Week 19: Bounce

It was supposed to be a quick, cheeky, in-and-out raid.

Take Thursday and Friday off work. Wake at dawn. Crush emails on the taxi to the airport. Ride the daytime Korean Air direct to Incheon. Take the FIE-organised shuttle across Seoul to the old Olympic training grounds south of the river, east of Gangnam, and stay in the official 1980’s Olympia hotel. Fence the Seoul Grand Prix on Friday, and if I’m lucky, on Saturday. Hang out with friends. KFC and beer. Fly back on the red eye on Sunday night. Be back in the office Monday morning.

I’d been preparing for a while beforehand. Thanks to the Master and the Kid, I could do a passable impersonation of a high-school Busan K-sabre fencer, complete with splits and extensions and dirty pommelling counterattacks. As a backup, I mimicked the step-bounce preparation of Kim Jung-hwan and Won Woo-young from YouTube compilations. And I got fast, mostly by getting light: by the time I stepped on the piste at the 2016 Grand Prix I weighed about 57kgs on a 169cm frame.

I felt like I could fly. A leaf on the wind; watch how I soar.

But then the plan started coming apart. First the airport shuttle driver seemed lost and bewildered — apparently I was literally the last competitor to arrive in Seoul — and then the bus took approximately forever to make it through the LA-esq traffic. Then it stopped in the middle of nowhere. Apparently that was as far as it went; there was supposed to be a separate minibus (?!) to ferry us to the hotel. Which didn’t show up.

Fortunately, I’d met an Australian-Korean girl on the flight who happened to live near the fencing venue; in exchange for sneaking her onto the first shuttle, she reciprocated by hailing and directing the cab that finally got me into the hotel at like 10pm that night.

By the time I got in, the hotel was pretty much deserted. The place had a very Cold War impress-the-press-monolith vibe: all gold, brass and glass and big random ballrooms with too many curtains and over-engineered doors. It wasn’t exactly deserted, but it sure felt that way. All the athletes had long since retired to their rooms, save for a few surly Eastern European teenagers sprawled on the chintz loungeware, IV’d on the lobby wifi.

There wasn’t a single hotel staff member to be seen. Two tournament organisers had set up a little reception on fold-out plastic tables near the main doors. They gave me the stink-eye when I went over to register, as the last confirmed entrant; in hindsight, I think they were only still there because they were waiting for me to show up.

I paid my fee — in Euros that I had obtained at the larcenous airport exchange rate — got my hotel room key, and set about looking for food. That quest went poorly too: there were no shops or restaurants anywhere near the hotel, and the in-house restaurants had long since closed. I settled for convenience store snacks that I managed to pick up near the subway station a mile away, navigating my way entirely by approaching the highest density of lights I could see, like a grounded moth.

Back at the room, I tried to get some sleep and ignore the emergency rappel equipment stowed away in a side cupboard. I heard a rumour from somewhere that they were installed in case the North invaded; you were supposed to smash the window and escape as the missiles fell, instead of trusting the deathtrap elevators or lava-tube stairwells. Only if you were on the lower floors though — they didn’t bother installing the equipment in the upper floors where the fancy people were. Too far up? Not worth saving?

I only remember the next morning as series of blur-linked snapshots. Buffet breakfast in the empty hotel restaurant (where did everyone else eat?), maroon booths with gold-paint trim. Shuttle to the venue. The usual meet and greets. One of the commentators asking if I wanted to do a shift in the booth. Being exiled to the hall of bad juju, away from the main pistes, down two flights of stairs and the passage of mansweat. Warm up. Too much coffee. More coffee. Popped a nicotine tablet to calm my nerves. Whoops, too much. Then the pools being called. Piste next to the doors. And the medic. Good sign.

First bout, against Benedict Peter Wagner, 6 and half feet of jovial German destruction. Some say he’s injured more teammates in training than his opponents in competition, and that he is banned from bouting other Germans for at least a fortnight before tournaments. He’s the reason why we now have 800N-rated Kevlar gloves. He once threw a tantrum bad enough to get him black-carded long enough for him to develop a Baileys-and-cereal breakfast habit. He was a sweetie-pie the rest of the time, though, by all accounts. I guess I’d say that too, given his resume. Frances wasn’t buying it: she had messaged him earlier in the day, after she saw the pool draws. Please don’t break my husband.

Still, I felt good. I felt great. I could fly! Ok, let’s not go overboard. Start with something easy, like a parry riposte. Hmm, that didn’t work. Fine, let’s throw an attack in. Boom I break sound barrier. Still missed though. No matter. He’s coming in on the march, looking for an easy hit. Let’s try that parry again. Get close, open up target, and… jump.

On the video, you can see my fibula do this neat writhing dance manoeuvre under the tight elastic of my fencing sock, just as my back foot hits the piste. Then it just looks like I trip like a dumbass, butt-planting on the back line, Benewag thwacking me as I go down. I remember my ankle starting to hurt, then the sensation being gradually replaced by hot embarrassment. Then rage. I’d sprained my ankle. Two points into my first bout. Like a total n00b.

I am not going out like this.

I limped my sorry ass back to the start line. I couldn’t really move my back ankle, so I planted it flat on the ground. I couldn’t push off it either. I gamely tried an advance-lunge anyway but almost fell flat on my face. Well then. Step-bounce it is. Benewag must have wanted to put me out of my misery, because he just fired off a bunch of attacks at me for the rest of the bout. I managed to parry one of them, in 4, forwards — the same and only point I managed to get on Nico Limbach once upon a time.

I am not going out like this.

The medic was some high school kid that looked like he hadn’t slept in years. I growled at him to strap me up. He looked like he was about to throw up — when do medics ever get called in pools? All the real medics were upstairs in the main venue. I told him his first attempt was pathetic. His second attempt wasn’t much better. “Tighter,” I snarled. Now he really was panicking. He couldn’t, he said, without cutting off blood flow to my leg. I wasn’t having a bar of his excuses. Besides, I was being called to the piste again. I yanked the bandage stiff myself, started feeling better — adrenaline is a fantastic drug — and kept on fighting.

I am not going out like this.

I don’t remember much about the rest of pools. I scored points. I got some parries. I managed to limp-chase a guy down to his back line — what the hell happened there? One of the kids wanted to test my lame after I scored a single-light counterattack on him. Come test all you like, punk. You’re so bad at this game an old cripple can take you.

I am not going out like this.

After a few bouts, Medhat the referee came over for a fatherly chat. Listen son. You got good fight in there. But you can’t walk. This is insane. Pull out.

I am not going out like this.

A friend sauntered over. “Had enough yet?” she asked. Nah. I didn’t come this far to quit. She nodded. “Never DFL,” she said, then walked over to the sidelines to watch the show. Never dead fucking last.

I am not going out like this.

Then the leg swelled. The bandages were too tight. I couldn’t put my foot down on the piste any more. The last bout I fenced, I hopped. This was ridiculous. Afterwards, I told the ref I’d pull out. The dickheads in the pool that I hadn’t fenced yet pleaded for me to stay in. Easy pickings to make the cut. Fuck off, I said — I scored on everyone else so far. I’d score on you.

I guess I’m going out like this.

I crawled my way to a corner of the hall, where someone had parked one of those blue steel soccer goals, and swore at the wall until I ran out of breath. “Feel better?” asked the friend. Guess the show was over.

Yeah. Yeah I did.

I wasn’t going to let a stupid twisted ankle ruin my trip. No one had crutches or apparently any medical supplies more sophisticated than a bandaid at the venue, so I just hop-dragged my way around the place. That’s how I got to the stands, how I got on the bus, and through the hotel, and in the shower, and back onto the lift on the way out to a Gangnam pub crawl.

The only delay on the trip was the lift stopping to let the Stallion in, resplendent in boxer shorts and clutching a toothbrush.

“How’s the leg, brother?” he asked.

“Not too bad man,” I replied. “We’re going go out for drink. Wanna come?”

“No thanks,” he laughed. “I have plans already.” The lift stopped, and he got out. On the wrong floor.

You know what you never see in the guides to the nightlife in Gangnam?

Hills.

The next day, I returned to the venue to go spectate and maybe commentate. I still couldn’t find a damned crutch, so I made do with a makeshift splint and tight shoelaces. The German crew were in their usual roost on the mezzanine level, complete with fold-out massage bed.

The boys asked how I was. Hungover, I said. That got a laugh. Their medic came around and offered to replace my now-dirty and incompetently-executed bandage job. I hopped on the massage bed. He got the old bandages off, and started his preliminary examination.

“Uh,” he said, after a few moments. “You know you’ve broken your leg, right?”

***

One random Korean electronics engineer — and his wife — who Frances met in the chat of a YouTube channel sabre watch party. A Seoul hospital, US-style, complete with questions about my health insurance coverage and a stainless steel room where a horde of what appeared to be medical students debated what to do with me, then wrapped up my leg in a rapid-heating cast. My first ever business class flight, red-eye, thanks to said electronic engineer’s wife and her superior haggling skills with a series of increasingly harried Korean Air staff. The pair of them had a kid the year afterwards. That kid is going to wonder for years why mysterious birthday presents keep arriving from Australia.

Then three and a half days at Sydney RPA waiting for a surgical slot. The guy who finally operated on me, at 5 in the morning, looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. The scar from his efforts backs up my assessment. But at least he bolted me together: one steel plate, eight screws, and a nylon tensioning device through the ball of my ankle joint. My transplant physician father-in-law joked that I’d been waiting so long for the operation already that he could make a good case for just leaving the leg alone.

But this debacle was merely my personal contribution to a year filled with them: the Rio Olympics, the Brexit referendum, the Trump election. I didn’t manage to escape any of those either, even in Sydney. We are an Olympic sport after all, and my archives from that year are full of messages veering between how various folks on the circuit planned to deal with Mephisto and exactly *how* likely they were to being lynched by Brazilian mobs, enraged at seeing their city carved up and their future mortgaged for the latest, most blatant, edition of that particular corrupt bacchanal. Brexit, of course, greatly vexed our British expat members (and our main equipment supplier/business partner). And Trump, well; let’s just say bouts at Sydney Sabre took on yet another edge for a while afterwards. Who knew we had so many beach-enclave Floridian expat mail-in voters at the club?

I did manage to dodge the debacle that hit sabre fencing that year though, at least in its early phases. This, of course, was the Russian Box of Death; the latest attempt to twist the sport by proponents obscure for goals opaque.

It was part of a plan to give new life to old slow cripples on the circuit, defined as anyone over the age of 30 and under 190cm. Like me. When I recovered, anyway. I was in a cast for 8 weeks, had trouble walking for 3 months, and fenced my first bout — gingerly — 6 months after the break. I wasn’t fighting anytime soon. All I could do was watch the story unfold.

***

Where to begin?

Way back in the hair-spray mists of the 80s, sabre was perfect. It was dominated by big strong manly Eastern European types, with big biceps and big chests and big bellies. Occasionally you got someone sylph-like, or French, but sabre was a man sport.

Then they let some Americans in, and some Asians, and even women started taking it up. They put in electronic scoring — sabre was the last of the fencing disciplines to use it, despite being it being the easiest to implement — which allowed people to score just by touching their opponent. What is sabre if you don’t hit properly? The FIE installed little cutoff impact switches in the sabres to force people to cut and slash with gusto. But the things never worked consistently, so they got dropped.

In the decades that followed, sabre fencers and sabre fencing changed. People got faster. People got taller. People started hitting weirdly — flicking their sabres around and slapping with their blade flats and pulling off ridiculous touches like point remises and draw cuts. Tactics got strange too. People started grinding out balletically ballistic attacks in the middle, as if they planned to bore their opponents into submission. Sabre outside the 4 metre zone became an odd dance — the attacker bouncing up and down for eons while slowly marching their opponent down the length of the piste. Parries stopped working because remises were too easy. So were counterattacks; even I remember being coached to counterattack on defence instead of trying to parry. What was this, epee?

By the late 2000s, of course, the athletes and coaches on the circuit had long since adapted to these 90’s era changes, the same way that people did in every other sport. But deep within the heart of sabre lurked an old guard who nursed their grievances in the privacy of their suburban clubs. And with the rise of Alisher Usmanov  — former sabre fencer, current billionaire oligarch — to the FIE presidency in 2008, the old guard saw their chance. It couldn’t have come soon enough, for the very embodiment of their nightmares was about to make his appearance on the circuit.

Gu Bon-gil was the most influential sabre fencer of his generation. Fight me. I don’t even know if I like the guy. Last time I saw him, he was getting his butt literally kicked by a stream of coaches and teammates and random hangers-on after catching a case of the stupid in a DE. He could have won; he just couldn’t be bothered — he got paid either way.

But back in the late 2000’s, GBG was just another wannabe hotshot on the junior circuit, some broke kid from the foothills outside the fortress city of Busan, albeit one who sent home some of his Maserati fund every paycheck to provide for his mom and put his sisters through college. He was special though. He didn’t fence like anybody else. He didn’t really fence; at least, not the way any self-respecting coach would have described it.

His signature move, the GBG special, was an advance-lunge off the start line so fast and short that it could stop any opponent’s attack in its tracks, sometimes even scoring a point on the way. Yet somehow he was able to steer it mid-flight into an extension that could reach even the most agile opponent’s attempt to make him fall short. And on the rare occasions where they succeeded, Gu would drop into splits, fall over, and reset the exchange.

He would pound opponents with this move relentlessly over the course of a bout, 20, 30, 40 times, dialling in his rhythm and distance to lock onto his opponent’s own preparation. Once he did, he was essentially unstoppable. The longer the bout went for, the more likely he lock on, and the better his odds of winning — Gu was notorious for losing the first half of a DE only to come back in the second. He didn’t have many other moves, but those he had were annoying too: an exaggerated skip-march on the attack; an awkward evasion counterattack on the defence; and, of course, his squirming ground-hugging hail-Mary counterparries.

In the early days, the top guys disdained Gu and his antics. But Gu just kept getting better. He stuck to his tiny set of moves while doing; he didn’t see the need to add more. He was right. He was winning. After a while, there wasn’t anyone he couldn’t beat. Then, there wasn’t anyone who could really beat him. At least not consistently. Or, as a more cynical observer might note, without the help of the referee.

By the mid-2010s, everyone had to deal with Gu one way or another. Some people tried to copy him. Other people tried to counter him, by getting stronger or faster or with risky moves like forward guards. Everybody had to adapt. Even if you didn’t face Gu himself, you probably had to face one of his wannabe clones. For a while it seemed like every cadet in Asia wanted to fence like Gu Bon-gil. And after news of his bonus and cars leaked out, every cadet wanted to be Gu Bon-gil.

It was better in Europe and America. Only half the field there wanted to fence like Gu.

The other half wanted to fence like Limbach.

The Aryan Ubermensch. Maccabean Games ambassador. World Champion. World Number 1, for three years. Literally a head above every other fencer of his generation. “No one that tall should have been able to move that fast,” said the Paladin.

But he did.

Limbach was the model for every gangly pale private school boy who thought they too had the right stuff. Their moms liked Limbach too: he spoke well in interviews, did good to his parents and coach and teammates, and was brighter than your average athlete — fancy degrees, spoke three languages, and last I heard he was some kind of pharma exec family man.

What is there to say about how Limbach fenced, other than that he was infuriatingly perfect. All those moves your coach kept trying to teach you to do? The efficient, simple ones that you see in textbooks? He could do them all. And make them work. Didn’t even understand why you’d do different.

So there you have it: the two paragons of sabre circa 2010. It didn’t leave much room for guys who weren’t tall and fast and flexible and just better people. For guys like those who used to dominate sabre.

***

Some of those guys were still around. Some of them were coaches. And they had a plan to make sabre great again.

The plan had three parts, designed to break the way that guys like Gu fenced and to blunt the advantage of supermen like Limbach. The first part was what Frances dubbed the Russian Box of Death, RBOD, as picked up by the Wall Street Journal. RBOD made it so that sabre fencers would start each exchange with their back foot on their start lines, rather than behind the lines. The second part was to increase the cutoff time from 125ms to 180ms. The third part was to reinstate impact switches into sabres, forcing them to only register sufficiently robust cuts and thrusts as valid hits.

So what effects would these actually have on the sport? Some were obvious: the impact switches would annul virtually all of the glancing hits and point-remises and feather-light stop cuts that guys like Lopez and Won and various other fast twitchy types had spammed on the circuit for the last couple of decades. The timing change would make such hits harder too, by giving fencers more time to parry riposte before being timed out by remises, and to hit with priority against counterattacks. It would also give more power to the referees to decide the outcome of a match, by creating more double-light decisions for them to make. And, the thinking went, that would give referees the power to mould sabre back to its original form. Money, or inducements thereof, would give the referees the incentive.

RBOD, though, was a little more difficult to parse. To understand why it was met with such furore — by contrast, the timing change snuck through with barely a whisper of protest — you have understand the outsized significance of the tactical game at the start of each exchange in sabre, and how dependent it is on the distance between the fencers and their respective physical attributes.

***

As I described previously in this series, basic sabre tactics boil down to essentially two approaches.

The first approach is to play what is in effect a complicated game of rock-paper-scissors. You have some kind of short attack, like attack-on-preparation; some kind of defence, like fall-short; and some kind of long attack, like a chase. You guess what your opponent will do and you pick the appropriate response. You guess right, you win. You guess wrong, you lose.

You can improve your chances of guessing correctly by tricking your opponent into doing something specific. And you can switch between move variants, like substituting punch parries for fall-short, to more precisely match your opponent’s move with a more effective but less generally-applicable countermove. Some fencer also have a surprise attack ready in reserve, for example an advance-lunge, to deal with opponents who don’t have a move in mind but just come forwards to watch what you do first.

That, of course, is the second basic approach to sabre tactics: the watchers. They don’t play the guessing game; they try to match your rhythm with some kind of preparatory move at the start of the exchange, a “prep”. For example, an advance prep. Then they watch until they see what you’ve launched first, and they respond with an appropriate countermove.

Watchers come in all flavours. Some use one kind of preparation, others use another, and a few have two or three that they switch between to confuse the opposition. Some watchers pause at the end of their preparation before they respond. Others, who I dub “grinders”, don’t. Instead, they use a relatively slow advance-lunge as their prep and respond mid-flight.

The top guys, of course, don’t stick neatly to either approach: they guess some and they watch some. When they guess, they keep watching while they execute, so if they see something odd they can switch to a backup move. When they watch, they watch for one or two specific things, and usually have only a handful of responses ready at any given moment.

But the core of all their tactics lies in just these two approaches. And what RBOD did, or at least tried to do, was to nerf a big chunk of the 2010’s era watcher game for tall fast fencers in favour of short slow guessers.

Here’s how it worked. Tall fast watchers, like Gu, opened each exchange with an advance-lunge preparation. If their opponent also attacked, it would be simultaneous actions — no score. If they attacked too slowly, it would be Gu’s attack. If they tried to parry, Gu would disengage mid-flight and hit. If they tried to move back, Gu could extend his attack and still reach them.

The only ways Gu’s opponents could win were all tough asks. They could try to parry, despite the disengage, and riposte before Gu could remise. They could try to pull away fast enough and far enough to avoid his extension, but late enough they he couldn’t see in time and switch to chase instead. Or they they could try to hit him first, without going so early that Gu couldn’t see their attack in time, and make fall-short himself.

Limbach played a similar, if far more sophisticated game. He had way more moves. He didn’t collapse into splits. But both games relied on their users’ physical superiority to succeed. You must to be this tall and fast to ride.

What RBOD did was to make it so everybody on the circuit could use the same tactic. Bring the start distance together, and even a cripple like me could make simultaneous actions and extend further than any opponent could pull me short. Give everyone only a couple sword-lengths worth of runway and everybody hits the same top speed before impact. Remember the The Incredibles? When everyone’s super, no one will be.

The plan’s intent was obvious from the outset to anyone who knew anything about sabre. But whether it would succeed was up for debate. Surreptitiously, anyway: no one on the circuit was willing to talk about it publicly. Privately they bitched, but everyone adopted an equivocally sanguine stance when the reporters wandered close. There was too much money at stake, too much risk of pissing off powerful people, and — frankly — too little benefit. The changes weren’t slated to come in until after the Rio Olympics. Half the field would be retired by then.

So people stayed quiet. After the Olympics, the athletes went home, spent time with their families — the Europeans indulged in their customary summer month’s vacation — and stayed home to watch what would happen when the rule came in for the first competitions of the new season.

***

It was a debacle.

It started with the RBOD rule itself. Back foot on the start line? Tall fencers with wide on-guard stances were at what my coach used to call kiss distance. Shorties with narrow stances were barely affected. The FIE quickly amended the rule: move the start lines to 3 metres apart. Competition organisers, skeptical grouches at the best of times, declined to paint the new lines on their pistes and made do with little bits of gaffer tape instead. So did most clubs. Except for ours; the touchingly overzealous efforts of our armourer can be seen to this day.

Then there were the hijinks. A couple of Hong Kong kids decided it would be hilarious to throw themselves at each other in flying lunges, off the start lines, just to see if it would work. It did! Mid-air collisions galore. The refs put a stop to it pronto: you get hit mid-flunge, no point for you.

On the subject of referees, none of them had any idea how to ref at three metres. It had literally never happened before. All the precedents built up over decades? Obsolete. Meanwhile the fencers were trying all kinds of crazy bizarro preparations like hop-prep and conga-conga-line-kick-prep and step-prep because there were no established norms for what could work at this range. Despite a few attempts by the FIE to institute edicts from on high, a grassroots consensus formed between the referees and fencers on the A-grade: we’ll ref the same way we did at 4 metres, and you’ll fence the same way too — just with a shorter prep.

And so the first competitions of the 2016-17 season began with RBOD at 180ms. In Dakar, most fencers settled on a half-hop-step preparation, a bastard lovechild between the advance-lunge prep and the step-bounce prep from 4 metres. Anstett won, in a smaller field than usual, his first in a long time. None of the Koreans came close. Nor did Limbach; he had rage-quit a few months earlier, before the Olympics. Everything seemed to be going to plan. The only real debacle was the damage to everyone’s kneecaps: the Dakar organisers had slapped the metal pistes directly onto the polished concrete flooring, sans padding.

It was not to last. Gyor, in the self-declared heart of European sabre with a full-strength field, was won by the latest Korean vat-child: Oh Sang-uk. Gu came second. Korea lost the team final to Italy by five points. Another vat-child, Lee Jong-hyun — aka The Battle Porpoise — came out of nowhere to make the final in Cancun, only to lose to Gigi Samele. The Koreans did respectably in the next comp too, in Padua: two semis in the individuals and a team win. Whatever RBOD was doing, it wasn’t nerfing the Koreans.

Or their tactics.

By this stage, everyone had figured out how to fence at 3 metres. The main casualties from RBOD were the preparations. Long preps like advance-step were out, as was double-advance and the longer variants of advance prep. Unexpectedly, the really short preps, like step and hop, also didn’t work — they were so short that your opponent see what you were doing. Most of the field coalesced around either a short advance-lunge grind or a tiny bounce prep. That is, essentially what they were doing before, just with less effort. At least, what the Koreans were doing before. With less effort.

But just because it was easy to execute preps now, and everybody could do everything, didn’t mean physical superiority wasn’t still a thing. Sure, short fencers could now grind back too, if they wanted, but all that meant was that the tall guys just kept grinding. The tall guys would wear down the short guys. The fast guys would wear out the slow guys. Simultaneous actions abounded. The refs bravely tried to split as many of these as they could, almost as harshly as they did back in 2008, to no avail.

RBOD wasn’t working. It didn’t stop the monsters from winning. It didn’t stop people from grinding. It didn’t nerf the Koreans. It didn’t take out their moves. If anything, it propagated one of their signature preparations — the step-bounce — to every team on the A-grade.

Also no one liked RBOD.

So the FIE quietly killed it off. So quietly, in fact, that they kept it secret. Most fencers only found out a couple of days before the next competition in Warsaw. Except for, of course, the couple of sabre fencers on the commission that made the ruling. And their buddies. It almost goes without saying that the Koreans weren’t part of this exalted group.

It didn’t seem to make a difference.

***

What was the legacy of RBOD? A few funny articles, some smudged lines on pistes, another story for oldies like me to bore the kids with.

I reckon, though, that RBOD was when bounce prep made it big. Before, only a couple of weirdos used it. Afterwards, it was standard.

What made bounce prep great was that it was so unapologetically decisive: you come to a complete stop, then you decide what to do. It was the ultimate personification of the watcher game; the latest in a long line of Korean refinements of Western institutions like pop music, soap operas, and fried chicken. You made a tiny step off the line, skimmed yourself forwards over the piste, then landed both feet at the same time with just enough residual momentum to power your next move — but not enough to stop you from moving back.

From there, only your imagination limited your options. The Paladin liked to guard parry. The Batman liked to attack-in-preparation; he’d extend off it too, and theatrically slam his sabre down on the piste in the followthrough. The Master taught me how to do this little leaning trick where I’d plant my feet and yank my body back ready to parry, yet stay equally ready to swing back forwards for a take-over chase. Sometimes I’d see kids trying to make simul off the bounce prep, but most refs didn’t buy it — the pause made it pretty obvious that they had no intention of attacking off the line.

These days, advance-lunge and step-bounce make up the vast majority of preparations that you’ll see on the circuit. And the choice of which one you use seems to depend a lot on what you look like: tall people advance-lunge and grind; fast people step-bounce and watch.

So as I recovered from that break in that comp in that hall of bad juju, I retrained myself to use step-bounce as my main preparation, saving my K-sabre advance-lunge grind as an Easter Egg for special occasions. The break had put a brake on my speed, but at least I could hope to recover that attribute. Height was a more difficult attribute to boost; I’d failed to ask for Gattaca-style leg extensions when they finally hacked open my leg.

I also failed to come last in that comp. One of the German boys broke one of his little tarsals on an advance-lunge, and some kid from Hong Kong tore his groin open slipping into splits on his back line. I will never forget his screams. But both recovered before I did. They were also far more sensible than I was; both of them pulled out of the competition before I gave up.

Never DFL.


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