite the Covid conditions, I came back prepared and more conditioned than before. I didn’t leave myself any excuses or space for half-assed performance. I was at my best and knew I had something to prove to my coaches, my friends, my parents, but most importantly myself. Out of the exceptional pool round, I felt relieved and energized. Until direct eliminations, that is. Seeing my opponent’s name next to mine, I froze with fear; he was an internationally ranked fencer and a coach with A-rated disciples. He also happened to have qualified for the Beijing Olympics. Towering over me, he monopolized the fencing strip. With each labored breath, I prepared to surrender. Then, I pictured Darius’s face – grimaced in a plank, bursting laughter after someone let one loose – which reminded me each bout is about learning and growing.
I made my way to the piste with determination and tenacity. There he was, standing with an heir of superiority. Physically, he was much taller and stronger than me. I didn’t know what would happen next, but all I knew is that my life as a fencer would change in the next 9 minutes. The bout started off balanced out and I managed to even the score until 9-9. It wasn’t until he did the signature whip of the blade and flick on my back that I snapped out of my old losing habits. He was trying to backflick me, an action meant to disrespect any fencer. I now found the resilience needed to finish the bout. Point after point, he never ceased to try backflicking, but I wouldn’t let him. Swiftly avoiding his blade and hitting him, I regained my dignity. Beating his blade back and making him acknowledge my presence, I regained my self-respect.
The final score, 13-15. Walking off the strip after saluting my opponent and the referee, however, for the first time, I was happily lost in the cacophonies from all adjacent strips as other fencers’ swords parried. It was the sound of the community that supports, respects, shares experiences and camaraderie – one that comes together to build each other up. Now, I take the first sure-footed step toward building another community together.