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He might have remained an earnest but middling fencer had he not stumbled on the fact that he was using the wrong hand. "My father found out he was lefthanded while shooting in the army," says Dickinson, who also figured out through firearms that he wasn't entirely righthanded. One day on the road, the boys in the band were fooling around with a target pistol and someone pointed out to Dickinson that he was sighting with his left eye. He read up on eye-hand coordination and left-right brain functions and decided to convert himself into a southpaw foilsman.
He worked on the switch while dividing his time between training sessions on the isle of Jersey and recording sessions in Amsterdam. "Basically, I had to learn how to fence all over again," says Dickinson. "It was strange at first. Everything was so much more natural, I thought I was doing something wrong. My coordination and timing had also improved considerably, though I still had problems with my legs, which had been conditioned to righthanded fencing."
By the summer of 1986 Dickinson was about as good lefthanded as he had ever been righthanded, making it to the round of 16 in tournaments in Holland and Britain. When the band toured the U.S. later that year, he called on his network of contacts in the fencing community to find out where he could pick up a match or a lesson. Sometimes he finished fencing only hours before showtime. One tournament at the University of Southern California concluded 50 minutes before the band was scheduled to perform in Long Beach.
Many of the acquaintances Dickinson has made through fencing have only a vague knowledge of his other life. Nathaniel Cohen, a 26-year-old Yale graduate ranked 16th in foil in the U.S., remembers meeting Dickinson and fencing with him at the New York Fencers Club a few years ago. Cohen's impression was of "a nice, unassuming English guy with long hair. The only thing that tipped me off was this group of 14-year-old girls hanging around."
In 1987, after recording another album in West Germany, he stayed on and worked out at the Olympic training center in Bonn for six months. His ranking jumped accordingly; by the end of the 1987-88 season he was 18th in Britain.
After yet another world tour, Dickinson returned to England and immersed himself in competition for seven months. By the end of the '88-89 season he was ranked seventh. His team, Hemel Hempstead, finished first in the national team championships. But last season, '89-90, though the team came in fourth, Dickinson, who had had little time to train or to compete, saw his ranking slip back to 35th.
"Bruce has an explosive offense and is very clever on defense," says George Kolombatovich, the coach at Columbia University, a perennial NCAA fencing power. "But that trickiness can also be his greatest weakness."
"Well, yeah, sometimes I get a little too creative," Dickinson says. "You don't get points for style."
Eric Rosenberg, formerly ranked sixth in the U.S., and vice-president of the New York Fencers Club, agrees that Dickinson's fencing has room for improvement. "His preparation could be better," he says, referring not to Dickinson's combat readiness but to the suppleness and fluidity with which a good fencer initiates his attack. Dickinson, however, recently had the opportunity of fencing Rosenberg and beat him in two of three bouts. "Bruce's preparation is definitely coming along," Rosenberg conceded after his defeat.
Dickinson's best years may still be ahead of him. While age may be slowing his reflexes, some fencers peak in their mid-to late 30's. In a game in which mental toughness and tactical savvy are as critical as quickness, experience can still triumph over raw athleticism.