By Aoife O’Gorman
I have a confession to make. I have always imagined myself to be a great athlete. One of those people with a natural talent for sport – the underdog who rises to the top against all odds to take the heavyweight boxing title, or score the winning goal in the cup final. As it happens, I am the underdog who remains the underdog – the one in training who stands at the back, and looks, in a vaguely hopeful manner, in the direction of the scoreboard, waiting for it to change miraculously of its own accord, and always slightly surprised when it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I am perfectly content with my uselessness on the pitch. At 5’3”, I am unlikely to take a heavyweight title any time soon. And it turns out that at least a semblance of hand-eye coordination is useful in most sports. So, dear reader, I have chosen a different path.
I, my friends, am a Master Spectator.
From my days of hiding from footballs in the relative safety of the goal, and being subbed out to the opposing netball team when they were a man down, I have risen to the heady heights of the sidelines of hurling and rugby, badminton and baseball, archery and ice hockey. I have flinched from the rebound of an Olympic handball, languidly applauded the surfers from the sands (nursing the facial bruises from an ill-fated attempt to join them).
I have watched – and appreciated –Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Karate Kid. I have even, and I tread on sacred ground here, contemplated entering a Cheese Rolling or Wife Carrying Contest. But come closer, as I whisper, I have always had absolute faith in my capacity to fence.
Forget my complete lack of speed or agility, my inability to even attempt to defend myself (“’en garde’? Could we not maybe settle this over a nice slice of cake instead?”): somehow, my brain has convinced itself that foil in hand, I will transform into the lovechild of Zorro and Inigo Montoya, channelling Cap’n Jack and all three musketeers plus d’Artagnan as I swashbuckle my way through college. I will parry, I will riposte, I will not fall flat on my face when I trip over my own feet…. I have yet to test this theory.
The problem is that my fallback position is impossible. Fencing, famously, is not a spectator sport. The joy is in the perfect hit, the flèche (a sort of jumping attack, all very dramatic and Count of Monte Cristo), that split second where your sword slides almost flirtatiously around your opponent’s and you score.
It is a joy that only a participant can really feel. With three minute bouts, it is a sport of speed and precision, steeped in tradition, but constantly innovating. Supposedly, it is only fun to watch if you know what is going on. I do not agree – having attended the South of Ireland Open in Cork, even without knowing that A had countered B’s lunge with a counterparry sixte-terce, I found myself thoroughly caught up on the intense clashes, the drawn-out pause as antagonists eye each other, taking their measure, before the sudden leap into fierce activity.
Fencing is not a sport for spectators, not because of any elitism or exclusivity, but because one cannot remain a spectator. As you watch, your fingers are itching to fold lovingly around the grip, don that mask and try for yourself.
And really, I have no excuse not to. With the oldest and best fencing school in the country on my doorstep, I could have been denying my true potential for years. Through training with the best fencers in the country – Trinity fencers are the Intervarsity Champions, some National Champions in their chosen weapon and comprise almost half of the Irish team. I will hit the national and international scene, fighting in competitions in Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Croatia, Budapest and Mexico to name a few. Obviously, there will be a dramatic injury, seriously damaging my Olympic prospects, but worry not, a last-minute recovery, or possibly, my determination to fight on, will lead me to the victor’s podium and the laurel crown. Box-office hit, right there.
So I’ve decided. This year will be my move from spectator to actual participant. Expect frequent challenges to duels from here on out.