“En garde!” the director called. The gym echoed with the clang of blade on blade, and the squeak of shoe on polyurethane. My heart hammered in my chest — was that nerves, or just the tight embrace of the fencing jacket I hadn’t tried to squeeze into since 1998? One point, I prayed, with fervor. Don’t fall, don’t die, don’t be a wreck. Just land one touch.
Ten months prior, I’d broken my leg. Shattered it, really. It was an unlucky fall on an icy road, and I’d lain there in the dark for a good twenty minutes before anyone found me, holding my ankle in place with both hands and trying not to hear the sound of my bones grinding together inside my ankle like rocks. The doctors patched me up with nine titanium screws and a custom-made plate, and sent me home to do the long, wearying work of re-learning to walk.
I didn’t think I’d ever fence again.
I was a real fencer once, back in college. I trained, I competed, I lived for the sound of my fellow Smith College Hell’s Belles cheering me on to take down some Wellesley tart in fancy gear. But after I graduated, I let it go, figuring that if I couldn’t be on a real team anymore, there was no point.
That nice crunchy tib-fib pilon fracture should probably have sealed my fate as a couch potato. Au contraire. It just made me want to get back in the game.
When I walked in the door of the Woodstock school gym on that Tuesday in November, on a leg that still felt like it had been through a laundry mangle, I wondered if I had any fight left in me. I took a deep breath. I put on my mask and picked up a foil.
Surprise: Thirteen years of sloth and inaction fell away. Muscle memory I had written off as a lost cause came sputtering back to life. I lunged onto my bad leg over and over, and it wobbled and complained, but it didn’t give out. I fought some bouts. I made some touches. Reader, I wasn’t even the worst one there.
I was so grateful, I could’ve cried. I didn’t, though. There’s no crying in fencing. (Scratch that. There is way too much crying in fencing. Also shrieking: high-pitched, ear-shattering shrieking. Don’t fight fifteen-year-old girls if you value your eardrums.)
That was in 2011. I’ve been fencing with the Woodstock Fencing Club ever since. I’ve even entered a few competitions. Any resentment I may once have felt at not being the teenage champion of the women’s foil event has long since been eclipsed by the joy of moving and leaping and hitting people with swords.
In hindsight, breaking my leg was the best thing that ever happened to me. Facing up to pain and decrepitude gave me a reason to get moving again. Like an alcoholic, I had to hit bottom before I got serious about recovery.
As a latecomer to the world of amateur sports, it’s thrilling to be — I’ll own it — an athlete. I have always considered “ball” a four-letter word, but fortunately for me, there are plenty of exotic nerd-friendly athletic options in the region. There’s swordfighting in Saugerties, there’s rowing on the Rondout. There’s Parkour in the old Tech City campus and karate at the Margaretville fire station.
Our corner of the Catskills got an intense fitness level-up a few years ago with the opening of the Catskill Recreation Center, a pet project of the late Kingdon Gould, Jr. The center has a 25-yard pool and a big beautiful gym, and it’s frankly changed my life. Right now I’m learning to deadlift, thanks to the CRC’s indefatigable trainer, Jess Halbrecht. There’s something incredibly satisfying about picking a bar up off the ground that weighs as much as you do.
We can’t have everything, naturally. If you’re a squash enthusiast, for instance, you may be out of luck in the Catskills. It’s a pain for yours truly to have to drive an hour to get to the nearest fencing club. But one of the silver linings of living in a rural area, where just about every human activity struggles to achieve critical mass, is that many of the pastimes that are exclusive and gated-off in cities are cheap and accessible here. When I lived in Boston, I looked into taking classes at the local fencing club; it cost upwards of $100 a month just to join, and gave off a distinct whiff of high drama and helicopter parents. The Woodstock Fencing Club isn’t going to make an Olympian of you, but it’s practically free — a rarity in a notoriously expensive, gear-heavy sport.
Moving around has done wonders for many of the people in my life. On Mondays, my wife does Brazilian jiu jitsu, and then comes home and teaches her best moves to our squealing, delighted nine-year-old. The local judge she works for recently got into rugby, and is working on an exciting collection of bruises. The guy who installed our new garage door is a ferocious cyclist.
Speaking of garage guy: He stopped by yesterday morning. We’d been having some issues with the automatic door opener mechanism, and we called to see if he could work his garage whisperer powers on it. We figured out soon afterward that the issue had been our own mechanically-challenged ineptitude all along, but we forgot to call him off.
“Crap, I should’ve called you,” I said, when he appeared on my front porch, all ready to get to work. “We fixed it.”
He pondered this for a moment. The sun sparkled on the new grass. A gentle May zephyr wafted past. A tiny smile appeared at the corner of his mouth.
“I think I’ll go for a ride,” he said.