We Were Merely Vikings
Fencing is a sport, which in most places, goes underappreciated. High school teams come and go. As a team we came together, but soon it was our time to go. We were honestly, in our minds, the greatest success story in the history of our fencing team. Our two undefeated seasons of utter dominance over the Eastern Connecticut Conference had given us confidence beyond our wildest dreams; we were ready to claim the title of state champions.
Team States in high school fencing is important. Team States is an event in which the top eight teams, decided by the combined rankings of the three team members at a single elimination tournament, come together to decide who is the best. This year, both the men’s teams qualified for the foil and epee competition, and both teams were second seats. Being second seat meant that in each tournament we had the second best combined score of any team there. This would be our year or at least a good story for later on. The team was prepared.
The East Lyme Vikings men’s foil team was good and therefore had an intimidating presence. My teammate Cameron “Wee Guy” Gebhard, had medaled in multiple events that year; he was gargantuan a six foot five inch goofball, and had been the face of the team because he was personally undefeated in our conference. Following him was Josh Brown, another six foot plus string bean of man. Josh had missed medaling the tournament the week before by only one place. He was the brains of the group and in his hands a foil was what a wand was to wizard. Finally, there was my best friend, Joshua Miles Perry. If Cameron was the face, Josh the brain, then JP (that is what he goes by to discern himself from Josh Brown) was the mouth. He called the shots, set-up the training for the novices, and never let a referee get away with a call that he thought was unjust. He stood over six feet tall, with lightly spiked his hair, and always had a swagger in his walk that made people wonder what was going through his head. He put his heart into this team.
This season was his baby. He had wanted to win more than anyone on the men’s varsity team put together. I considered it my job to make sure he got what he wanted. The entire summer I had kept tabs on other teams. As part of my strategy, I talked to their fencers, figured out who was good, and I knew that I could use the information to help him. We were as ready as we could be, but that was not enough. Foil, the more structured of the two events, was getting underway.
Imagine foil as a boxing match. One can only hit a certain area (in the case of foil it is only the chest) and there are other rules that govern it. One can only hit a certain area (in the case of foil it is only the chest), as like in boxing, one already knows what to leave exposed and what not to. A foil has a small bell (the part that covers the hand) that looks like a large metallic contact lens. This is because a foil has no need to protect the arm because, as stated earlier, only a touché to the chest gets one a point in foil. Foil always was before epee in competitions.
The first competition was men’s foil. The first foil match was with North Haven. Their coach was the brilliant Peter Solomon. If Cameron was Luke Skywalker, Peter was Obi-Wan. He had been training Cam all summer. Even if they were the seventh seat (meaning their individual rankings combined were the seventh highest), North Haven would be a troublesome opponent. Also, the prior year, North Haven’s fencers had defeated Josh, JP, and Cameron, taking third place. For my friends, I can only imagine that it would be the cold, sweet, succulent payback that they had wanted all year; soon they would get that payback.
The match began. Josh swiftly disposed of their first fencer. That was all the East Lyme foil really needed because each time Cameron fenced, he eviscerated his opponents; he won all three of his bouts. It was best of nine and it was four to two East Lyme. I do not recall who finished the match, but East Lyme did win five bouts to two, advancing them to the next round. Still, not everyone was happy about how the Vikings had overrun North Haven.
In disappointment a fencer from North Haven dropped his mask and it bounced toward the director. The director did not like that and from his pocket glided the dreaded and fabled black card. A black card is a director’s way of saying “I’m sick and tired of your attitude. You are not allowed to fence anymore.” I could not help but laugh. In all my tenure as a fencer I had never seen anyone get black carded until then. After watching the fencer get bounced by the referee, my friends took what little time was left to rest before the next round.
East Lyme managed to pull a victory in the second round. It was such a big victory to them that later on JP asked if there was any video documentation of the event. The end of the competition was nearing.
It was finals time. The final match was against Guilford. We managed to beat them in a four vs. four match earlier that season, but only by the tenuous margin of seven points. Guilford was sixty fencers strong and had Olympic caliber trainers to boot. That didn’t intimidate Josh, JP, and Cameron as prepared to win it, but they couldn’t prepare for the disappointment was to come.
One by one my teammates fell, even Cameron. Their efforts were as valiant as Gawain, but as lost Hansel and Gretel. Cameron had to go against Sam Roh, the person who had taken first at individual states. Cameron held him off for a long time, even leading Sam at four to one, but he must have gotten greedy. Sam quickly reminded everyone why he had won states, and came back, thus putting my friends back in their places. The trophy ceremony was coming up, but first a digression.
To take a brief offshoot from the story that will make sense later, I must talk about what had happened earlier. Every team had one reserve fencer. The rule is that a team can have one reserve that they can substitute in once per match. I had volunteered to be our reserve fencer because I had been the fourth man on varsity foil that year; I did a total of six and a half ranked matches out of eight that year. I told Mrs. Gebhard, our coach; if she needed to scribble a name down that I would do it. She dismissed me as usual, or so I had perceived it. We were all in for a surprise come trophy time.
As the foil events wrapped up, the top four teams received their trophies. After going through the fourth and third place teams they called us up. I say “us” because I was all dressed and ready for my event (men’s epee, a story that is coming up), the announcer’s bellowed out:
“In second place for men’s foil are Mr. Brown, Mr. Perry, Mr. Gebhard, and Mr. Frisch.”
It had to be the funniest thing that ever happened to me. I had to drop my blade and go up in my whites (the white jacket and white pants one wears while fencing). Everyone who knew me there knew I wasn’t a foilist. It appeared Ms. Gebhard had forgotten to tell me I was the reserve. I can still recall the words friend Wonhee (imagine a six foot tall Asian man built like an armored truck) and I exchanged as I stood proud, yet dumbfounded with my friends.
“Kevin!” Wonhee proclaimed from the crowd, “What are you doing up there!?”
“I don’t know!” I countered back, “I guess they invited me!”
It was now my turn to do some damage. Bring back to mind what I said the fencing team being JP’s baby? Well, the men’s epee team, my own cozy little division of the team, was mine. Mitch Kiah, the six foot two heartthrob of the group may have been the captain, but I was the one who knew about each team we were pitted against. I made sure we had time to train, a place to train, and made sure we got to fence. Mitch knew how to pull a group together; I knew how to make it flourish. Mitch was a superior fencer and took second place at individual states two years in a row (something he never brags about, but I remind him of all the time).
Next was Richard Deane Simpson. He was and always will be the gingeriest ginger of all the gingery gingers. He stood five foot ten, had curly red hair that almost formed an Elvis style hair cut, white skin, and eyes so icy blue that if he put a contact in, it would freeze, and then shatter. We did have the option for a reserve and the choice was obvious.
Standing in at reserve, fresh from the foil competition, was Joshua Miles Perry. Josh was proficient in foil, but epee was his first and true love. In his hands an epee was not just a piece of sporting equipment in a simulated sword fight. It was the enforcer of his will. To an untrained eye, these blades were merely different in size and shape, but any fencer knew that epee was more than foil with bigger weapons.
Epee is more like a street fight. There are no rules, only formalities, and every part of the body is fair game. On top of all that, like a street fight, sneakiness is encouraged. Epee is all about subtle shots to the body that your opponents never see coming. Foil, like in boxing, one already knows what area can be hit. In foil you already know their going to lunge at your chest, but in epee the touch can be a simple as a point to the wrist. In epee the bell is larger than that of a foil. The bell covers the hand on an epee because anywhere on the body, including the hand, is target area. Enough about the rules; I have to speak about why me and JP were so crazed to win.
Recall what I said about me and JP. How we took care of our teams and made sure they pushed themselves. Well, both of us despite our best efforts never medaled at states it is another grandiose story and I do not care to make mention of it. As cheesy as it sounds, seriously, if JP ever read this he would give me a dead leg, it felt great knowing I was going into this with my best friend by my side. It was time to begin.
The first match was against the freshly assembled Bacon Academy epee team. We devastated them. To put it simply, Bacon met frying pan. We won five matches to two. The next match was something my friends and I bragged about forever.
The next round against John Hopkins High School was honestly the greatest match we had ever had. They were ranked third seat and had the third and fourth place winners of last week’s tournament. I was first. The bout ended badly, with my flailing and lunging like some kind of novice. After that was Mitch who managed to stroll on in and gracefully defeat his opponent. Soon after, Richard was up. He lost too. Once again it was my turn and like Old Faithful I did I what I do consistently; in my case, that was psyching myself out to the point a random person pulled off the street would have been more functional in that situation. My opponent landed points everywhere on me. A quick jab to the wrist, a counter to my arm, and all I could do was try not to lose five to zero. To state it in the most cliché way possible, things were not looking good.
As time advanced, the match score was two to four with Hopkins leading us in like an experienced dancer leads a beginner. My mind kept hopping from thought to thought.
I felt like a joke. I had trained furiously all summer. I had put my soul into this; only to come out the weak link; the one that would cost my friends their shot at being champions. I decided to take the practical man’s or some would say the coward’s way out: I asked JP to sub in for me.
However, almost as if I were in a soundproof room, no one heard me. Josh did sub in, but not for me; he subbed in for Richard. Richard seemed terrified of fencing the person who had beaten him at states. We were subbing out our second best when I still had yet to fence their best. All I could do from here was concentrate and put all my faith in my friends and, with whatever I had left, in myself. Still, JP knew what he was doing.
JP normally toyed with his opponent the same way an obese tabby does a mouse in its claws, but not today. Today he did not toy with his prey; he stalked it and waited for his opening. He aimed for the wrist as lighting does a metal pole. Joshua Perry knew what was at stake, and let his opponent know we were not finished there. In several quick moves it was over. JP stood victorious and that’s when I knew there was hope. The score now stood three to four Hopkins, and Mitch was the next fencer.
Mitch was always calm. Every point was as subtle as a spy and as well executed as a SWAT operation. Underneath his casual demeanor, I knew he wanted this as much I as I did. Mitch was victorious. The score was now tied at four to four. I was up next against the person who had taken third place at individual states.
As I hooked-up to the wire (each hit is registered electronically through the tip of the blade, which is connected to the wire, and then into the score machine), I knew and felt the albatross around my neck. Mitch came and started to talk to me. I can barely recall what the words were, but I can remember the premise enough to paraphrase it.
“Kevin,” Mitch said in his always crystal clear voice, “Remember, just calm down. It’s only fencing. I’ve seen you when your head is clear. Just focus.”
Being my normal cynical self I said “I’ll do what I can, but I’m sorry.” I cleared my head, but one thought came through that calmed me.
“Screw it. We’re getting a trophy anyway.” I mumbled to myself.
That was the thought that turned everything back on. It was the mental ATP that I needed to finish the match. It made me realize I needed to get hold of my ever wandering thoughts quickly.
I let go. I relinquished all tension in my body to the floor. I started vaulting around on the strip (the long, narrow, rectangular area one fences in), taking whatever I could get. I needed one clear touché. After that, I could stall time all I wanted. His arm was exposed and I let the tip of my epee slither up to the top of it and promptly struck. The light on my side went off; it was my point. That wasn’t the only thing everyone heard.
In my loss of control I let out a beastly roar of dominance and defiance. I was not going to let it all fall through, not when my friends needed me. I still had four more points to go.
The bout continued and so did my erratic fencing. A few quick double touches (when we both get points for hitting) came and went. I was still in the lead, but I can’t remember much after that.
As memories blur together so do specifics. I can only recall what happened after I got the last touch. As the last touch rang, I let all the excitement, the tension, the delirium based high all out with another scream. As the young man and I shook hands, he told me I was rude for making all the noise; I told him he was right and that I was sorry. It was rude, cruel, selfish, and unnecessary of me to act the way I did, but I don’t regret it. It was my moment. It was like when a nicotine addict has the first drag of the day. Even after all this though, it wasn’t over. We still had to win this as the original epee team.
The roster reverted back to me, Mitch, and Richard. JP had handed us back the metaphorical reins and he described himself as a last resort because he knew we had to do this on our own. It was not a decision that damned us, but it contributed. In the final round, we needed all the skill our team could use.
Guilford was once again the opponent. I was up first against Max McCauly. He was a tall man with curly blond hair, chubby cheeks, and a long reach. He was the state champion and had beaten Mitch with for first place. It was time to start the final match.
The bout began. He ran at me, blade extended, all I could do was try to counter at his arm, but the tip of my blade fell flat every time. Every effort was futile and soon I was just another chew toy ripped apart by Guilford. Richard got us our only win as we became doppelgangers to our foil team and lost the match one to five. Our season was over and we were not number one, but we still got a trophy.
At this ceremony I was primed and waiting for my name to be called. As the announcer, who at this point might as well be the voice of God, called us up, I could not help myself but strut as the announcer beckoned for me to the front of the gym. The past year had lead to that moment and I could not help but both savor and become a little drunk on it like a glass of fine wine. It may have been second place, but it represented how far we had come as a team in just four years. The trophy had a wooden base that three round pillars, about a foot each, ascended from; on top was a shining gold fencer in his en garde position. On the bus ride home, let it be known, that my fingers weld themselves shut around that trophy.
Photo by: Caitlin Gebhard of U-Mass Amherst
- Kevin Frisch, Becker College Student