Excerpt from Make the Cut: Sabre Fencing for Adults, pre-print July 2021.
It was meant to be a quick, cheeky, in & 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 Federation-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 was lucky, on Saturday. Hang out with friends. Have some KFC — Korean Fried Chicken — and beer. Fly back on the red-eye on Sunday night. Back in the office Monday morning.
Fencing was one of those curious niche sports where a mid-level government executive like me, playing in his spare time, could claw his way up the gateway competitions, pay his blood money to his national federation, then take his chances against the best fencers in the world who did this for a living. All at a glamorous, televised tournament funded by some government and whatever oligarch patron or local corporation had been enticed or strong-armed into putting up their brand and their money. This time it was the SK Telecom Seoul Grand Prix, a three-day fight-fest where hundreds of professional fencers and their coaches and support staff flew in from every part of the world to win medals and ranking points and — that year — a coveted slot to the big event: the Rio Olympics.
It was meant to be a break. A holiday break. My big break, as an adult amateur, through the barrier into the professional leagues: the A-grade circuit.
I’d been preparing for a while. Thanks to Lee Hyokun, the head coach of the Korean national team and his former student — and now employee at my club — Kim Donghwan, I could do a passable impersonation of a high-school Busan K-sabre fencer, complete with splits and extensions and dirty pommelling “counter-attacks”: attacks into an opponent’s attack, before they could hit.
As a backup, I mimicked the step-bounce preparation of Kim Jeonghwan and Won Wooyoung, two of the best examples of the skinny-Asian-glass-cannon school of sabre, from YouTube compilations that my wife had originally assembled from scraps of surreptitiously recorded handy-cam footage and clips from the occasional official livestream. And I got fast, mostly by getting light: at the time I weighed 57 kg on a 169 cm 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 me 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 venue. In exchange for me sneaking her onto the first shuttle, she hailed and directed the cab that finally got me into the hotel at 10pm.
By then the hotel was pretty dead. 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 into 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 by dragging myself towards 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 rappelling equipment stowed away in a side cupboard. Rumour was 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 blurry 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 overflow hall, the hall of bad juju, buried deep away from the main pistes, down two flights of stairs and the passage of mansweat. More coffee. Warm up. Too much 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.
There are no weight categories in sabre, or — more usefully — height categories, unlike in virtually every other combat sport. The idea is that the sabre itself provides enough of an equalising force to keep things fair even between fighters of wildly divergent physiques; as a man who has been on the wrong end of that spectrum, I can confidently declare that the sabre is overrated as an equaliser.
First bout, against Benedict Peter Wagner, 6 and half feet of jovial German destruction from the little chemical company town of Dormagen: “where the Bayer water makes everything bigger”. Some say he’s injured more teammates in training than his opponents in tournaments, and that he is banned from bouting other Germans for at least a fortnight before events. He’s the reason why we now have 800N-rated Kevlar gloves, after he once impaled a teammate’s hand with a blunt sabre. He once threw a tantrum bad enough to get him black-carded long enough for him to develop a Baileys-and-cereal breakfast habit. By all accounts, he was a sweetie-pie the rest of the time. I guess I’d say that too, given his resumé.
Frances wasn’t buying it: she had messaged him earlier in the day, after she saw the pools. Peter, she wrote. Please don’t break my husband.
Ja, he wrote back. I promise I won’t.
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 in an attack. Boom! I break sound barrier. Still missed though. No matter. He’s coming in to 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, Wagner thwacking me as I go down. I remember my ankle starting to hurt. Then embarrassment. Then annoyance. Then rage. I’d sprained my ankle. Two points into my first bout. Like a 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. Peter must have wanted to put me out of my misery, because he just fired 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 Nicolas Limbach, Peter’s one-time hero-captain and World Number 1, once upon a time.
I am not going out like this.
The medic was some high school kid who 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 hall. 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 the blood 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 the best 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 lamé after I scored a single-light counter-attack 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 El Bakri, the referee, came over for a fatherly chat. Listen son. You got good fight in you. 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 to the sidelines to watch the show.
Dead F***ing Last.
I am not going out like this.
My 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 who I hadn’t fenced yet pleaded for me to stay. Easy pickings: free points so they could make the cut. F*** off, I said — I’d 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. Show’s 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 spectator stands, how I got on the bus, and through the hotel, and into the shower, and back onto the lift on the way out for an all-night Gangnam pub crawl.
The only delay on the trip was the lift stopping to let in Aldo Montano, resplendent in boxer shorts and clutching a toothbrush. I’d met him a couple of times before, in other competitions, but never with much more in the way of clothing. He was one of those legendary champions, son and grandson of other legendary champions, who had later built a small fortune from his fame by appearing in late-night Italian body-wash commercials.
“How’s the leg, brother?” he asked.
“Not too bad man,” I replied. “We’re going to 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 they never mention in the travel guides about the nightlife in Gangnam?
The next day, I returned to the venue to go spectate and maybe commentate. I still couldn’t find a crutch, so I made do with a makeshift splint and tight shoelaces. The German crew were in their usual mezzanine roost, complete with fold-out massage bed.
The boys asked how I was. Hungover, I said. That got a laugh. Their medic-cum-physiotherapist-cum-massage guru, Daniel Knortz, came around and offered to replace my now dirty and incompetently executed bandage job. I hopped onto 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?”
An angel of mercy, in the form of a Korean electronics engineer — and his wife — who Frances had met in the chat of a YouTube channel sabre watch party.
A hospital, US-style, complete with questions about my health insurance.
A stainless steel room where a horde of what appeared to be medical students debated what to do with me in rapid-fire agglutinative syllables, punctuated with head shakes and the occasional inhalation through the teeth — like sucking on an unfiltered joint. They eventually wrapped my leg in a rapid-heating cast that left me feeling like a warm ham.
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. She had a son the year afterwards. He’s going to grow up wondering why mysterious birthday presents keep arriving from Australia.
Three and a half days at Sydney Royal Prince Alfred Hospital waiting for a surgical slot. My transplant physician father-in-law joked that I’d been waiting so long for the operation that he could make a good case for just leaving the leg alone.
The guy who finally operated on me, at 5am, looked like he hadn’t slept since I last fenced. The scar he left backed up my assessment. He did bolt me together though: one steel plate, eight screws, and a nylon cord through my ankle joint.
It was a complete debacle, in a year full of debacles.
My archives that year were filled with messages between athletes on the morality of going to Rio and — more pertinently — how to avoid being lynched by mobs while they were there. Brexit hit our main equipment supplier and business partner, leading to price runs and shortages. Albeit less so than during the 2014 war in Ukraine when our favourite blade forge in Lugansk got bombed after being mistaken for an armaments factory.
Mine wasn’t even the only debacle that year in sabre. 2016 was the year of the Russian Box of Death, part of a series of reforms by a group of old coaches and fencers to make sabre great again, or at least more like an accurate simulation of a sword fight. The reforms threatened to completely change sabre as it was played. Other fencers and coaches muttered darkly, in private, about how they planned to deal with it when it came.
Not me. I was in a cast for 8 weeks, had trouble walking for 3 months, and it took me 6 months to be able to fence again, gingerly. That gave me ample time to watch this latest chapter in the story of sabre unfold. And to reflect on how all this had started, how we got here, and how this story could be told.