About me

Peter Gustafsson

Former epeeist, now coach and referee

My fencing background

Early years

I started fencing late – in my twenties. I happened to see a notice for a fencing course in the paper that the Student sports club at my Alma Mater sent out to all students, and decided to have a go at it. I found it fun, and decided to stay in the sport. My first years in fencing were somewhat limited by geography – the nearest other fencing club was 40 kilometers away, but the next nearest except that club were 270 and 570 kilometers distant, respectively. (A comparison for my US. readers: 570 km is the distance from New York to Norfolk, Virginia. Or LA to San Jose for the west coasters!) So, my competitive experiences were few, and there were never more than 20 or so competitors in the field. This was in the late 80ies, so I have seen a manual sabre competition in which every entrant was involved in every bout – 2 fencing, and the rest being head or corner referees. After graduation, I moved to a town without fencing, and thus left the sport a few years. I saw that a club was being formed in a nearby town, so I went there are the meeting where the club was formed. That club proved a bit iffy in its first few years, so there were quite a few times I spent the better part of a sunday taking the long-distance bus, seeing that no one else had turned up for training that time, and going home. That was before the era of cell phones.

Back to Alma Mater

After a few years in industry, I got the opportunity to go back to my Alma Mater for PhD. studies, which I took. Once back, I also jumped right back into the extracurricular activites that I had left – epee fencing, singing 2nd bass in the University choir, and playing goaltender in the University floorball team. I had a quite filled calendar – 60-hour work week, and extracurriculars 6 evenings/week. Shortly after I came back, almost all the members of the fencing section of the University sports club graduated or transferred at the same time, leaving the fencing section a mere shell of its former size – me and two freshmen that had started fencing the preceding semester.

Background for non-Swedes

A little background for the non-Swedish readers is probably in order to correctly understand the situation. Swedish Universities have student sports clubs, but they are not teams in the US. sense. Intercollegiate sports is almost completely absent over here, all the competitions that the members of the student sports clubs take part in are under the auspices of the national federation of the sport in question, and open to non-students. Almost all officers of the student sports clubs are unpaid volunteers. Coaches are not on university payroll, they are usually undergraduates (rarely, university staff) coaching on their free time. The financial support of the University is generally limited to significant subsidies of the arena and sports hall usage. Having students with good athletic results is a very minor point of pride for a University, there is no ongoing media coverage of the student athletes and alumni do not follow their exploits. Even among fellow students, being part of a student sports team does not confere any significant social capital. I was a player in the best team that was fielded by our University sports club (granted, I was a replacement goalie in the floorball team, but we were at one point one of the top-50 teams out of about a thousand or so teams in the country) and no student outside the team gave a toss about that. Try contemplating something similar in a US. University with a 2nd-string player of a big team sport.

Entrance to a Swedish University is, by and large, only decided by grade point average. There are no legacy admissions, and children of the very few donors to Swedish Universities do not recieve any special consideration. Student athletes do not get any boost whatsoever for their athletic prowess, unless they are already at or near Swedish National team level in their sport and applying for the PE teacher academy. There are no application letters in the Swedish University application system – one just sends in a transcript of the grades, and personal contact details. The personal suitability of the applicant is only considered for a few types of University-level studies (police officer, doctor), and work samples are only shown for studies that have significant artistic content (architecture, opera school). The extracurricular activities of the applicant are not taken into consideration anywhere. So, for the great majority of University studies, the entrance process is completely objective and not any more complex than running an Excel chart. Th whole entrance process is not carried out by the Universities themselves (except in the few cases where non-grade factors are considered) – the applicant sends in his grades, contact details, and a prioritized list of which studies in which Universites that he is interested in to a national University application entrance agency. The applicant is free to apply to as many studies, at as many Universities, as he wishes without any charge. The agency then sorts out which applicants have the highest GPA among the all the applicants to a given studies at a given University. Students who are among the best for their preferred study are accepted, and the rest are compared among the applicants for their second preference. Once all applicants have been sorted through, the agency sends a list of the acccepted applicants to the Universites, and acceptance or refusal letters to the applicants. There is no subjectivity to this process; it is completely governed by objective rules.

Back to my fencing. The fencing section of the University sports club was down to three members, a few lockers worth of epee stuff, and no elected officers. There was in reality a choice between discontinuing the fencing section, or marketing ourselves  – hard – to the incoming freshmen. I chose the latter. We had enough fencing stuff for a beginner course and 2 weekly times at the sports hall used by the sports club, so filling up the officer positions was the most pressing issue. I took upon myself to be section chairman, section coach, representative of the fencing section to the University sports club (it had 17 sections, one sports for each, so there was a significant amount of intra-club information to be channeled), representative of the fencing section to the Swedish Fencing Federation, armourer, section treasurer, one-man election committee, and general do-it-all. During freshman orientation, there was a big event hosted by the University sports club in which each section could market themselves to the freshmen, and the three of us made a good impression, so we filled up our beginner course. For a few months, I was coaching the beginner course, running the fencing section singlehandedly, and doing my PhD. studies. That quickly proved untenable, so I asked one of the sophomores who was a economics major to be the section treasurer, and farmed out other officer posts to the beginners. A quick armoring course made it possible to hand over that task, and I limited myself to being chairman, representative, and coach, thus preventing burnout. That kept on going for the rest of my time until my PhD. degree in mining technology. (I have written a 253-page dissertation on how broken iron ore moves under gravity – I highly recommend it if you are suffering of insommnia.)

A new town

After my PhD. degree, I moved south to a town in which I knew no one, and it did not have a fencing club. Sadly, I got word that the fencing section my University sports club had folded shortly after I had left, but I could still compete as a member of the sports club in a big competition that is held annually, only an hour´s drive from my home. Then I saw in the local paper that a fencing club was going to be founded in my new home town, and the founder was looking for members. I joined, and this time could limit myself to just training. However, after about a year the club ended up in a precarious situation when several newly-voted officers had to leave for changing work situations, all at once. It seemed as if the club would fold, but I contacted all remaining members to an emergency club meeting and coaxed several fencers and parents to take the various vacant spots. I became club coach, and representative to the Swedish Fencing Federation. I kept on training, competing (with quite limited success), being a member of the club board, and coaching mostly beginners for a few years.

A change in roles

In 2006, I had aged into the veteran´s age category, and I went to the Swedish Veteran´s Championship, with high hopes. Those came crashing down, quite hard. That made me rethink what I should be doing in fencing. I had noticed that my beginners seemed to like my coaching, and I had recently gotten a beginner who showed exceptional promise. I came to the conclusion that my aptitude set is better suited to coaching and refereeing than to competitive fencing, so I decided to focus on coaching, see if I could get into refereeing, and let go of my own competitive fencing. My time was better spent helping an exceptional talent come to frutition than to rack up yet another also-ran result of my own. I had won a little local event, but that was a one-off thing, and I did not expect to post any subsequent result close to it.

My last competition

One last competitive hurrah, though. The regional team championships were to be held soon, and our team was really short on people, but we decided to go anyway. There were 7 teams in the Senior Men´s Epee team event, and our hope was to avoid the 7th place – possibly doable, but it would require that we all outdid ourselves. I anchored the team. Our #2 was a 30-year old leftie guy who had started fencing half a year ago, and this was his first competitive event. Flu had decimated our team, so our #3 was the promising beginner – but she was a 11-year old girl tossed into a senior men´s event the first time she fenced outside of the club, after only having fenced for barely a year. Baptism by fire.

The two first team bouts went as expected – we lost 45-10 or something like that. The only remarkable part of those bouts that were the bouts fenced by our little girl. Before her first bout, I told her that there was no possible outcome in which she would let the team down, and that anything better than being hammered in a few seconds would be a win for the team, since it would give me time to read her opponent and devise a game plan against him in my bouts. Once she was on piste, I whispered to her mother that if she kept on going for more than 30 seconds it would be a fantastic result, given that she was facing an experienced fully grown man who was not holding back. She amazed us – she went in like a little energizer bunny, and took 3 points and forced her opponent to fence more than 2 minutes. At the end of the leg, she went off elated to a wildly cheering team having fenced 3-5, and having put up a fight that no one had expected. She would keep that level of performance up for the rest of the competition, and did not go off the piste without points or fencing less than 2 minutes in any of her bouts.

Our third bout was the only poule bout that seemed possibly winnable, but we knew that we still had to fence to our outmost abilities in order to take the chance. We decided to go for a high-risk strategy, since we were the underdogs and doing stuff according to fencing 101 strategy would give our opponents the option to use fencing 101 counterstrategy. So, we chose to put our leftie beginner as our anchor, hoping that rightie-leftie fencing would mess up things for their anchor, and leave me to rack up the points beforehand. As for our #3, all points by her were gravy. I went first, winning 5-1 and furious with myself after that bout for not doing better. I did not do much better in my second bout, and our #2 lost his first two bouts. As for our #3, she lost all her bouts – but she managed to drag out her bout against the guy that I would fence in leg #8 so long so that I could get a good look at him.

When leg #8 started, I went on the piste for the last time that bout. We were down 22-35 and I knew that I had to do something fast, and big. Given that I previously mostly have fenced team epee is the role of staller/preventing the other team´s fencers from scoring, that was a new task. Anyway, I thought that my opponent would be vulnerable to counter-tierce bindings, so I started doing them. At first, my timing was off, and I had only closed the gap by 4 points halfway through the leg. Then my timing just started working, and he had no workable response. His body language showed bewilderment, but his teammates did nothing to build him up – as I started racking up points, they started yelling at to do all sorts of stuff, nothing of which worked to the frustration of the teammates, a frustration that they did absolutely nothing to hide. Then I saw his body language change to fear, and I tasted blood. With 11 seconds left we were down 36-39 and my legs were giving out, but I told myself that I would have plenty of rest later on. With a massive push, I managed to do what I had set out to do – giving my #2 something to work with. 40-39 with 2 seconds left. Yes! I went off the piste to massive cheers from my team, and my opponent looked like a dejected dog when his teammates scolded him loudly. He had let the team down, and they told him so in no uncertain terms. The last leg started – our opponent was a better fencer than our rookie leftie, but our guy was pumped full on adrenaline, and the opponent was not in the right mindset. At first, the push against us was hard, but a double and a lucky hit put the score to 42-40. Our anchor managed to stall for time, and his opponent found himself in a situation where he was forced to take risky choices, and that backfired. We won, 45-42! I had gone 18-4 in my last leg, fencing my best bout ever.

We had lost 2 team matches, so we were relegated to the placement poule. The first match there was a rematch of the cliffhanger that had just taken place. While signing up the fencers, the opponent team captain loudly told the hapless guy that he would be put in another spot so that the bout between us would come earlier, since he obviously could not handle me. I won the rematch 10-4, and we won the team match fairly comfortably this time. Before the last team bout, onlookers from other teams were betting among themselves how badly we would lose, the consensus being a 20-45 hammering. I took the lead, but this time we were truly overmatched so we lost 39-45, despite our #3 scoring several offensive points this time. At the end of the day, we placed 6th out of 7 teams. After that, I thought that I had ended my competitive career on a high note.

My time in fencing after my competitions

After that team event, I spent most of my fencing time coaching, and started to search for more fencing books. I have no formal coaching certification – everything I do as a coach is based on the experiences that I either have had personally, or seen. Around that time, I started attending the yearly meeting of the Swedish Fencing Federation as a club representative. Those meetings are informative, and work as a boost. For one weekend every year, one is surrounded by people interested in fencing all the time, so one does not have to explain basics to the person one is speaking to, but can instead go directly to the more complex issues where the learning goes both ways. A competition weekend is no substitute – during a competition one is fully focused on (or should at least be!) on the fencers that one is coaching, and there is little uninterrupted time for other interaction. I also started spending more time at competitions as a youth coach. It was there it dawned upon me how much of coaching time, at my level, is spent on technical training, and how little in comparison is spent on tactical and strategic coaching. Several cases showed me how dramatic the payoff can be, if one focuses on coming up with a game plan that is tailored to the opponent, so that his weaknesses are utilized and strengths isolated. This has shaped me as a coach, and I later on went on to focus on the tactical and strategic aspects of coaching, letting other coaches at the club focus on technical training.

A few years later, I got the opportunity to attend a epee refereeing course. Shortly before that, the Swedish Fencing Federation had decided to move away from self-reffed events and develop a cadre of certified referees of sufficient size to have certified referees at almost all competitions, from poule stage onwards. I passed the written test, and then passed the practical exam at a national-level youth event. I did not ref much for a year after that, but then I got going. I have since then reffed at several cadet European Cup events, a quarterfinal in the Swedish National championships for senior men´s epee, a semifinal in the veteran men´s epee at the Nordic championships, and a whole host of other competitions. I have also been head referee for the district championships three times, and of one of the big National events.

After a few years of being a epee referee, I tried my hand at foil refereeing. I passed the theoretical test, but flunked badly at the practical test. Then, in fall 2016, I gave it another go – but sabre this time. The Swedish sabre refereeing cadre was quite small, and the new guy in charge of Swedish sabre started up a refereeing course. I signed up, and spent a weekend going over sabre reffing in theory, and then looking at lots of video sequences. That was one of the most cognitively taxing experiences of my whole life, well on par with writing up my PhD. thesis. In November, the test took place. The theoretical part was not extremely difficult, but the experience of refereeing sabre for the first time ever in a test situation, with foreign fencers, and a British FIE referee observing, was nerve-wracking, to say the least. However, I passed, and was selected to referee at the Nordic championships the weekend after I passed the test. I got to referee poules and a few DE bouts there, but nothing higher – which was quite expected given that all other referees were FIE referees, and at least one of them had worked at the Rio Olympics. It was quite illuminating watching her work, and seeing what she did in order to have such good control of the strip and the people around it. I have since reffed sabre at the team nationals, the youth nationals, the armed forces championships, and was invited as an outside ref at the club championships of the best sabre club in the country.

Since quite a few years, I have thought about sharing my experiences regarding fencing, especially the thoughts that have come up based on experiences from differing roles in fencing. I will try to limit myself to observations that are not such that every fencer has noted them. My background and interests – a mechanical engineer, a large interest in competition formats, my tactical coaching –  will shape this. This blog, still in its infancy at the time of this writing, is the manifestation of those efforts.