Monday, 25 January 2016

Helsinki Longsword Open 2016 Review

Wow! What an event! I am still recovering from the sensory overload of it all, not to mention sore muscles and a big bruise or two. The overall experience was wildly positive and I am already looking forward to having another go at some stage in the future.

I had trained quite hard in the run right up to Christmas and even when I went home to Ireland, I went jogging and did cutting and thrusting practice with my brother's longsword. After Christmas though I got lazy and even when I got back to Finland I wasted almost 2 weeks sitting on my ass playing Skyrim on the PS3. Dumb! After this I got my motivation back and dragged myself back to training. It was worth it, training was fun and my group also started a basic course in Bolognese sidesword as an additional bonus! Result!

So, what were my expectations?

1. To see if my repertoire was any good under pressure against non-cooperative opponents. Could I attack, counterattack, defend all lines, thrust, feint?
2. To find holes in my training. What am I missing?
3. To get some points from each match.
4. Not to take it too seriously and to try to enjoy myself.

To be honest, my five matches went by in a blur. I know that I lost all of them but that I gained more points as each match went on. I have yet to see the footage and I am pretty sure it will be cringeworthy. I think I managed a disarm at some stage and I tried doing take-downs in two separate matches and failed both. I got warned for hitting the tip of the sword on the floor and for turning my back on my opponent (fair enough, although it was after halt had been called). I got hit on the head a LOT, as well as getting tagged on the hands and parrying too wide to a feint only to get hit on the arm on the other side. I managed a one-handed thrust to the body. I was in good form for the first three matches but was obviously winded and blowing hard for the last two. I got hit HARD, in fact harder than I have ever been hit before in more than ten years of fencing. The experience was shocking and I saw stars momentarily. In one exchange, my opponents struck me on the head, possibly my sword was also in the way and the pommel broke on his sword. Prior to the event, I had bought a gel insert skull cap (SkullTec) to be worn under the mask to mitigate against hard head strikes. I'm glad I invested that money!

About the hard hitting: I am not complaining about it, rather it was the shock of it that I found most surprising. I have never experienced anything like it so was not prepared for it. Now I have, I understand better why it happens. It may be due to several things such as a combination of good form/structure with power generation and acceleration causing a hard strike, to intimidate an opponent and to make a sword strike on the mask so that it makes a very audible sound for judges to call. The pommel breaking I didn't really take seriously. The sword had already been used that day in several pools spanning multiple matches, resulting in breaking a weakened (and probably defective) tang. Whether one actually needs to strike hard is another matter and a personal choice. I don't think I need to do it but am glad I got this experience. It was a bit of an aha! moment for me as it does really give good motivation for parrying properly and although not terribly pleasant, it wasn't so bad.

Once my matches were over, I could sit back, relax and enjoy watching the other matches including the ladies' pools, the eliminations, the tatami-cutting competition, and then the quarter-, semis and finals. Holy moly, these were intensive with some lightning fast parry-riposte actions, disarms and incredible athleticism. The cutting competition was fun with some folks making very difficult cuts (false edge fendenti) look easy, slicing the mats and leaving clean, straight cuts. It was a pleasure to watch. More please!

Once the awards ceremony was over, folks started to leave and while some headed home, others continued on to a restaurant and later the pub. For me, this social side capped the day off perfectly. It is always great to come to a meet like this because the HEMA community is just that, a community. We share a passion, making it easy to walk up to strangers and just start chatting, about swords, fencing, manuals and BEER! For example, while not fighting in the pools, I chatted about pedagogic techniques and kettlebell training with Norwegian fencer, Petter Brodin, as well as having the craic with compatriot Christine Maunsell, who had come all the way from Ireland to compete in the Ladies' competition. She is the first Irish HEMA practitioner I have ever met and it was great to get the low-down on the Irish scene. As the Health and Safety Officer of the newly-fledged HEMA Ireland organisation, Christine was also on a fact finding mission to glean best practices for holding similar competitions at home.

This camaraderie continued all evening and we left the pub around 2 am before driving home to Turku. Since then, my mind is still whirling with possibilities of how to improve on my fencing in general, what holes I need to fill and where my mindset needs to be at. My thanks to my club mates Markus, Tuomas and Niko for sharing the experience. Finally, a big thank you and appreciation for the hard work of the Espoo Association for Historical Fencing (, as well as the other volunteers, for organising and efficiently running an international-level fencing competition and event. You made it look easy!

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