You Never Know Until You Try

November 16, 2016
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“But mooooooooom! I don’t wanna do a sport! I’m bad at all of them!” my 11-year-old self whined from the backseat of my mom’s car.

“You never know until you have tried. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something that you like and that you’re really good at!” my mom chided.

I huffed. “I liked Girl Scouts. I wish my troop hadn’t been disbanded, ‘cuz now I have to find a stupid sport to do!”

My mom shook her head. “Well, what sounds like fun to you? Are you good at something in gym class?”

My mom didn’t get it. I didn’t like sports, and gym was my least favorite class; it was one class I just wasn’t good at in anything.

She started listing off sports and activities. “Basketball? Remember when you did intramural?”

“That was in Kindergarten! We all sucked!”

“Ballet? First grade, remember? You could become a dancer like me!”

“No! I hated ballet!”

My mom rolled her eyes. “Volleyball? Softball? Swimming? Soccer? Track? Tennis? Skating? Hockey? Some other kind of dance?” I shook my head at each one. “Anything?!?”

“NO! You’re not listening! I DON’T WANT TO DO A SPORT!”

My mom finally lost it. “Listen to me young lady,” she said in her you-have-reached-my-limit-and-you-are-going-to-do-as-I-say-or-else voice. “By the end of this month, you need to have an active extracurricular activity you want to try. You don’t have to stick with it if you don’t like it, but you need to stay active. If you don’t have something picked out by then, you will do running with your father.”

The thought of running with my dad for “fun” made me want to tuck and roll out the car, but no sport sounded like fun to me. Plus, I’d probably suck at all of them. I groaned, slumped down in my seat, and refused to talk to my mom the rest of the way home.

I’ve never been a jock, or even someone who enjoys organized sports. I was (and still am) a nerd at heart, and prefered reading a book over kicking a ball around outside. I wasn’t necessarily lazy. It just wasn’t my thing. At the time, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why my mom was making me do something as an extracurricular. I wasn’t overweight, and was the exact opposite with an incredibly skinny build. I did something productive in my free time that not a lot of kids did (reading), and I went outside fairly often, if to just wander around the yard (or read). Besides, why on earth wasn’t my mom happy that she no longer had to drive me to Girl Scouts? I was probably going to make a fool of myself in the sport, just like I did almost every gym class. The evening my verdict was issued, I stomped upstairs, did my homework, and sulked. Then I sulked for a few more days. When I finally matured a tiny bit, I actually thought about something to do. What choice did I have? Certainly, something would beat the alternative . . . right?

I ruled out any sport that involved use of a ball. I couldn’t throw, catch, pass, dribble, kick, or shoot to save my life. I also had trouble using bats, rackets, clubs, sticks, and other “sport extensions.” Plus, all of them seemed pointless and uninteresting. Unfortunately, this eliminated nearly half of all available choices for me. So I started thinking of as many activities as I could that didn’t involve a ball. Figure skating? No way. I didn’t know how to skate, and the last time I was out on the ice with the assistance of a chair, I fell multiple times. This resulted in a sore frame and a mindset to never ice skate again as long as I lived. Dance? Despite what I had told my mom in frustration, ballet was actually pretty okay, but it had long lost its appeal, and no other method of dance appealed to me. Track or cross country? Well, I wasn’t fast, and this was long before I learned I was pretty good at distance running. So that was ruled out. Ditto to swimming.

As I ticked off the sports I had absolutely no interest in doing, my choices narrowed further and further. Was there something wrong with me? Why didn’t anything seem appealing? I was starting to think I would have to go running with my dad when one day I came to a realization: I found a few things that sounded interesting, and they were all martial sports. Not to be confused with the Asian martial arts, martial sports are sports or activities that involve or were derived from styles or methods of fighting. In other words, sports where the whole point came from trying to injure or kill someone. Some martial sports include European fencing, Eastern swordplay and martial arts, firearm sports, archery, boxing/MMA, and even wrestling. From there, I realized that while getting to punch someone for sport would be okay, I didn’t want to get punched back. Nor did I want to get pinned, kicked, grappled, or thrown back. Firearm sports? My dad might be okay with it, but my mom might be hesitant to let me. What about fencing? Well, I’d get to strike people with metal sticks, and the fencers wore protective padding, so the blows would be lessened. I also knew it was a sport both my uncle and my grandfather did at various points in their lives. Plus, it looked like fun.

I went downstairs the morning I made up my mind and said, “Hey Mom? I think I’d like to try fencing.”

My mom looked up from her book in surprise. “Fencing? Really?”

I nodded. My mom said, “Well, that’s kind of a hard sport to find a following for. I”ll see what I can do.”

I turned and went upstairs. The rest would be up to my parents. From there, I became preoccupied with other things in my life, and quickly forgot about my decision to try fencing. It was a long while before my mom found anything on fencing; it took many months, including a whole summer before my mom found a lead. We had received by mass mailing a brochure showcasing various clubs, sports, activities, and classes around the area. Inside this brochure, which was normally tossed in the trash upon arrival at our address, happened to be an ad for “Youth and Adult Fencing Lessons: All Ages, All Experiences, Multiple Methods.” It showcased a variety of fencing lessons at a club in Troy, known as Renaissance Fencing Club.

It was a Saturday, a nondescript one in early September. I was up in my room doing . . . something. I honestly don’t remember, because my mom called me downstairs with important news. She told me she had found a club in Troy that did beginner fencing lessons, and that the price seemed fairly reasonable. I was surprised (admittedly, I kind of forgot about the proposal over the summer) but very excited nonetheless. I was finally going to try a sport I thought was cool! I didn’t know anyone else that fenced, and it looked so powerful and graceful on TV. Plus, you know, you get to hit people with long metal “swords.” My mom called the club, signed me up for about a month’s worth of classes teaching the foil method, and within two to three weeks, on another Saturday, I started fencing.

I was twelve now. I was sitting in the front passenger seat of my mom’s car, wearing a T-Shirt, a pair of sweatpants, and my gym shoes. I had with me a stainless steel water bottle. Nothing else. No gear or equipment was needed for beginner lessons; the club would provide it. I was a nervous wreck. Being an introvert, I don’t like plunging into brand-new activities and events all on my own, no matter how appealing they seem. I knew a grand total of zero other people, and I had no idea what to expect. My poor gym class performance haunted my worrisome, overthinking mind, and when we got to the club, it felt like there were tiny people wrestling in my gut.

That first day wasn’t like anything I’d ever done before. I was the only girl in the class, although this was not an unfamiliar concept to me, so it didn’t bother me too much. There were two or three other boys in the class, all older than me by about two or three years. In that first class I learned how to advance (take a step forward), retreat (take a step back), lunge, put on a mask, and how to grip a foil. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this first class changed my life, my personality, and overall who I am and how I thought of myself.

The beginner class was that: an easy class where we played “fun” games, practiced basic footwork, practiced using a foil, and fenced probably some of the most laughable bouts (matches) fencing has ever seen. We developed more complex footwork and bladework drills slowly, and even eventually learned how to fence electric (when you’re hooked up to electronic scoring equipment). While the first few Saturdays were no problem, as I settled into a routine, my lack of skill often seen in gym class at school became evident. Even considering the fact I was in a class with beginners, I never seemed to have it in me to perform even marginally as well as everyone else. This was evident not only in the games we played during warm-up, but also in my general fencing skills. As everyone began to progress fairly smoothly in skill, I progressed, but it was a lengthened, bumpy path. I got the basic skills, I knew how to perform, but I just couldn’t get up to the same skill level as everyone else.

Despite this, after a year, I was allowed to move up to the intermediate level for foils next September. I would be put into a class with other intermediates, as well as the pre-elites and the elites. I would still have class once a week, but it would be for two hours every Monday night instead of an hour and a half every Saturday morning. I was somewhat aware of my lack of skill, but I enjoyed both fencing and telling people I fenced (to which their reaction would be “Really? That’s so cool!”). I told my mom, “I want to keep fencing. Sign me up for next year!”

A summer passed, and I turned 13. The September of 2014, I went to my first intermediate level class, and the second I walked into the gym, I knew the game had changed. This wasn’t just a class where you learned how to learn how to fence. This was a program where we worked out for about an hour, learned and practiced complex footwork and bladework, played a game or two of dodgeball, practiced mixed drills (drills with footwork and bladework), and then fenced open bouts. This is where my skill, or lack thereof, really became noticeable. Sure, I was practicing with people at a higher skill level, but I’d even sometimes lose against fellow intermediate fencers. Winning was a rare treat, and it was generally a close win at 5-4 points. Plus, I wasn’t good at a lot of the workouts in the beginning, my bladework was fairly poor, and don’t even get me started on our “friendly” dodgeball games.

I started to dread coming to fencing on Monday nights. I wasn’t any good, and I wasn’t getting any better. I started to wonder if I should quit. My mom and dad told me I could quit at any time; they didn’t want to force me into anything. The more I thought about quitting, however, the more I felt guilty about wanting to do so. The club fees my parents paid each month were expensive, and they had already bought me some of my own equipment. Plus, I’d have to find something else to do. I ended up deciding not to quit for these reasons, even though I wasn’t enjoying any of my fencing practices.

I didn’t realize it in the early months of my intermediate year, but I was improving overall in my skill. It was happening slowly, yes, but I was getting better and better with each loss. My form (overall footwork and bladework skill) was neater and quicker. The physical part of my body was changing too. The intense workouts we did forced me to learn how to control my breathing so I wouldn’t get winded or cramps. I built up endurance, improved my reaction timing, and even developed a little bit of muscle. I also found that as time went on, the workouts weren’t as grueling as they once had been. According to my parents, teachers, and the few friends I had, I was also becoming more confident and sure of myself. The bolder side of my personality broke through my shy, asocial shell that came up around me in public. I was still a good student who had few friends and didn’t talk much, but apparently I exuded an aura of sureness.

So my second year fencing was a little rough, but once again, I was allowed to move up and become a pre-elite. That year, everything changed. Sure, the class was the same, but now I went three times a week, and improved exponentially. I started to go to local club competitions called house cups, where I won two third place medals and one second place medal for the pre-elites, and I started to become more confident in my fencing and fitness abilities. Most changed, I think, was my social life within the club. Before, I talked very little at fencing. I was to shy and insecure. I started to talk with more people and made friends with three guys and a couple girls. One of the guys I made friends with ended up asking me out over the summer and we started dating. Once again, I started looking forward to the afternoons and nights when I had fencing.

Sometimes, looking back, I wonder what my life would be liked now had I not uncovered the more sporty side in me. From fencing I not only learned I could hold appreciation for a sport, but that I could get good at one enough to compete and win medals. I met people who I really enjoy spending time with, and I got incredibly fit in the process. Who knows what would have happened had I quit, or even had I not picked up fencing at all. I still get incredibly nervous and even sullen when I’m forced to do things I don’t like, just like when I first started going. Now I have a better understanding of what it means to try new things. I will forever be grateful for my mom forcing me into fencing, because I would not be the person I am today without it.

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