Duel Nationality: Fencing in Cuba
THEY came from all over New York City, weapons oiled and ready to fight. We had come to a pre-arranged venue in Brooklyn down a glossy, rain smeared cobbled street under a thundering expressway for a fight that many had been in training for months, in some cases years.
I faced off against a rangy African-American, saluted according to centuries of tradition, blades reflecting strip lights above us and made ready to battle. It took seconds before he sallied down the piste, adroitly changed tempo and lunged. The first cut circled my blade and came inside my guard, hitting me square in the chest. I winced. From the start things were going badly.
This was a blustering sword fight, my first fencing tournament and I was looking set to lose, badly The pre-fight nausea crawled up my spine, making me tremble. My neatly pressed, bleach white uniform was now wreathed in sweat, my breath came in halting gasps. The moves, counter-parries, ripostes and deceptive lunges that I had so perfected couldn’t be found. There were five more bouts before elimination and I couldn’t have started any worse. Had I really come so far to be humiliated as a clumsy swordsman who was using his weapon with as much effect as an egg whisk?
We went back to face off again, me now frantically trying to find my inner resolve. I drew breath behind the sinister black mesh of my mask and tried to remember what my fencing master had taught me. Inside my mask I could still smell the dust, the sea salt and the scent of bougainvillea blossoms that clung to it. My mind drifted to a place 90 miles from American shores, a place that had almost brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and, now, almost a half century later, was still a pariah on the world stage. I was there two weeks before, in a dusty gym with no electricity or running water aching in chronic pain as a thickset man with gold teeth was trying to forge me into a fighter worthy of the blade…
The blade in Oscar Garcia’s right hand glinted like mercury in the Caribbean sunlight. Flooding through the rusty, barred windows of this old, clay-walled gym was the scent of sea salt and the ambrosial air of Bougainvillea swaying in the breeze outside. The mood inside, however, was anything but fragrant.
It was a blustering swordfight. And I felt crass and stupid to have had the temerity to come here to ask for a duel with one of the best foilists in the world. Like never before, had I felt so heavy and graceless. I made a clumsy attack that had just fallen pathetically short. Now I was retracting my sword and backtracking feverishly trying to escape the vengeance coming my way. Nettled by my attack Oscar Garcia now looked like a man possessed; a demon with a supernatural powers levitating over the sandy floor, rapidly bearing down on me from the far end of the gym as if his legs were on castors. His expression was completely obscured by the black steel mesh of his mask, further consolidating his diabolical look.
I tried to blink away the sweat out of my eyes and the trance-like effect of his foil flexing back and forth like a cobra, transfixing it’s victim before the deadly strike. And then it came, just as I had run out of ground. My blade tried to block his, but just ends up fruitlessly snicking empty air. Oscar Garcia, Olympic gold medalist explodes in a full lunge. Within half a second his body thrust forward: his rear left leg parallel to the floor, his entire body stretched to full extension behind a finely-wrought point of steel that was now applying a deceptively gentle pressure at my throat.
This is Cojimar a small, fishing town to the east of Havana, Cuba. Here Ernest Hemmingway kept his boat, the Pilar, for marlin fishing trips that were to lead to him writing the Old Man and the Sea. It is where he set his book. The town is where he set the book. It is also where Fidel Castro took refuge, immediately in the wake of the revolution, and sat down with Che Guevera to plan his socialist utopia. But today Cojimar also has another claim to fame. It is where some of the world’s finest fencers live. The whole town is fencing-bedeviled and every day the clash of blades can be heard from alleys and low-slung Spanish in the rippling heat. Here Olympic fencing champions live back-to-back in modest Cuban houses and shacks, nodding to each other as they go to get their fish from the docks in the evening. In the town’s adobe gym with no electricity, running water I have just fenced fifteen points with local Oscar Garcia, Olympic fencing champion and idol in Cuba. A group of local children peering in and hanging on the barred windows are now grinning - their hero has beaten the visiting gringo.
I first came here a year before on a journalism assignment and, excited, as a novice fencer asked to fence Oscar Garcia, Olympic silver medalist and fencing deity in Cuba – honestly believing I might even win. It was a crass and arrogant thing to do. We went to the town’s old clay-walled gym where he smiled graciously before pulling on his mask. He was deceptively skinny, almost skeletal, 5 11 with arm and leg joints that looked as though they are made of well-oiled flanges, crinkled eyes and a dazzling smile set off under a thick, black moustache.
After my defeat, smarting and red faced, I went to his house, where he made me an offer. He said I could stay at his house, the home bought for him by Fidel Castro after winning silver in the Barcelona Olympics, and train in the town. He said, that even though I fenced clumsily, I had heart and that was what mattered as a Cuban fighter. “Fencing was my way to escape reality too,” he said as we sat in the living room his Olympic medals, bronze and silver for Barcelona and Atlanta and other trophies, lining the walls. His wife, Lellany, an epee champion sat at his side.
So, a year later in anticipation of the New York fencing tournament I returned to Cojimar as an ugly, brutish club fencer in the hope of being transformed into a slick, oiled Cuban swordsman. At 34 I’ll never make an Olympic fencer now, but I wanted one shot at glory – to see if had the true grit needed to train like an Olympian.
Oscar was away training the Belgium Olympic team but he put me in touch with my Obi Wan Kenobi. Hugo Riveria, is a roguish trainer whose eye teeth have been coated in gold and is known as a Lothario with children with five different women. I found him in a suburb of Havana sitting in a mildewed, crumbling house, with children playing in cracked streets the thick fugue of Havana’s pollution turning my clothes black. “OK,” he said in Spanish, “You want to fight like a Cuban?” And thus ensued two weeks of sheer, physical hell.
I discovered fencing, shortly after I was badly beaten up by a gang of skinheads. At first I scoffed at its dandyish posturing and effeminate reputation. But then I joined the Fencers Club in New York, one of the oldest clubs in the Western Hemisphere. Here members of the US Olympic team, like world champion saber Keeth Smart, train alongside 80 year old maestros of the blade.
I discovered a sport which has changed remarkably. Just twenty years ago the sport of fencing was elegant and studied with a peculiar emphasis on etiquette. Today, it has changed to be replaced with an explosive, aggressive style relying on thunder-cracking leg power to lunge with deadly, balletic precision. It requires incredible stamina, the limber-stretched leg muscles of Mikhail Baryshnikov and the deadly hand/eye co-ordination of a professional, turn-of-the-century duelist. Nonetheless the game referred to as “physical chess”: meant that a 70 year old with a keen mind but lifeless legs, can outstrip and have a blade at the throat of someone fifty years his junior with an artful flourish of the hand.
And in the US fencing has never been more popular. The US Fencing Association has seen a threefold increase in members from 6000 in 1983 to 18000 in 2003. They estimate that that number hides the true figure of thousands more who are not part of the association. And every time a movie like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings comes out that number swells. When Madonna donned a mask to teach Pierce Brosnan how to fence in the Bond movie, Die Another Day, would-be duelists flocked to fencing clubs the world over. Sword fighting is fashionable once again.
But, as I was to find out, the scales of who should win - as befitting physical fitness, age and athletic prowess - and who actually does are changed dramatically with a sword. More than once I would lose to people twice my age or kids half my age whose parents were paying for fencing lessons five times week in the hope of scholarships to Ivy League universities. Smarting from defeat, I was so disgusted with myself that I once dumped all my fencing equipment in a bin on the way home on 14th street. (I hurriedly returned five minutes later, furtively, and retrieved it wiping off cheeseburger wrappers. I had to disinfect it three times to get the funky smell out of my uniform.)
Yet I wanted more. In many places fencing is seen as a ‘hobby’, which makes it, sound like stamp collecting, which it definitely isn’t. Local newspapers send reporters to the local fencing club on bad news weeks and then predictably always include the word ‘swashbuckle’ followed by a filmography of Errol Flynn in the report. Thus, the sport is seen as slightly eccentric, effete even, but the image persists. I wanted to go to a place where it was a passion, a part of the fabric of daily life and where people fought with fire as if their lives depended on it. In short, I wanted the real thing. And, most importantly, I wanted them to teach me to fight fire with fire….
Thus, I ventured to Cuba with revenge in mind. For it is the Cubans who fence like no others. The Hungarians, Russians, French and Italians may all have their own styles and systems going back centuries. But to a Cuban it’s a sword fight – not a fencing bout. Before I arrived in Cojimar talk in fencing circles was of the death of a 14 year old boy during a fencing tournament in Guantanamo province. He was hit with such force that the epee blade of his 13 year old opponent broke and ran him through killing him instantly.
The Cubans come to world fencing with a win-at-any price philosophy, a tenet of the revolution. But there is an economic reason too. In the US and the West fencing is perceived as a sport for the elite and historically it was seen as a sport for the moneyed aristocracy.
There is little interest in sponsorship of the sport, so those without rich parents have a hard time. In New York it is no less expensive and elitist. Thus, people like Keith Smart, a member of my club and the world number one in saber, holds down a 9-5 job while he puts in four hours training a day alongside. Those who want to succeed have to do so at enormous sacrifice. Not only is it expensive ($40 for 20 minutes with a top trainer) but even for those who do well at it the rewards are few.
In Cuba, fencing, like all sports, is a full time job. For many it’s the only escape from a life of extreme poverty, the only passport to world travel. In fact, for many sporting achievement is the only way to have your own apartment, car or even a telephone. Oscar Garcia was given a Renault 11 Turbo. In a country where the lucky few own twenty-year-old Ladas or 1950’s cars held together with coat hangers is a luxury. It is equivalent to being given a Ferrari. Thus fencing is taken extremely seriously.
The first few days in Cojimar were extremely painful, and I don’t mind saying I wished I had stayed in New York. The secret is to have incredibly strong legs and to be able to stand with your knees at a 45 degree angle so that you can advance and retreat with speed and stealth and lunge off the back foot in a split second. The top half of your body should be relaxed and supple. Imagine sprinting at full speed and trying to draw a perfect circle with a broom handle on someone’s chest who is sprinting backwards.
Hugo put me through hours of work consisting of squats, lunges and simply battering up and down the adobe, clay-walled gym which produced little clouds of dust flying up from my feet. “Distancia! Distancia!” he would yell as we worked up and down. With no air conditioning in the heat I wilted. The first day I walked home and my legs folded beneath me going down some stairs.
Fencing works like a piece of music with each movement choreographed so that the touch occurs in time. Again and again I would foul up, my sword arm un-coordinated with my legs, and I would ruin the move like hitting the cymbal at the wrong time during a performance of the New York Philharmonic. Time and time again Hugo would stamp his right foot and stare out to sea vacantly in frustration. At the end of each day, I would stumble home to Oscar’s house, exhausted.
Fencing in Cuba has always been a metaphor for the politics and fortunes of the nation – and much has ridden on it. Dr Jose Antonio Diaz lives in a well-appointed house in a suburb of Havana. He earned his doctorate in fencing and has been at the center of the sport since before the revolution. He is a saturnine, birdlike man who wears socks with his sandals and has dark rings under his eyes.
Fencing in Cuba was always the preserve of the rich and noble who had learnt gentlemanly swordplay from Spanish masters dating back to the time of the Spanish conquest, he explains. Under the fin de siecle time of dictator Fulgencio Batista in the mid 20th century, in league with the US mafia and corrupt American interest, fencing in Cuba was a small, elite sport. “It was practiced by the bourgeoisie,” says Dr Diaz. “Doctors, lawyers – those that could afford $200 a month.” They were taught by an imperious French trainer called Jean Lesseux. “I couldn’t afford it, like many Cubans, but I offered to clean the gym and he gave me lessons.” The Cuban Federation of Fencing was formed in 1957 – but things were due to change.
Revolution was brewing. At once the moneyed middle classes who had profited from Batista’s regime fled the country, along with the French fencing coach. “All that were left were the people who couldn’t afford fencing,” says Dr Diaz.
Soon after Castro and Che Guevara swept to power in Havana in 1959. American businesses were privatized and the middle class left destitute. “El deporte drecho del pueblo – sport is the right of the people,” proclaimed Fidel Castro when setting up his communist utopia. Sport was made a compulsory part of the education system and opened to all, including fencing.
When diplomatic relations frosted over between Washington and Havana, the Cubans turned to the Soviet Union for alliance. In 1962 as the Cuban missile crisis almost brought the world to the brink of Armageddon, another secret weapon was arriving on Cuban shores. Russian fencing master Yuri Vagnonov came from the Soviet Union to teach the Cubans how to fence.
They had the passion to win and then as Castro sought alliances with other Communist countries, Cuban fencers were sent to train at top fencing schools under elite maestro’s in Russia and Hungry – two of the strongest fencing countries in the world. “We have taken the best characteristics from Russian, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish and made Cuban fencing,” explains Orlando Ruiz, a former champion from the sixties. “It is a very aggressive style but we added something else too. How you say? We move like we are dancing?” Fencing became a phenomenally successful part of the daily life of Cuba and was used to further links with Russia.
Since the beginning of the cold war, fencing has always been strongest in Communist countries. Hungary, Poland and Russia and now the Ukraine among others had consistently produced some of the best fencers in the world. “The sport has always done so much better in socialist countries because it is available to everyone,” says Dr Diaz. “In America and other countries you have to pay yourself for lessons and not everyone can afford it,” he says.
The Cubans were naturals and began training in earnest with their new Russian maestros. With the new fencing programme, the Cuban women’s foil team beat everyone at the 1962 Pan American Games to win the gold.
Four years later in 1966, Dr Diaz was part of the Cuban fencing team due to leave for the Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico. “The Americans had forbidden us from competing,” he remembers. So they had to launch an operation to get there under covert means. “We couldn’t fly there. So we publicly left Havana but only flew to Camaguey (a province in the south of Cuba). Then we boarded a ship for Jamaica.” And then another set for Puerto Rico.
“We practised on the decks of the ship every day,” he remembers with a chuckle. As they approached Puerto Rico however, the Americans were waiting and issued a threat that if the ship came within five miles of the shore the boat would be captured. “We were determined,” he says. “So we all agreed to swim for it – even though many of us couldn’t.
Eventually a Puerto Rican boat picked them up and they entered the tournament. They swept the board – winning gold medals in all three weapons.
But politics was never far away. Throughout the tournament they were offered money to defect, says Dr Diaz. “We were worried that there were terrorist groups like Alpha 66 who we were sure would get us,” he says. “Either kidnapped or sabotaged.” Eventually the Cuban team bluffed that they would defect and would meet the spies en masse. They left a day early. Yet as they reached their ship, moored five miles from the Puerto Rican shore they looked unlikely to escape. “We saw three boats motoring towards us and for sure I thought they would attack,” he says. “Bu then, as they came closer we saw they were the Cuban navy,” he explains, with a wide grin.
The boats escorted them to the middle of the ocean where they stopped to be met by a fourth. Waiting to congratulate them on their gold wins was El Commandante, Fidel Castro.
After this Dr Diaz began the first of many trips to Moscow to train with the Russians and to bring back his knowledge to Cuba. Yet as the bonds with the Soviets intensified, particularly through fencing, the sport became emblematic of a communist Cuba. And thus, sadly, a target.
In 1976 Cuba lost practically their entire fencing team when a bomb blew up a Cubana airliner in Barbados. Seventy people died in the attack, mostly adolescent fencers returning from competition. A Cuban terrorist in exile, Luis Posada Carriles, had planted the bomb. The Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation was alleged to have paid him. The CIA knew of the bombing beforehand, according to a New York Times investigation in 1998.
“I was driving around Moscow in tears,” says Dr Diaz. “Many of my friends who had fenced alongside me in the Olympics in Puerto Rico were killed.”
Afterwards the entire country went into mourning. A million Cubans met in Revolution Square and Fidel Castro led the country in their sorrow. The Martyrs of Barbados, as they became known, were national symbols of Cuban courage and heart.
While I was in Cuba, the TV was full of images of Castro denouncing the US as bomber Luis Carriles was released from jail in Panama. He sought refuge in Miami in May this year. Castro and the Cuban government were demanding that he face justice. Again this year while I was in Cuba, Castro spoke at the Plaza De la Revolucion. “The present US administration is involved in one of the most embarrassing and dedicated episodes of its terrorist adventures, aggression and lies against Cuba,” he fulminated in his rhetoric. “The whole world knows that Luis Posada Carriles, the most notorious and cruelest terrorist in the Western hemisphere, as acknowledge by the mainstream US media, has entered the United States and asked for asylum in that country, whose soldiers are dying daily, and whose fatalities have already reached close to two million (sic), in the name of a war on terrorism unleashed in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001.”
Listening intently and among those demanding retribution, were Elvira Arrendondon and mother Maria Fundora. Their brother and son, Ramon, was killed on the airliner. He was a young epee fencer, with raven black hair, fast and dazzling in his speed and with his hopes set on a career in journalism. His sister describes how she waited on the airliner to land in Havana where other proud parents and relatives were going to congratulate their children on fencing success – only to wait and wait while it failed to show. Eventually they were told by Cuban officials what had happened at the airport to wails of grief.
Today, they sit in their modest, but tidy home with doilies on the back of chairs in the village of Cotorro. “The US government asked for justice after what happened on September 11 and the terrorist act,” says Elvira, a kindly aged women dressed in her smartest clothes for the interview. “Yet our country asks for justice too after the terrorist attack which took my brother and they just ignore us.”
Her mother, frail and largely confined to a chair is more forthright. “Every day since Ramon was killed I have mourned,” she says. “I want the same thing that they did to my son done to them.” And she begins to weep.
Yet today, fencing in Cuba, once emblematic of its successes and alliance with the Soviets lies in disrepair as does the rest of the country. Today most Cubans train with bamboo sticks or rusty foils. They can’t afford to fly to international competitions so never accrue enough points to be a serious fencing force on the world stage. “I don’t know how we still have fencing,” says Dr Diaz. “It’s only because our trainers want to.”
Yet it is to a grim, olive green building with 70’s architecture and pigeon dropping encrusted windows, the Olympic Center of Sport, that Cubans dream of escape to. Sport is one of the only ways to escape the poverty, other than jumping in the Florida straits for the shark-infested 90-mile swim to the US to escape. And sport also offers the only chance to leave the country and often, the only way to defect. Elvis Gregory, who fenced on the same medal winning team as Oscar in Atlanta, defected and now works at the Club Schermaroma in Italy. He can never return to Cuba and it is, effectively, as if he never lived or was born there. He has been wiped from the public consciousness.
The selection procedure for sports is rigorous. Children are tested for sports and made to practice ones they show aptitude for. Like most Cuban fencers I spoke to, Oscar Garcia had no idea what fencing even was when he was tested. Back then he was a small, scrawny child. “I went to volleyball and I was too short,” he says. “I went to baseball and I held the bat the wrong way round. I went to fencing and did the same.”
But the fencing masters saw something in the small kid, none of the other sports trainers wanted. They too stand to benefit from a prodigy. Pretty soon Oscar was cleaving aside anyone on the piste who faced him with a sword. And even when he went to Eastern Bloc countries, saw snow for the first time and won championship after championship the Cuban government were still decisive in insisting that he had to maintain form if he was allowed to continue at the age of 29. “They said if I didn’t do well I had to stop.” Shortly after, he won gold in the Olympics and was second in the world rankings. “It was my childhood dream,” he says with his famous, watery-eyed, face-crinkling smile.
In Cojimar there are scores of children who revere Oscar Garcia with awe. In place where there are few TV’s, he is the local glamour along with Olympic epee champion Maraida Garcia.
At the Centre of Sport, is fencing professor Nancy Quesadea, a small, sinewy woman in early 50’s with a voice made hoarse by bellowing at children all her life. Within two days of meeting her she asked me to punch her in the stomach to show how her stomach muscles were like knitted steel. I said no and she looked at me with a pitying shrug. When I asked her about the American fencers she blew her lips out and said, “They have no heart, they don’t know how to fight.”
She drills children as young as eight with a scampering, boisterousness. At the heart of her methodology is making them valiant and fearless. To do this she makes them run along the crumbling sea wall or lie on the dusty floor of the gym while the other children run over their heads. She is adored in the town.
Each time I returned to Cuba, Nancy would cook for me, clean my clothes and remind on an almost daily basis: “You, you a crazy Englishman.”
Her young prodigy is Alain Duvergel,11, who already has an insolent wink, a scowl and a lunge that could crack a walnut at ten paces. Among the other kids he is known as ‘the little cucumber,’ due to the conical shape of his head. He fences with a bamboo cane and in his black leather school shoes which are split. His mother has problems working due to cancer. “I want to travel, to win medals and to give Nancy things to put in her museum,” he says with a direct gaze, indicating behind him. In dusty display cases are Oscar Garcia’s fencing shoes that he wore in the Olympics and Maraida Garcia’s glove.
Yet there is a pressure on young Cubans to take up sports like baseball or boxing, which the Cuban government invest far more heavily in and there is a greater chance of fame or riches. “I don’t care to be famous,” he shrugs with contempt. “What is important is my will and my results. There are many who are guided by fame and they fail in life.”
Miguel Ibarzabal, a kindly man in his fifties with gold-rimmed glasses, is president of the Retired Fencers Association. The association takes care of old fencers, running errands for them, helping them money and working on their homes if anything happens.
But for the young fencers, like Alain, he is downcast. “We have no weapons,” he says. “And fencers are diminishing because we can’t carry on. It’s amazing we can even fence in a world championship like this,” he says, casting his hands around at the tournament. “We have had the foot of the United States on us for so long now,” he says slamming his hand on the table. “But we think we have finally found a way.” And with that he grins.
A few older retired fencers with engineering experience are now forging their own blades. They are heavy and crude but better than wood. “Last month we had weapons for the first time,” he says. “We are Cuban - we always find a way.”
FOR two weeks I labored under the expert tutelage of Hugo. Any spare moment he got he would head over to Cojimar and put me through my paces. My right shoulder began to feel as though someone had put ground glass in the socket as he made me hit time after time. “Use the sword as if you are Picasso,” he would say. And thus I reined in my brutal, wild motions, learned not to flinch when being attacked and could calmly make a touch like a locksmith unpicking a lock in a hurricane.
One day he tried to show me a new move and every time I fouled it up he would shout, “You’re a tramp!” We tried again and the response was the same “You’re a tramp!” Eventually after the sixth or seventh time I tore off my mask, tired off being insulted and asked him what he meant calling me names like that. He looked shocked. “You’re a – how you say – trap?” I understood. Hugo was showing me how to deceive with a thrust. Much of fencing is based on deception, making your opponent think you are doing something but then by legerdemain, making the touch differently. Hugo told me to fight like El Gato, (The Cat) to advance slowly and then suddenly change tempo to attack.
As the days progressed in the wilting 90 degree heat, I slowly began to improve. “Fuerte!” he would shout, “No decil!” Every fencing master has a move they impart to their most trusted students. In Arturo Perez-Reverte’s book The Fencing Master there is a move called the 200 Escudo Thrust which is a move that is allegedly indefensible. Hugo’s was a move that consisted of sliding down the opponents blade and, with a flick of the wrist, forcing your blade round to hit in the side just behind the right elbow, just above the kidneys – a small target but difficult to guard. It was difficult but after many attempts, I got it right. There was a glint of gold beneath Hugo’s mask as his teeth flashed. “Dynamico!” he triumphed.
And it was after this that we really fenced. Even though we couldn’t communicate too well through my awful Spanish and his non-existent English, we had what is known as “conversation of the blade.” This is when every attack is met with a parry, each riposte counter timed and with that we flew up and down the gym, battling, predicting each others moves. It was a terrific feeling. Everything slowed down and all knowledge, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, seemed to be mine.
“Now you are ready to come to Cuba to fence,” he said triumphantly. I, however, had to leave the next day. Hugo was genuinely frustrated and a might angry. “Only now are you ready to really learn,” he said. “We do all this work for you to learn to fence and just when you are getting really good and might even make something you leave.” He was good-natured but it was like he had begun to paint a fine work and someone had taken his canvas away.
He took me back to the airport and said simply, “Remember that you are strong.” And with that he turned on his heel back into Havana.
I FENCED a week later in the tournament at the Brooklyn Fencing Center, New York. I had limited expectations of how I might do with only two weeks training. I lost my first bout, but it gave me crucial time to think. The second, I hit so hard as Hugo had taught me, that I broke my blade. This was alongside being given a red card for coming down the piste so fast I almost knocked my opponent over. I lost a point for that.
I had to borrow a club blade which was two inches shorter as a junior training foil. But I won – and with that, thinking of my Cuban mentors and the disadvantages they faced made me feel oddly invincible.
After the preliminary seeding rounds, I was seeded third in the tournament of sixteen fencers. My broken foil was mended and I won my first round of elimination. And then my second. One point I scored with Hugo’s secret move that caused me to beam wildly.
And, eventually, I faced off against my nemesis who had beaten me in the very first bout in the final The pressure built. Normally when it comes down to crucial bouts I buckle under pressure. But that day I was clear and focused. A few marching, direct attacks caught me unawares but I turned the tables fast. I brought the score to 14-8. The last point and I was trembling with trepidation. But I bounced on the soles of my feet and lunged – the red indicator light flashed, showing that I had hit.
I had won the tournament – a ‘U’ or unclassified for non-ranked fencers. And the realization bought me close to tears – it was only a minuscule taste of the dedication an Olympic fencer needs to win. With my victory I am now a ranked ‘D’ fencer with a national US ranking. Although, I feel a little guilty that not everyone I fenced had the luxury of two weeks in Cuba to get ready.
But the fact of the matter remains that I couldn’t have possibly afforded the training I so badly needed in the US. It would of run into thousands of dollars – which is maybe one reason why fencing is still seen as a sport for those with deep pockets. In fact while Cuba doesn’t have the benefit of Soviet coaches anymore, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union many of those have ended up in the US making money as expert maestros in a free-market economy. But if fencing is a barometer of the wealth of a nation, it is ironic one of the great new forces on the fencing stage is China – hotly tipped to be the new superpower.
However, while there are many fencers in the west who will never pick up a sword because of the cost, there is a caveat. In the US, at my club, there is the Peter Westbrook Foundation which offers fencing to inner city children in the US. It is, however, the only organization of its kind to make fencing accessible to those who can’t afford it. In the meantime fencing still fails to engage the public – it is still seen as dandyish and elitist – which turns off the media in general. Thus, sponsorship never materializes. In Cuba they still cling to the dream of ‘sport for all’ but the free market now means they can no longer afford it anymore either.
After the tournament, I made the long walk home. And this time, as I passed a bin, my fencing gear stayed firmly on my shoulder. As did the medal I won, safely tucked inside my fencing uniform.