Eleanor Roosevelt said: “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Tell us about a time you felt your strength.
I was already over 30 years old when I first took up a foil and learned how to fence. Why is a story for another day. After a year or so I found my preferred weapon was the epee, and I achieved enough success in competition to be selected for the Irish team at a 5-nations challenge. My competition form was not bad, for most tournaments I would get to the quarter-finals, and on good weekends I even managed to get to a final, but the #1 spot always eluded me. The normal format for a fencing tournament is a round robin of bouts up to 5 “hits” of 3 minutes each – first to gain five hits, or the person with the most hits at the end of 3 minutes wins. This is followed by the quarter- and semi-finals which consist of 15 hits over 9 minutes. Whatever way my head worked at the time, I could never get past 2nd place.
Once a year, there was a “one-hit” competition, based on the principles of a true duel – e.g. an all or nothing, no holds barred bout where the first person to land a hit wins, and the opponent is eliminated immediately. Unusually for fencing, males and females competed against one another. One year, I won that competition. For my first ever competition final, I went in with the attitude that because I had never won, I had nothing to lose. When I landed that hit, I was over the moon. Cut to the next year. I finally had a title to defend. As the day went by as I had success after success, the field narrowed down and finally there were just two people left – almost 40-year old, 5’9” me, who had only won one fencing competition in her life, and an 18 year old, 6ft 2in male national champion. He was stronger, fitter and faster than I could hope to be. His reach at full lunge was a metre or more beyond mine. The general feeling in the room was that the result was a foregone conclusion, and even my best friend commiserated with me for not holding my title before the match took place. I commiserated with myself too.
There was a half hour break between the body of the competition and the final, while the room was cleared and only one piste remained. I couldn’t look my coach in the eye, I was too close to tears. As the long seconds dragged into minutes, all sorts of things went through my mind… what kind of a fool was I to even be in the competition (at my age), who did I think I was? Oh, God, everybody is sorry for me because I’m going to lose, eek, embarrassment, fear. Could I just get in my car and go home? Concede? Lock myself in the changing room and never come out? At last the president called us to the piste (fencing used to be quite formal, for president, read referee). Weapons were tested (I dropped mine), wires checked and the traditional mantra “En garde! Vous prêt? Allez!” was called. In the back of my mind, one voice said: “Oh shit” while a second, slightly more strident one said: “Fuck it”. That’s the voice I listened to. And I kept my title.