Week 17: Counter

He walked in off the street one afternoon.

The Kid was a princeling from the Korean sabre training program; son of an Olympian fencer from the fortress city of Busan on the southern tip of Korea. The Kid’s father had retired from a long and successful career on the piste to become the regional head of fencing in Southern South Korea and one of the main power-brokers in the sport.

The plan was for the Kid to follow in his father’s footsteps. And so the Kid was placed in a cohort of other promising young fencers that included future champions such as Gu Bon-gil — one of his drinking buddies — and put through the same gruelling regimen that forged the men who had won the first fencing medals for Korea. The Kid’s cohort, though, was being groomed to take the country’s sporting fortunes even further, to the top of the international rankings and domination of the medal podiums. Calling the pressure on these kids merely “immense” would be an understatement.

Here’s how the Korean mens sabre program worked. Take a small country on the edge of the world who has been curb-stomped by every one of their neighbours since the dawn of recorded history at a frequency of about once every hundred years or so. Keep this up until the 20th century, when instead of being invaded once, they get invaded twice, and then get thrown into a civil war that reduced their average technology level back to the Bronze Age. Install a strongman, institute universal male military conscription, then initiate the longest civil war in modern memory that still hasn’t technically ended and regularly involves conscripts getting killed in miserable border skirmishes. Then — to gain international prestige, and probably to distract people from the inevitable fall in dictator popularity polls — legislate exemptions from conscription for athletes who win medals at marquee spectacles like Asian Games and the Olympics, and pour money and kids into niche non-commercial sports at a rate that no country with a sane fiscal policy could justify.

Those programs and exemptions didn’t save the strongman or his regime. But the programs themselves survived. And the rest took care of itself.

Kids get scouted at age 12 — at the end of primary school — for places in sports high schools where they learn little other than their allocated game. They train three times a day, six days a week. Many live in dormitories and only go home to their parents on the weekends. They fight their way up the ranks, getting more desperate as they approach the end of their high school years and their transition to one of the professional teams, a university team, maybe even the national squad … or failure, and military service.

Hundreds of these kids enter the program every year, vying for only a dozen or so open pro slots, less than a hundred openings in the universities, and perhaps only one place — or none, given the longevity of the current crew — in the 8-man national squad. They are all amazing fencers and athletes; even the ones who make it that far and fail are on the extremes of the athletic performance curve. A parent of two of my students, who moonlighted as a rugby doctor on weekends, took one look at the Kid and declared that the Kid had the densest leg muscles the doc had ever seen.

I don’t know how or why the Kid washed out, or why he washed up in Sydney. But despite his connections and his talent, he never quite made the grade. By the time he got to us, he had served out his two mandatory years in the army driving a tank and hadn’t picked up a sabre in three years.

That didn’t stop him from giving me a hard time the first time we fenced. I could just barely beat him back then, at the peak of my physique, in my home club. It was obvious that the Kid could fence on a whole other level to me and everyone else in Australia. Attenuated as his skills were in the beginning, the Kid still had a baseline of ability that was beyond and fundamentally unlike what I understood about sabre up to that point. And as his skills and form returned, so too did his ability to fence and move in ways that I could not counter, and could not replicate.

He would be the first several stray Korean sabre fencers we would host from time to time, thrown out to fend for themselves the moment it became clear that they wouldn’t make it to even the lowliest of the few fencing berths back home. There are dozens of these lost kids every year, with no skills other than sabre, jetting off on one-way tickets to whatever unclaimed piece of turf they could find to set up their own little fencing club. Or, more often, they would cuckoo their way into a local club then — after a decent stretch — take over from their unsuspecting and less capable hosts.

But this is now, and that was then. The Kid was the first of his kind to make it out to Australia. He seemed lost and poor, so I gave him free entry to the club and threw him a bit of money to school me on what he knew about K-sabre. A few months later, when the Major went home, I hired the Kid as a coach. Mostly to teach the kids, who he had the most interest in anyway — he was made from the mould of an old-fashioned sports coach, always on the prowl for talent — but also to help out with the adult classes.

I walked in one Saturday morning to find my entire cadet squad crippled and crying; the Kid had forced them into practicing their splits by literally forcing them into splits. The cadet cohort halved in number after that incident, then halved again when the Kid made them do nothing but lunge drills for a week. Then they halved again, this time by design, when the Kid picked out the ones he considered to have talent and those he considered a waste of time. He managed to somehow split a pair of identical twins this way, but in one regard he understood the most important indicator of talent: how much money the parents had. The Kid might have been clueless, even callous, but he wasn’t completely stupid.

He didn’t bother trying to put the adults into splits, or run mind-numbing drills, or pick between them for talent. He didn’t really bother to do anything at all with them, including teaching them sabre. I would yell at him to teach, and he would go through the motions, but his heart wasn’t in it. “It’s not important,” he said, whenever I raised some point of instruction with him. Should they learn to hit this way, or that way? It’s not important. Do you think they should learn to parry first or make fall-short? It’s not important. When do you think this cohort will be ready to move to the next level? Whenever. Never. It’s not important. The Kid achieved an almost absolute adult attenuation rate. Our members took years to recover afterwards, numerically, physically and possibly emotionally.

The Kid was a hot mess. But he was perfect as a model of Busan K-sabre for study. He was like an ailing clone of Gu Bon-gil: a little slower, a bit fatter, stiffer in the joints, but the same underlying organism. A sabre vaccine.

The style he used was simple, powerful, and pragmatic. Hit straight. Hit hard. Hit however you must to make contact. Forget using the “correct” edge, or feints, or beats, or any those crutches for lesser fencers to paper over their shortcomings. Need to get around a parry? Go through instead. Hit flat and whip over. Or punch their parry into their body. And angulate your sabre around their blade. Try all three. At the same time.

He placed a premium on physical performance. More squats. More jumps. More sprints. More splits. He might have wiped out the entire student cohort with his ministrations, but to be fair he didn’t make anyone do anything that he hadn’t been subjected to himself. He was immensely strong even out of practice. I’ve met a lot of fencers who were stronger than me in upper body strength — my grandcoach’s sword arm was strong enough to whip around his double-length quadruple-blade coaching sabre like a car antenna — but the Kid was one of the few people who could best me in power-to-weight ratio; and he was stronger than me overall as well.

That physical superiority coupled with well-honed reflexes and brutal attacks made up the basis of the Kid’s game in the box. He would launch wave after wave of advance-lunges off the start line that punished you for being too slow or too weak to stop him. He had little in the way of a preparation and he had no intention of making simultaneous actions. He watched while he was mid-lunge, lancing through late attacks, remising through parries, extending his lunge when his opponents tried to pull away, chasing them down when they fled early. He could change direction too, seemingly even while he was in flight, to parry his opponent’s early attacks or to pull them short. And he fast enough to change directions again, when he got spoofed, to takeover the attack.

He had like 10 moves in total, variations included. None of them exactly matched the situations he had to deal with, but that didn’t matter. Conventional wisdom held that direct attacks are weak against parries, and not effective against the chase. Most coaches teach better tailored but more complicated moves like feint attacks or attacks-in-preparation instead.

But when you’re that fast and can hit that hard, direct attacks work fine, most of the time. As the Paladin observed, the Korean fencers didn’t use any moves complicated enough that a referee could call it against them. By that definition, the Kid was a quintessential Korean fencer.

But even K-sabre fencers are not so physically talented that even a normal person like me couldn’t block their direct attacks when sufficiently warned, especially after being on the receiving end a couple of times. So the Kid had a move for that too, or more accurately, a followthrough: if and when his direct attack got parried, he would automatically counterparry and riposte.

***

Counterparries are an old and venerable part of the orthodox fencing repertoire. By definition, a counterparry is a parry that you execute against an opponent’s riposte, after they parry your initial attack. That is, you attack, your opponent parry ripostes, then you counterparry to hopefully block the riposte and give you the opportunity to riposte back.

I originally learned how to do these as a child foilist, recovering back quickly after being parried and making a parry of my own to their riposte. In principle, one never intends to win with a counter-parry; it is a reflex that you hone in training that hopefully gets triggered the moment you realise your attack has been parried. Counterparries in sabre are the same as in other fencing disciplines, just more difficult to pull off.

Counterparries are usually in the same direction as the preceding hit; for example, if you hit to an opponent’s chest, from the right side towards your left, you would counterparry in the same direction to position 4.  This distinguishes them from their similarly (and confusingly) named siblings, the contra- or circle- parries, which are simply parries that take a roundabout detour to their final position. But traditional coaches make exceptions to this rule, notably when your attack to an opponent’s head is parried. The way I was taught to counterparry those, as a child in foil, was to recoil off the opponent’s blade and make a circle 5. These circle counter-parries are flashy and work in theory — and perhaps in foil — but rarely work in sabre. They are just too slow.

The Kid made no such exceptions and he was not slow. He counterparried like he was attacking: forwards, leaning into the opponent’s blade, and taking the riposte with his own sabre held in front and far away from his body, a position more akin to a punch parry than a guard position. He did not recover backwards first; if anything he would push further in and bend low, hiding his body behind his sabre guard. He would push against his opponents blade through the whole motion, edge stuck on edge, blades in contact as he slid from parry into riposte. He never bounced off or released the opponent’s blade by choice; the longer he held their blade, the longer he was in control.

Consequently, his choice of counterparries were very different from those I had been taught. For example, when the Kid attacked to head and got parried, his counterparry was a linear 4 taken so far and so high that it resembled the mirror image of a parry 5. When he attacked to flank and got parried, he would counterparry forwards into 3. The only time I ever saw him counterparry in 5 was after he stabbed an opponent in the throat; for all other positions he stuck to variations of 3 and 4.

The Kid’s counterparries made his opponents more circumspect about riposting immediately after parrying his attacks. I’ve had him do that to me a few times, after which I would pause after my parries to take a look at where his counterparry was going first, so I could disengage around it. But, of course, that just gave him the opportunity to escape an otherwise distinctly disadvantageous situation. And, occasionally, sneak in a cheeky remise or counterattack during my pause.

The main thing with his counterparry, however, was that it made his direct attacks stronger. He didn’t have to hedge how hard he pushed with the attack, in case his opponent could make him fall short. He didn’t have to consider moves like feint or beat that might give his opponents an opening to hit the Kid first or counterattack in time. The Kid could commit completely to every one of his attacks, plotting where and when he would hit well in advance, with complete confidence from the knowledge that even if he got the whole thing completely wrong his counterparry would protect him from any immediate adverse consequences.

The Kid’s whole repertoire was like that: a handful of carefully selected moves, each complementing each other, none of which were perfectly adapted to what their opponent could do, but each of them individually honed through thousands of hours of practice to a level that made them collectively effective against anything they might encounter, a cohesive set of moves that was frustratingly hard for others to pull apart.

The Kid was the embodiment of how the Master and his colleagues had rebuilt sabre from first principles. It was a style that relied on physical dominance, played by athletes whose predecessors had been dismissed as weak and gracile. Its repertoire of moves pushed the limits of fencing form to balletic heights that belied the accusations of bad bladework thrown about by established coaches and even other fencing disciplines. K-sabre was an austere school, stripped down to the most practical moves, and invented as a response to everything that their rivals had said and used against them before. It was a counter to the dominance of European sabre.


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