Few people have seen me quite as messy like the captain of the foil fencing squad has. She’s seen me dissociated at parties after a single shot of vodka, glitter on both of our eyes, making conversation about shared Irish heritage to ground me without even knowing. She’s seen me gasping for air after a bout, telling me to guard my highline to stop getting stabbed in the neck. She’s seen me crying outside of the Sports Colusium, disclosing incidents of sexual harassment.
I joined the fencing team in fall 2019, having never touched a weapon before. By the end of the first practice, sweating more than I ever had in my life in a claustrophobically hot gym, I decided these were my people here on this campus. For somewhere between six and nine hours a week, fencing was my safe place — a place to be angry and stressed, a place to take out aggression and to laugh harder than I had any other time that week.
There is a certain mindset that you have to tap into the moment you step on the fencing strip. No matter how many touches your opponent gets, no matter how far behind you are, the bout — the three minutes (or five touches) you spend facing an opponent — isn’t over until the referee calls the final touch. In short, you make every touch count. You do not think about the score; you act as if each round is the only round.
It is a mindset that works in two ways. If you are behind in touches, and it seems impossible to win the bout, you don’t give up. You stay concentrated. Your opponent could get overconfident and slip up, leaving the target area open. Likewise, if you are ahead in touches, you can’t get cocky. A single moment could be the difference between having a formidable lead and your opponent closing the gap.
It also works to keep you grounded in the moment because time seems to move differently on the strip. Notoriously, there was an Olympic fencing bout with one second left on the clock that continued on for several more minutes. Seconds stretch out, and three minutes feels never ending. Five points feels impossible. But you can’t think about that. You can only think about the next touch.
I’ve heard the sport described as physical chess. Sometimes it feels like that — planning your attack five steps ahead. Sometimes it feels just like you’re just trying to stay on your feet until the bout is over.
While every second on the strip counts, club sports as a whole are a different story. Club sports on the University’s campus are often overlooked. As a Big Ten school, really the only sports anyone pays much attention to are varsity sports, mostly football and basketball. Occasionally swimming will get a mention. Maybe soccer or hockey is noted. But nowhere on The Michigan Daily website is there a tab for club sports; you have to search for tidbits.
Despite being incredibly competitive, having won the Big Ten title in 2019 and the bronze medal in NCAA championships in the same year, the rowing team only has 4 pages worth of content dedicated to their sport. Most of the other club sports are not mentioned at all. Fencing, which won the USACFC national title in 2019, hasn’t been mentioned by The Michigan Daily since 2006. I’m not bitter.
There are 30 club sports at the University, but I’d be willing to bet the vast majority of students here haven’t even heard of a handful of them. I certainly didn’t know we had a synchronized skating team, or a rifle team for that matter. I only learned about the TaeKwonDo team because I saw them tabling in Mason Hall a few years ago. You see the club sports section at FestiFall and you never hear about them again.
And yet, it is in these club sports that we often find the most meaningful connections. That isn’t to say that varsity sports can’t have such connections, but the stakes in clubs are simply different. We don’t need to worry about performing at our best under the pressure of hundreds of thousands of spectators. Instead, it feels like we’re allotted the privilege of knowing each other, and helping each other reach new potentials. There is no pressure to be the champions, but we get there anyway.
There is something to be said about keeping these clubs less known — little gems people like me have the opportunity to stumble upon. Tight-knit communities bound together by the love of showing up to practice, not by varsity scholarships. A place where you can be terrible at the sport and no one tells you that you’re not good enough; they only tell you how to improve. A place where you are constantly supported, even by strangers.
Between fall of 2019 and winter of the same year, I got sick. Everything I ate made me nauseous; my energy suddenly fell off a cliff; I was living every day in a fog so thick nothing I learned in any of my courses was sticking. I was in pain constantly, focusing harder on not vomiting in the middle of class than actually learning any of the material.
Two years and more than a dozen doctor visits later, I still don’t have a diagnosis. Every single test came back normal, despite clearly nothing being normal. My doctor told me to go to a specialist, a specialist my insurance doesn’t cover and I don’t have the money to pay for. With no options to move forward, I hit a standstill that I’m still trying to navigate.
That winter I went to one fencing practice, fenced about two bouts, then was done. I didn’t go back, even when my non-fencing friends had to listen to me talk about the team constantly. Even when I thought I’d found a group of people I deeply connected to. I couldn’t keep going. I didn’t even bother paying dues that semester.
Practice started again in fall 2021, more than a year into a pandemic. Though it was far from normal for everyone, it just felt good to bout again. Yes, we had to wear masks at all times. Yes, we had to get tested for COVID-19 regularly. But competitions and tournaments began again, and the excitement was palpable.
Playing a sport while having a chronic health issue is a complicated and frustrating process that I doubt anyone ever masters. I certainly haven’t. But mastering and coping are different things.
Coping means that even if I was a good enough fencer to travel, I’d have to turn down the offer because I simply couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t be sick on the day of competition. It means watching every bite of food I eat on days when we have practice — no gluten, no high fat foods, no trigger foods, nothing that could make me feel sick in the middle of a bout. It means constantly having a Zofran in my pocket.
But it also means that when the team has a Thanksgiving party and you almost decide not to go because there won’t be anything you can eat, the captain makes sure to provide allergy-friendly options. It means that when you make what you’d consider really shitty gluten-free banana bread, your teammate eats some and tells you it’s amazing. And sometimes it means texting your teammate that you accidentally ate gluten and simply cannot be at practice that day. But you’ll be there next time. Probably.
There is never judgement about anything on the team. Perhaps it is because we see each other at our most exhausted and disheveled, that there simply isn’t room for judgement. We see each other sweat-covered, hair awry, desperately gulping down water between bouts. We see each other frustrated beyond belief when the third bodycord we put on that night doesn’t work and we have to change it again. We see each other shocked and shaken after a weapon breaks, the realization that someone could have been seriously hurt dawning on us.
Maybe that’s why it seems so effortless to talk to anyone at a fencing party, even if you’ve never talked to them before. I could be shoved into a corner at a Halloween party, definitely not drunk enough to be having fun, talking to the men’s epee captain while he wears a bright blue wig. Or at the same party, my captain can call me out for staring at a team member dressed as Persephone and instead of it being awkward, we can dissolve into laughter.
And at a Thanksgiving party, every queer person on the team can gather on the couch and talk openly and honestly about our identities without worrying about being judged. It is on that couch that we talk about pronouns and I discover I’ve been misgendering a member of the team for weeks and I can offer an apology. It’s on that couch that I realize how many non-binary and gender-queer members of the team there are, in a sport that is so rigidly defined by gender. It’s on that couch that the captain says to them, “I don’t care what squad you fence for, just let me know which one you’re comfortable with so I can put you on the roster.”
It is on that couch I say, “She/her, but ask again in a year” — the first real confrontation with gender identity I’d let myself speak aloud. Half the people on the couch laughed in solidarity — they felt the same. Even though I’d never talked to several of them, we all felt comfortable enough with each other to share these deeply personal pieces of ourselves.
There is a special closeness that club sports create that varsity sports just can’t replicate. I have never been much of an athlete — unless you count childhood soccer teams and years of inconsistent yoga practices. I never would have been allowed on a varsity team of any type, especially with the unpredictability of a chronic illness. Any time I’ve been around skilled athletes, I feel wholly insufficient knowing I could never get to their level.
But with club sports, there is so much less focus on how good you are, only the effort you put in. The fencing club has more than a handful of rated members — fencers who have participated in tournaments and have done well enough to be recognized by the United States Fencing Association. But many of us are not rated, and don’t really intend to be. We are there for the community. We are there for the fun of it. We are there to stab each other.
I told one of my teammates recently that once you go head to head with someone in a bout, it seems to break down some sort of wall. Suddenly it feels like you can talk to them without the awkwardness of not knowing them very well. It’s almost as if literally stabbing someone with a very real weapon is enough to break the ice, and that’s enough to make every jab count.
Statement Columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.