Stafford at his first Summer National, 2012
The USA Fencing Cadet teammates, Klagenfurt, Austria, 2017. (Staff, 1st row, 2nd from rt.)
Five years ago, my son competed in his first tournament. After eight months of fencing classes and constantly saying he was not interested in competing, my son unexpectedly announced at the end of a class that he thought he might like to try entering a tournament after all. It turned out there was a regional tournament the very next weekend. I had no idea what a regional tournament was. His coach said we should sign up on the US Fencing website, go to the tournament, and however he did, as long as he competed, he would qualify for Summer Nationals. Summer Nationals? I had no idea what that meant. But the coach seemed to think it was a good thing for him to do, so okay.
I signed him up for a competitive membership at US Fencing, and we went to the tournament that weekend. It was a disaster on so many levels. Though we did find a great parking spot, right in front. I learned later finding parking was almost as competitive as the fencing itself. Who knew?
The tournament at LAIFC (Los Angeles International Fencing Center) was an RYC (Regional Youth Circuit). There were a number of different events going on, so though there were only 14 fencers in my son’s Y10 (Youth ages 10 and under) event, the place was crowded with fencers, parents, coaches. It was overwhelming. And we had no idea what to do, where to go, etc. Luckily, a very nice mother at the desk, Ellen, who I still see all the time at tournaments, introduced herself and gave a quick rundown of what we needed to know - how the tournament worked, pools, DE’s (Direct Eliminations), and that we needed two body cords for example. The basics.
My son lost all but one pool bout, and that one he won by one touch (point). He lost his first DE. As fast as it had started, it was over. My son, still wearing his mask, shook hands with the opponent and with the referee. Then he picked up his bag and carried everything straight out to our car in that prime spot. He put his gear in the trunk, got in the back seat. We rode home in silence, with the exception of very quiet crying coming from the back seat, muffled slightly by the mask he was still wearing. “Oh, well,” I thought, “at least he tried.”
Two weeks later, much to my surprise, he wanted to try again. Luckily there was another tournament coming up that weekend. This time it was just a little local tournament, much less intimidating. That afternoon, again, I drove back with a boy wearing a fencing mask, crying in the back seat. But this time, about half way home, I heard this tearful little voice say, “So, when is the next tournament?” And we were in.
He came in last in the next tournament as well. But he took his mask off on the way home. We were making progress.
Summer Nationals took place in Anaheim that year. We went because we didn’t have to travel on a plane, so it would not be too expensive. Why not go? It would be a good experience. We drove down the day before his Y10 event. As we pulled into the hotel, it was a sea of fencing bags. Every single person, young and old, was pulling a fencing bag behind them. My son sat in the back seat, looking out the window in horror. “I can’t do this.” I knew exactly how he felt. It was an intimidating sight. “Tell you what,” I said. “I’ve already paid for the room. Let’s just check in. The convention center is attached to the hotel. We can just walk over and find your coach, and look around and see what it is like. And if you don’t want to fence, that’s fine. You don’t have to. No pressure.” He ended up placing 41 out of 60. More important, though, he fenced. He was 9. And he has never looked back. That was in 2012.
What is amazing to me, and what I certainly didn’t know at the time, is that a lot of those fencers are still competing. These boys have grown up together. They see each other at tournaments across the country. They follow each other on Snapchat and Instagram. They text each other. My son has friends from across the country, from New York and Texas. They will be fencing each other in college at NCAA events. Many will be team mates.
Stafford went to his first international competition, a Cadet World Cup, in Austria in 2017. Somewhere along the line, he decided he wanted to make the US Cadet World Championship team. In 2020, Stafford finished the season 2nd in the nation, and made the team. He, we, have come a long way. We have traveled to over five countries, many of them more than once. A flight across the US is now considered short. We have learned a lot.
I am starting this blog to help other parents, new to fencing, understand how wonderful this sport is, how it works, and how to support their child through success and failure. I will cover basics, from the first competition to how to cope with injuries. I would love feedback, welcome follow up questions, topic suggestions, and any stock tips you care to share!
- Kathryn Atwood
Kathryn Atwood, fencing parent for eight years. I welcome any comments, questions, suggestions for topics, etc.