En Garde: Lessons from the Fencing Strip

By Selina Kaing

En Garde: Lessons from the Fencing Strip

Google the word “fencing” and anything from Home Depot ads to garden installation will most likely pop up. So it’s easy to forgive someone for thinking that the only workout involved in fencing is the amount of force it takes to wield an auger to dig postholes. But look beyond the search results and you might find yourself in the same position I was in four years ago when I first typed in those fateful words: pudgy, bored with the treadmill, and looking for something – anything – that might break me out of my monotonous routine in fitness and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, my life.

I left for college when I was 18 and have been on the move ever since – Boston, Connecticut, a stint in England, back to California for a bit, and then, most bewilderingly to my Cambodian parents – Ohio.

“Is that in California?” My mother’s geographic anchors could mostly be summed up as if it’s not in Asia, it must be in California.

“They have a really good college football team.” This observation came from my father who inexplicably fell in love with the sport after coming to the U.S. I made a mental note to myself that the stereotype about men and football indeed transcended cultural barriers.

As the spate of Cambodian words flowed incomprehensibly around me, my mother finally turned and uttered the dreaded question: “Why do you want to leave?”

Why indeed? I pondered that even as I repacked the meager belongings I had brought back with me from England. It continued to haunt me as I started my job in Columbus and tried to settle in to a new city and rhythm. And as the months passed and a bitter Midwest winter set in, so did the pounds and a vague sense of tedium that I couldn’t seem to shake.

It was, strangely enough, a local community center’s teen fitness catalog that started me down a path towards donning fencing whites (maybe in a size bigger than I would have liked at the time) and wielding a foil. As I leafed through the pages and read the description for a children’s introductory series, I wondered idly to myself if there were classes for adults – after all, whoever heard of fencing in Ohio?

Quite a few people as it turned out. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Ohio claimed three active divisions under the U.S. Fencing Association, was home to a highly competitive fencing competition as part of the iconic Arnold (as in Schwarzenegger) Sports Festival and was no stranger to creating national and Olympic champions.

But I would only discover this later. For now, learning to fence was like starting any other exercise regimen – uncomfortable, slightly humbling and somehow obligatory. Even as I struggled to master a whole new way for my muscles to move – first position, en garde, lunge – I still felt that sense of detachment, an almost clinical distance between body and mind that left me wondering if it was back to the treadmill for me after all.

When the day of the last lesson dawned, I felt a mingled sense of disappointment and relief. As I trudged into the club, my instructor handed me an awkward bundle of clothes: “Suit up.”

Fencing equipment can be intimidating. But as I donned everything from my chest protector and plastron to my jacket and lamé, I began to feel the first stirrings of excitement penetrate the fogginess that had lately come to rule my life. As the heavy gear settled on my ample frame, I felt every pound of it – a comfortable weight that somehow anchored me to the here and now.

Feeling slightly reassured, I picked up my foil and took up first position on the fencing strip, saluting my opponent with what I fervently hoped was a graceful swish. As I struggled to pull my mask on one-handed, the referee rapped out his commands.

En garde.” I assumed my guard stance.

Prêt.” Was I ready for this? Did chubby Asian girls from Southern California really fence?

Allez.” Before I could even think, my feet leapt forward on their own. The world behind my mask narrowed to the 14 meter length of the fencing strip and the blade in my opponent’s hand.

Advance, attack, parry riposte, recover, retreat. When I look back on my first bout, I still laugh a little at how awkward and foolish I felt executing each movement. But here’s the crazy part – as I lurched and stumbled my way through each lunge, each extension, each and every single step I took on that strip – I realized it was the first time in a long time that I had done anything that would leave me less than perfect, cool or composed.

It is hard, even now, to acknowledge to myself that my dissatisfaction with life stemmed from the fact that I had been afraid to do anything to change it. Good schools, good jobs, nice apartment – I liked how my life looked on the outside and from a distance. But the truth was that I let myself believe that the shiny surface mattered more than having the tough conversations and confrontations that make life, well, something to fight for. I moved away every time things got tough – family, boyfriends, bad bosses or anything else I didn’t want to face. In my desire to avoid messiness, I somehow ended up with a veneer. As funny as it sounds, stepping onto that strip and flailing about actually helped me take control of my actions and realize that every move I made, no matter how awkward or clumsy, had to be mine.

I lost that first bout. But as the extra pounds melted away to reveal muscles and the random jabs of my foil evolved into something resembling proper blade work, I realized that the score didn’t really mean all that much – it was showing up for the fight that mattered.

About this writer

  • Selina Kaing Selina Kaing is a closet writer who squeezes in a fencing bout or two in between her day job in the tech sector. She currently lives in Northern California.

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One Response to “En Garde: Lessons from the Fencing Strip”

  1. Kudos to you, Selina, for trying something new — and for learning something important in the process!

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