Saturday 16th September 2017

I had a very rough night last night.   By the time I went to bed, I was doubled up in pain with stomach cramps.  I seriously thought that if I didn’t improve overnight I was possibly going to have to drop out of the tournament today.
I made a point of wearing more layers to bed.  This causes me to sweat, which I hope in turn sweats out any illness.  I’d also drunk a couple of pints of water, hoping to piss out any illness in the morning.  It sounds crazy, and I suspect there’s no scientific basis for it but it’s worked well for me in the past.
And indeed it seemed to.  I woke up feeling very, very delicate but a little brighter than I did last night.  However, breakfast was a bit touch and go as to whether the symptoms would repeat.
So I left the house this morning to travel down to Bristol with a complete change of clothes because I really was that worried about how ill I felt.
I was trying to control my breathing in the car, get my focus into the fight rather than being distracted by feeling like crap, when who should pass me on the motorway but Josh, James and Kip.  I ended up following them, trying to react as quickly to their indicators as possible to test my reflexes.
We arrived at the venue and found the room.  It was good to catch up with friends, but underneath it all I was really worried.  I think because I’d done well in all my tournaments this year, I’d put an expectation on myself to do well.  I’d spent a lot of mental processing time trying to undo all that and just focus on the fight at hand, but the end result was that I was more nervous about this tournament than any previous.
I was feeling better than I did this morning.  But I still felt a bit weak and drained.  I didn’t think I would have the speed or dexterity I’d need.  I was very stressed.
Some advice I’d heard from an Olympic gymnast’s Youtube video was to focus on your breathing as well as the point at hand.  No use fretting over points that have already been awarded.
We were fighting to a different system and that was adding to my nerves.  I usually warm up into my fights but this system seemed to punish you if you lost one.  As a result, it just added to the pressure as I felt I needed to win all my fights to be in with a shot.
One of the things that I’ve found helps calm my nerves, is a bit of banter.  Josh, Matt & I have this running joke where I get slated for my only medal being in a non-steel competition, I used to wind Matt up that I got a silver whereas his best was a bronze, and we used to wind up Josh that all he could achieve is 4th place.
The banter cuts the tension for me and reminds me that this isn’t life or death.  This is supposed to be fun.  It forces me to calm down and laugh at myself.  The problem is that I’m never sure how far to take it.  There were times at Fightcamp that I felt I was being a bit too boorish.  Not everyone enjoys the banter and I do worry that sometimes I start on people who find it a distraction rather than a help.  And it’s not my aim to be a dick to anyone.
It felt a bit more balanced today.  I didn’t feel quite so loud and annoying, but also was able to join in, give and take it a bit.
I don’t remember much about my early fights.  This comes from being so focused on the now that my brain didn’t bother to record any memories.  My first was against Burak, who beat me at Astolat and got a bronze.  He was my bet for a bronze this time.  But I beat him.
Next (I think, the order is a little fuzzy) was a left-hander.  Ha, fighting Pim all the time has taught me how to deal with those and I beat him too.
Third was Fran.  School of the Sword people worried me most, mainly because I know that any of them can beat me.  Fran was competing in a lot of tournaments, so I guess that tired her out a lot, but again I managed to win.
I was making a point of taking a lot of water on between bouts, but this didn’t stop my stomach from churning.
My final fight was against Jay.  Now I was proud that I got Jay to have to change his style of fencing to beat me at Astolat, but he was one of the people I was most dreading fighting.  Why?  Because he’s figured me out.  He knows how I fence and he knows how to beat me.
Due to the small size of the mats, you really couldn’t go extended and have room to move, so I played a very defensive game.  A year ago that would have resulted in me just making it difficult for someone to beat me, but wouldn’t result in a lot of points.  I’ve worked on my offense for the last year and now have a nice balance.  And I think that was on show here, as it wasn’t a one-sided fight.
Indeed, I’ve definitely improved since Astolat because I held him to a draw.  I was very proud of that because it was a good sign to me of how much I’ve grown in just a few months.
That meant that going into the semi-finals, Jay and I were top seeds  (Jay ahead of me because of higher scoring bouts with other people), each with 3 wins and 1 draw.
As I said, I was happy with that.  I’d had tough fights despite feeling ill, and whilst watching some of my fights back, I don’t think I look graceful, I still won my bouts.  Yet, me being me, despite this, I still wondered if I’d made it through and didn’t want to be presumptuous even though it seemed highly likely.
I was feeling happy.  Yet again, I’d made it to a quarter final – another sign of the progression I’d made over the last year.  I felt that I’d fought solidly (if a bit inelegant), and that seeding second was better than Astolat where I’d come in 7th.
OK, so some of the School of the Sword superstars weren’t there – Stewart had broken his foot, Matt was on holiday – but I’d drawn with Jay and he’s just as good as them.
So I was feeling slightly uplifted by all of this.  Of course, I’d like to progress further.  I’ve made no secret of the fact that I want to try and win the entire league.  And it would be nice to make it to the semi-finals as a sign of progress, but you know what?  Given how ill I felt, I was more than pleased with my performance.  For a short amount of time, the pressure was off.
James was fighting in his first tournament, and whilst he didn’t get through, I believe he won one fight convincingly.  Josh fought well but ran out of energy and crashed in his last 2 fights.  Stephen and (I think) Chris also got through.  And maybe Fran as well.  So, whoever did or didn’t, we had an impressive showing in the quarters.
I felt good that I’d managed second seed and then I found out I was fencing Stephen in the quarters.
Now Stephen is relatively new, and whilst that shouldn’t make any difference, it’s hard not to be annoyed when you put in tonnes of work and someone new comes along and beats you.  He was one of the people I was dreading.  He does these rising thrusts I find difficult to defend against.  Last week, he proved himself to be the most capable person at getting through my defence.
So I think he’s a fantastic person, but as a fencer he annoys me… and I’m not sure if that’s because he’s good at getting past my defence, or that I have a weakness in my defence that he can exploit as a relatively newbie.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt in the last year of fencing, is that tournaments don’t owe you anything.  You can work the hardest and still get your arse kicked.  Just because someone is new, doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to beat you.
Stephen was one of those people I was dreading to have to fight.  Whilst it’s a complete ego thing, I didn’t want him ranking higher than me in the world rankings…. And if he beat me that could possibly happen.  Stupid, I know.  But, just like my writing, I need a little ego to compensate for my lack of confidence.
The thing I was dreading even more than being beaten by him, was winning after he’d got a lot of doubles on me.  That’s when fencers hit eat other simultaneously.  This tournament penalised them badly, with multiple doubles resulting in you losing points in the next round.  It would just be my luck to beat him and then go into the round with -3 points because we doubled all the time.
It was a tough fight.  He totally deserved to be in that quarter final and I’m not sure how I held it together but I think I beat him by capping out at 9 points.
My heart was going like a freight train right now.  I wasn’t thinking about the semi-finals, or the fact that I’d made them, just that I had somehow managed to win.
James said something to me along the lines of, “you are on fire, today.”  And I know it sounds stupid, but it was just what I needed to hear.  I was fighting well.  Despite everything, I was getting through my fights convincingly.
But my next match was even harder.  A lot of my friends had fought Sean and said that he just charged in and not given them any room to fight.  Josh was one of those… I think Chris was another… and Chris doesn’t get pushed around on the mats (he tends to do the pushing).  So my stress level went up another hundred levels.
I’m starting to think that I fence well under pressure though.  Mentally, I know I prefer to be the underdog, which is why I think the mindset of thinking success was owed to me bothered me so much.  But fighting at Swordfish, supposedly the toughest tournament mentally, caused me to sharpen my focus.  Fighting at Fightcamp with heat exhaustion / sun stroke saw me knuckle down and get all the way to the semi-finals.  And today, with the stomach from hell, I’d again made the semi-finals.
It hadn’t dawned on me that I was playing for a place in the finals.  That probably speaks to my focus at that time.  No doubt it was a tough fight, tougher than Stephen, but I was glad that I got to fight Sean and not Michael because his tactic against Jay was to pretty much brawl him out the ring.  Again, as much as I like Michael and think him a competent fencer, I wanted to see technique win.
I won my fight against Sean which was probably a big victory because I beat someone who fencers I respect and fear got beaten by.  So it wasn’t just a case of having lucky, easy fights.  I was genuinely grinding my way forward.
And so… it was Jay and me in the final.  I think I realised sometime during my fight with Sean or soon after it that I was guaranteed a medal but again my focus was on fighting Jay.
My only hope was that it was an epic fight, and not something where shit technique won or where it was entirely one sided.  I suspected, given that Jay and I had fenced already today, it would be close…  and it was.
At one point I was ahead.  Then we were equal on 7 all.  And then Jay got 2 points to take him to the cap of 9.  People said it looked epic, so that’s all I really cared about.
I would have liked Gold so I could wind up Matt, but he can no longer make our joke about me only ever winning a ‘plastic’ medal (Because my other silver medal was for fighting with nylon).   That said, I’m more than happy with Silver, and a close one at that.
Sasha said I fought well, so I think those around me can see my improvement.  Only on Monday, Christophe was commenting just how much more agile I’ve got.  Well, yep, I’ve been working on that, although watching my final fight back, I didn’t seem as agile as I have been
My nutrition was good.  2 bowls of porridge for breakfast followed by flapjacks for lunch worked perfectly.  It was some time after my fights, when we were waiting around for medals, that I found myself crashing quite hard during a bout of banter with Alessandro and Josh
So overall…I’m massively happy.  I wanted a medal this year and I got one.  I also, as I discovered when I got home, didn’t have a bad case of nerves, but a bad stomach flu.  And I still got silver.  I’ve probably done well enough to get my other goal this year, which is to make the top 100 in the world.
I’m fighting consistently well, even when under pressure or not at 100%.  And I seem to be improving.  Whereas people like Josh seem to underperform in tournaments, I think I’ve proved that I got my tournament game sorted and my position isn’t due to some fluke or bad judging.
A little over a year ago, I didn’t have my head in the fight, I didn’t do anything but defend.  But now, whilst there is a massive amount of work I need to do (I was nowhere near as agile as I can be given the state of my stomach) I think everyone recognises just how far I’ve come.
Now to try and do as well in the next tournament!
If you want to follow more of my journey, then be sure to check me on my social channels.  Likewise, if you’d like me to expand on any point mentioned above, please say so in the comments.

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