Fencing in Cuba

Busted Halo's intrepid intern reports back on her recent trip

Even in the middle of the noisy competition hall, with dozens of other swords clashing and thwacking, the sound of a saber blade breaking is unmistakable. Usually you stop to see that nobody was hurt, throw the ruined blade away, and just go on with practice.

So it was strange, at a tournament in Havana in late June, to see a man in a Cuban National Team warm-up suit pick up a piece of my clubmate’s broken blade and then ask for the other half. “We weld them back together,” he explained.

En garde
I got my start fencing in a public high school, a fact that surprises some people since fencing is often perceived as an elitist sport mainly for the wealthy. Despite programs to attract inner city kids, that reputation is not unreasonable – fencing can cost literally thousands of dollars a year for coaching and equipment, not to mention traveling and tournament fees. In light of the massive costs of competing, the thought of painstakingly welding a $15 blade that has so obviously outlived its usefulness would not even occur to most fencers. The glued-together saber blade drove home the challenges the Cuban fencers face like nothing else could have. I’m fanatically protective of my “lucky” blade and I believe a good weapon should be light, balanced, and strong enough to withstand some really forceful parries – qualities the welded-together fragments cannot possibly have.

Car batteries and competing in Cuba
Before the trip to Cuba, I understood in an abstract way that there was a lot of poverty there. I had been told that the competition’s scoring machines would be powered by car batteries (which turned out to be a good thing, since the competition hall’s electricity had a tendency to flicker), and that some of the girls on the Cuban team had to share uniforms because they couldn’t afford to equip everybody–something that is unheard of on the international fencing scene where each person carries more than one set of equipment just in case.

I didn’t have a particularly sheltered childhood and I live in New York City mere blocks from some “bad areas,” but seeing poverty among fencers hit me completely differently than walking through a poor neighborhood thinking “thank God I don’t live here.” Fencers are my peers, the exact equivalent of me in another country, and it was disconcerting to see how different their lives were from mine.

After the competition was over, a girl on the American team gave a Cuban kid one of her working sabers, and then it only took a minute for a whole cluster of kids to form up. If there’s an equipment crunch even for the world-class fencers, what do the young beginners get? Many of us left Havana traveling pretty lightly. Some had even thought ahead and brought extra gloves or blades to give away. While a lot of the things we were handing out were things we didn’t care for or intended to replace soon anyway, they were still better than whatever those kids had been fencing with before. I saw a boy happy to be handed a stiff, uncomfortable weapon with a slippery grip.

Saber rattling
Don’t get the wrong impression from all the talk of giving though. The overall feeling I left with was not satisfaction that we had done something nice, or compassion because of the bad conditions in Cuba. I’m currently ranked fourth in the United States in my event and I’m extremely competitive, so I went to Cuba with every intention of advancing deep into the tournament.

On the second day of competition, however, I lost my very first bout, and barely managed to shake hands with my opponent before passing out from the heat (imagine exercising in a heavy white fencing uniform�in a sauna). The girl I lost to was a Cuban fencer, who was prepared for the heat and fenced through it with energy and heart. I left Havana with profound respect for what the fencers there have accomplished despite considerable handicaps (and also with doubts about the wisdom of practicing in an air conditioned building like we do here in the US).

All things being equal, I doubt the woman who I lost to would’ve normally even been a threat in a tournament – but then again, as most of the visiting competitors learned, very little is equal in Cuba.