A year after I broke my leg, I stood in a sports hall wedged into the top floor of a suburban Bangkok shopping mall. I was in a small international B-grade: a competition for wannabe pros; never-made-it-to-pros; and a roundup of recreational randoms, there for a good time, and to buffer between the other two groups.
I still walked with a slight limp. I could feel the brutalist steel hardware in my fibula — they reserved the titanium for the private insurance patients. I fantasised that my leg was stronger than ever before. My biomechanics buddies told me otherwise. The scar that marked where the surgeon had gone in had sealed into a puckered seam, in stark relief against my skin. It blended into a background bruise whenever I moved too much.
This trip didn’t look like it would be any prettier than that scar. At least this time I wasn’t alone. With me were Frances and our two small boys, two of my apprentices — the Twins — and their parents, a Kiwi sabre refugee, a schoolteacher who had started fencing a few months earlier, and a corporate HR hacker with a leave loophole that paid her to fence overseas.
Of our eleven, seven would fence. The Twins and I formed the men’s team; Frances, the schoolteacher and the HR hacker formed the women’s. The Kiwi was on his own.
We all had different reasons for being there. The women were there for a holiday. The Twins and the Kiwi wanted to know if they could compete in a tougher comp than in Australia. I wanted to know if I could still compete.
Halfway through the comp, the answer for me was no.
In the aftermath of the Russian Box of Death, I’d settled on two starting preparations for the 4m box: step-bounce prep for when I was faster than my opponent; advance prep for when I had more range.
But here I was neither faster than my opponents, nor did I have more range. What could I use?
Fencing masters only rarely need to consider what to do with a shorter, slower, older, and yet inexperienced fencer.
By tradition, fencing was almost exclusively taught to children, some as young as 5, in the style of their master and their master’s master. The master would lead the child through their repertoire, in private lessons, starting in stance with a salute. First came fundamental footwork, perhaps without blade, such as the advance and retreat and lunge. Then they would begin basic bladework, cuts and thrusts and parries, in time with the master’s cues. These, they could combine in ever more complex compositions, a fugue of feints and compound parries to wow the parents.
Luminaries like Aldo Nadi and William Gaugler insisted on honing their charges’ techniques for years before teaching them how to fence. Only once they judged the child competent, could the child learn the basics of the bout: start here; score there; see this, do that; see that, do this.
By then, the child will have grown into a teen. They may well face faster and taller opponents, but they too will grow faster and taller. Their master’s role is to keep them on the path — build their bodies, sharpen their skills, coach them through the countless competitions that truly teach a fencer to fight. Few children stay in the sport long enough to reach their physical peak, in their mid-20s. Those who do either have the physiques to match their opponents or the skills to compensate — masters in their own right.
Few people took up fencing as adults.
The cost of this approach, though, was steep. Aside from the thousands of private lessons each year, one man’s style is not necessarily that of the next. Even if the styles match, the students spend years in ignorance of how the sport works, drip fed through drills, taught only to train harder in their techniques when they lose. Most drop out.
When we founded Sydney Sabre in 2011, I wanted to teach adults how to fence for fun. This, alone, meant I needed a different approach to the traditional way I too was trained. I could concede that the old ways might be best for coaching a child to be champion. But I could not see how they would work for adults: the mechanical repetitions; the techniques that bent young bodies; the lack of context to tether new skills to known ones.
I believed I could find a better way to teach adults. I had a hunch that I could find a better way to teach children to be champions, too.
The Twins, and others of their cohort, were part of my experiment.
They arrived at the club a year after we first opened, a pair of gangly 12 year olds with their father for a group class. They were good kids. They, and their parents, were undemanding. They did not believe they were born to be great swordsmen. They just wanted to fence. They had fun. They stuck.
Back then, we taught people to fence by getting them to fence. For the adults, we ran a 90-minute crash course to cover just enough to get them on the piste. For the kids, we did even less: after a random warmup game with tenuous links to fencing skills, we would briefly lead them through basic footwork then suit them into electrics to fence. There we would teach them to fence: how the rules worked, how to referee, how to read their opponent, what options they had, which techniques to practice in the mirror.
As they gained in skill, we matched them up with stronger opponents to slough off bad habits, and weaker opponents to build up their confidence. We taught them starter movesets that we helped them customise, trading this move for that, upgrading favourite techniques and dropping others, combining them into custom combos. Beyond that, though, we kept their training unstructured. They had to figure out how to fight their way.
Instead of relying solely on a coach’s eyes to refine the students’ skills, we used selection pressure from their environment. Other students, in their cohort. Older students. Better opponents. Adult opponents. Multipliers that granted their opponents two, three, four points for every touch they landed. Excellent referees — we were (and are) the only club where we judge the quality of our students by their refereeing, and as their pre-eminent skill. Then biased ones: deaf to their beats, blind to their parries, everything in the middle is simultaneous, or their opponents. When they protested, I would tell them I had personally experienced every one of those inequities in competition. “Why waste my electricity,” my grandcoach used to say. “One light. Please.”
As with bushfires, the crucible we created made its own environment. The students would push each other, get stronger, faster, better, invent ever more devious deceptions, scour YouTube for ever more devastating moves; “a dreadnought arms race,” as Token dubbed it.
I held to the 70:20:10 ethos my boss instilled in me as a young consultant: learn most by doing; then learn by teaching. I set those more experienced to mentor those less, in paired drills and tactical advice in bouts. I set equalised teams composed of both strong and weak fencers against each other. I quoted corny slogans. Officers eat last. The more you rise, the more you serve. Together you stand, divided you fall. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. You are one break away from being in charge.
On one point I agreed with Gaugler and Nadi: no competitions before they were grown. I didn’t let the kids fence in the under 7s or under 9s or under 11s that other clubs and the state association organised. To my mind those were just to make money. Kids that young can’t fight. Kids that young don’t understand how to fence. Kids that young just swing wildly. Or, at best, robotically execute their coaches’ routines. The biggest kid usually wins.
So the Twins sparked a small scandal when they won their first competition at the grand old age of 15. One then came second in his first open nationals, at 16. He won his second. The other should have done well, too, but tore his hamstring in that first opens imitating Gu Bon-gil’s splits lunge.
He healed. By the time we were in Bangkok, both Twins had the long limbs and power-to-weight ratio of racing colts. They fenced like the Kid, in a stripped-down emulation of the already austere Busan K-sabre style. They could — now — land in splits, extend their lunges in mid-air, and counter-parry afterwards. They could change direction with disconcerting abruptness, and counterattack with such speed and subtlety that their opponents could barely flinch in time.
One Twin preferred advance prep. The other, step-bounce. Both could use them on anyone.
They were nigh-on unstoppable in Australia, in their age-category or otherwise. Except when they were skittish. Which was often. Frances was their horse-whisperer. “Relax” and “breathe” were her main words of advice to them on the piste.
But could they win outside of Australia? My training approach had attracted responses ranging from derision to bemusement from every other fencing coach who heard about it. Though Sydney Sabre was a successful club in competitions, all of our successes had been won by fencers trained, at least originally, in the old ways. So Bangkok wasn’t just about whether we could fence. This competition was also about whether I could teach.
Bangkok had the highest street-level economic activity I have ever seen. Every street front was packed with tiny workshops and little restaurants and open air bars and food stalls and all the euphemistic service industries a man could want. The entrepreneurial zeal on display rivalled the the origin myths of capitalist meccas like fin de siècle New York, post-war Hong Kong, or reconstruction Tokyo. Thailand, though, had never been colonised. Why hadn’t it taken over the world? I told the Twins to get measured up for suits, before exchange rates caught up. Then go eat.
We stayed in a business hotel a few klicks east of the city core. The hotel had a pool on the roof, a bar next to the pool, and a bistro behind the bar. That first night, though, we ate at an outdoor restaurant one block away, over a pedestrian bridge, with English menus and cold beers. The shop next door had live seafood peering at us suspiciously through their glass tanks.
The competition started the next day: women’s individual first, then women’s teams, then the men’s individual. The men’s team would be the following day. We ate well that night: never fight on an empty stomach.
Bangkok also had the worst traffic we had ever seen. (At least until Frances saw Manila). Scooters darted between stalled trucks, laden with goods and produce, cells perfusing through the city’s capillaries. It took us two hours by car convoy to reach the venue, a distance of less than 30 kilometres.
The venue took up one wing of the shopping centre’s top floor, where a department store would normally occupy. Access was through nondescript matte-painted doors of the type that denoted service corridors and staff-only areas. Outside were warrens of electronics shops, the food court, and a jungle gym with child-minders for hire. It had by far the best amenities of any fencing competition I had ever been to.
The women fenced first. Frances had given up her old kit from before babies, and now sported the Paladin’s gifted whites — her post-pregnancy measurements matched those of a male professional fencer’s. “Wie Geht’s?” asked a Brit who came to chat her up. “Uh …” Frances replied.
The bouts were no less awkward. The Thai girls were graceful and gracile. Ours had height and power. I had planned for us to smash through them. But they danced away from our attacks, and took over priority to hit back.
Step-bounce, reliant on our reactions, did not work for us. The Thais used a similar preparation, but were faster. Frances had the most success — she just rained advance-lunges on them, occasionally alternating with parries. In the subsequent team match, I told the others to follow suit. Grind them down. Parry if you must. Chase them if you can. Don’t get close.
After we lost, in the first round, the schoolteacher walked up to Frances.
“Wow, that was really confronting,” the schoolteacher said.
“What, fencing your first competition?” asked Frances.
“No,” the schoolteacher replied. “Having John yell at me like that.”
My turn. The field was a reasonable size and strength, an incomplete 128 composed predominantly of Thai college fencers and those either in or being funded by one of the military branches or police. Fortunately, the Thai A-grade team was elsewhere. In their place were raiders from Hong Kong and the Philippines. Call me a coward, but I felt better at the news.
The Twins and I warmed up with a few engagement drills that the Paladin had taught us earlier in the year, and hyuked it up with lame jokes until our nerves settled. We spotted a stack of bootleg Avengers T-shirts for sale — the team name for our cadets, after the adult Expendables — and made a note to buy some for the whole squad before we left. The Twins said I should get one too. “I’m not an Avenger,” I said. “Sure you are,” they replied. “The one with no powers. Samuel L. Jackson.”
I got thrashed in the pools. I tried advance prep and step-bounce. Neither worked. The Thai boys were taller, faster, younger, more convincing in their actions. I stole enough points on parries to scrape through halfway down the rankings.
My leg hurt. My screws were loose.
The Twins, meanwhile, did well. They kept up. The Kiwi couldn’t. Nor I.
I brooded in the break before the direct elimination rounds. The others went to lunch. I had one last option, albeit one I loathed.
I was going to double-advance.
Double-advance is what you teach to kids too small to advance-lunge across the 4 metre zone, or to veterans whose knees have long since worn away.
It’s the kind of preparation you drop as soon as you are strong enough to do something else. It’s the kind you avoid going back to for as long as you can.
Most fencing masters teach it only to their littlest kids. I saw a friend teach it to a party of preteens in Padua, clutching foam sabres because they were too small for steel ones. Another, in Jeju, taught it to private school boarders with dreams of making it to the US college varsity leagues. There’s a YouTube video of Nazlymov guiding his grandkids through it. My grandcoach taught it too, to the kids, and to the occasional veteran. He never put much effort into the latter though. “Kids are where you make the money,” he said. “Veterans keep the lights on.”
Few fencers in their prime use double-advance. I recall seeing Eli Dershwitz use it, but even he mostly sticks to step-bounce. He was also so fast that I wonder if he was trolling. Frances made a compilation of Kovalev doing it, but he was fast too. I heard Podznyakov used it his twilight years, but by then he was legend; he could step back off the start line if he wanted to.
Double-advance had its advantages though. It gave you more time to see because it took more steps to execute than advance or step-bounce. It granted you more momentum to power your attacks because two advances, small as they are, impart more force than even a large but solitary advance. It helped you chase — adding an extra advance to two small ones, without staggering for an attack-no, is easier than adding an advance to just one.
Taken together, these advantages could make up any shortcomings in reactions, range, or speed. But the tradeoff is that it is harder for you to move back. You have to replace fall-short with riskier alternatives like forward parries. And the double-advance itself is finicky to execute. For it to be a valid preparation in the referee’s eyes, you have to double-advance in the same distance and time as your opponent’s advance or step-bounce.
But I thought I could use it to play up my old cripple act. I would trick my opponents into launching short attacks that I could parry. Then, once they lost confidence, I could attack back against their attempts to feint around my parries. I could use the added momentum to catch them if they switched to defence. They might then slow down, back to my speed.
My first DE opponent was a big tall Thai boy, muscle already softening to paunch. He cheerfully chatted to a teammate as he hooked onto the piste. He seemed confident. Of the two of us, he was the higher-ranked fencer.
I started with step-bounce. Old habits die hard. He led at the 8-point break. I switched to double-advance. The first time I parried his attack, he shrugged. He seemed less equanimous at the second. A hint of frustration showed after the third. He paused before the fourth — I took priority and chased him down. Then I hit him in preparation when he wound back for a feint. I won before he figured it out. “Good bout man,” I said to him afterwards, as we shook hands. “Lucky break.”
My next opponent was warier. This time I opened with double-advance. He adjusted quickly, slowing down to match my rhythm, denying me telegraphs of his intentions. But he still watched. I gave him cues, coach-style, and he followed. Fake chase before a parry. Fake stab before a chase. Fake parry before an attack-in-prep. Thus I made the quarterfinals.
To the stands I slumped. The Kiwi was out. The Twins were still in. They seeded high out of pools, and stuck to their original preparations as they cut through the lower ranks. Frances found me and handed me a drink. Good news. The Twins are through. Bad news. You’ve drawn one of them.
I walked with him to our piste. “Good luck,” I said. “You too”, he replied. Our crew wandered off — club tradition dictates that we rarely watch our own fight each other, and we never pick sides. The other Twin had drawn one of the Thai club captains, a wiry watcher who had dismantled me in pools.
Semifinals. My opponent in the next fight knew what I was going to do. He had either watched me fence before or someone had briefed him. I opened with step-bounce against his own. Old habits die really hard. After a couple of points, I switched to double-advance. Time to surprise him.
One point later, he switched to double-advance prep too.
My leg played up, honest. Needed time. Double-advance lunged to make simultaneous actions. Walked back to my back line. Tried to read him. What did he want? I flubbed a couple attacks, went on defence, lucked out with a counterattack. Feinted an attack, ran him down, caught his counterattack in an overhead guard 5 along the way. Parry 4 on the back line; good thing I hadn’t neglected my splits. Cut my double-advance to a tiny advance, clipped him in preparation. He returned the favour the next point.
The lead swung between us. Action and counter. Feint and double-feint. Final score was 15-13, my way. A coin-toss, in sabre.
Over on the other piste, the crowd got loud. The remaining Twin was scoring with some stupendous stunts: counterparries and duck-counterattacks and splits-extensions. I wandered over to catch his tail-end highlights as he clinched the win.
Us in the final.
No one likes fighting their own students. There’s no upside. Win, and you’re a bad coach. Lose, and you’re a bad fencer. Normal bouts are tense enough. Master-apprentice bouts are worse: you know each other so well that it either becomes an n-dimensional dogfight or a desultory display duel.
After the bout, we hugged it out and bought our T-shirts.
I could barely walk. I don’t remember how we made it back to the hotel. By convoy, presumably. While I was passed out, by habit.
We had dinner at a restaurant down the street from the hotel, upstairs on the balcony. I broke off from the group afterwards. They headed to the pool. I headed to the podiatrist next door. The boss lady took one look at my feet and blanched. She demanded extra cash. I was still there when Frances called me from the hotel pool a couple of hours later. I had three women on me: one on each foot, a third relaying hot water and fresh razor blades.
We returned to the venue the next day for teams. Rumour had it the Thai clubs had gotten together overnight to create a Frankenteam of their captains for us. I took the third-last position, for the gumbie. I was still sore. Besides I’d need whatever ability I’d had left to anchor against the Frankenteam later, if we met them.
We did, in the final. They seemed tougher than the day before. The Twins gained a lead, I lost it, they got it back. All the fights were close. By the eve of last bout, we led 40-39. I was up against their uber captain.
I opened with double-advance. He did the same. I tried tricks; he tricked back. At 43-43, he faked an attack and I pulled back — only to have him chase me down. I caught him with a lucky parry on my backline.
At 44-43, I switched back to step-bounce and pretended to parry, again, early. My attack-in-preparation took him midway through his double-advance lunge. I was already making a fist pump before he landed.