- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
I went out in the first round of the individual sabre competition. My technique and savvy were equal to the situation, my strength of purpose was not. As soon as I was knocked out, I realized I was as good as my opponent, a Pole, in that first bout.
In the three days that followed I didn't fret. I watched the fencing and soaked up the rhythm and drive of my fellow competitors, feeding my brain through my eyes. I projected myself onto the strip and fenced the bouts I was watching. I read bodies for letdowns, telltale signs. Every day I took a one-hour lesson from my coach.
By the time of the team sabre event I was self-possessed, though I didn't know it, because what I possessed or was possessed by was the beginnings of a new self. The energies were no longer confused, but were channeled to the right places. Our team made it through the first day of competition, beating Spain and losing to Hungary to make it out of the first round, and then beating Great Britain to achieve the final group of eight. I was the substitute and fenced in-frequently but well when called on. I beat two top fencers. That night as I sat in my bath an inner voice said: You are going to fence well tomorrow, very well. And I had no doubt.
The second day we were up with the big boys. We went against the Soviet Union, which hadn't finished lower than second in this event in 19 years. I was fencing in the lead-off bout. Going immediately to the attack, I got the first touch. Then my opponent and I battled until the score was tied 4-4 with one touch to go. I drove my rival to the end of the strip, where the director of judges warned him that if he went off the end a touch would be called against him. He took off his mask to wipe his brow. I saw the same expression that I had seen on the face of the Pole in my first-round pool. I hadn't been able to take advantage of what I sensed in that bout because I hadn't believed then that I could successfully act on my instinct against a topflight fencer. The Pole's look had said that he had a limit. My Soviet rival seemed to be saying the same thing, and today I was going to press him past that limit. It was almost as if revealing his face had been a deliberate act of communication. I revved up and went on the attack before he could. He was going backward when I cut, but with typical Soviet competence he parried. Somehow this didn't bother me, even though the odds were that he would hit me with the riposte. I hadn't charged in so close as to lose my balance, but delivered my attack from a little longer distance than usual. I was able to follow the course of his blade in comfort as he tried to hit me. His riposte dropped on my guard and I hit him with my second cut.
In my eagerness to win I lost my next two bouts. My pace and my patience had disappeared. Though the bouts were close, I didn't have the feel to make them go my way. One of my teammates, Peter Westbrook of New York City, a three-time world-class finalist, won two bouts, and we lost 9-3. But my spirit was never down, never hesitant. I would fix what was wrong.
We then lost to the Italians and ended up fencing the French for seventh place. They had also lost twice, putting up tremendous fights. We quickly fell three bouts behind. In the last half of the match I went in for a bout against their strong man, Jean-François Lamour, a world-class finalist who had been mopping up our guys. When I got out to the strip, a change came over me, a clarity, a state of mind I had worked and prayed for—alert, pumped up and poised. Animal and intuitive.
I didn't care who he was. This time I didn't think: Here I am an American on the Continent, everything will fail. My concentration was total; I was fierce. I went after him but saw my cut fall short on his guard and felt him tag me hard on the mask. One touch against me, but it didn't dent my belief that I was going to win. I resumed my assault, and as he hung back for me to repeat my misjudgment, I lengthened my attack by another measure, getting in closer, and faked to the place he was expecting me to go for. When he bit, I went around the other side. We traded touches, and I continued to keep him a bit off balance, forcing him backward as he tried to parry my attacks. He preferred to fight as a counterattacker, and, besides, I wasn't about to give him any choice in the matter. I went up 3-2 when I offered him an apparent opportunity to thwart my attack by lowering my head in mock hesitation. He took me up on it and launched a fast cut that I whipped up to parry, hammering him in return.
None of these actions was traceable to conscious thought or overt planning, because in a match such as this even strategy becomes subliminal. It was just a matter of keeping the distance, feeling what my opponent was up to and then either pressing him or letting him be. At 3-2 the bout still hung in the balance. A picture flashed through my mind, a freeze-frame of my first cut landing short on his guard. Then there was only the clear scene of my opponent across from me, a large man waiting to crush me. I picked up where I had left off, pushing. I quickened my pace and gained a step. Then I beat his blade aside and cut him.
With one touch to go he had finally become a little shaky. He didn't want me to attack anymore and so he began to move in on me. But his movement wasn't smooth. He hesitated for a split second as he was getting underway and I jumped straight into the opening. All my years of training had prepared me for that moment, and my new mind made me act at precisely the right instant. I had never felt so in control before, so sure of myself. Now I know I can do it because I have done it. It took 16 years to get that way. The power of the will over time.