Michael McDarby was bleeding points and facing a possible exit in the round of 16.
That’s still not terrible at the USA Fencing National Championships, where he competed in the Veteran’s (60-69-year-olds) Epee Division on June 23, but the Amsterdam fencing coach hadn’t come all the way to Columbus, Ohio, to finish quite this early.
He came from behind to win, and came from behind two more times to reach the finals before finishing second.
“I ran into somebody who could do what I do better than I do it,” McDarby said of the round of 16. “I had to figure something else out in order to catch up to him and beat him. It also helped that he got far enough ahead of me that he started fencing not to lose rather than to win.”
McDarby coaches the Swords and Strategy Fencing Club in Amsterdam. He has fenced since 1977 and coached since setting up a club at graduate school in Memphis in 1982. The Fort Johnson resident is a biology professor at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, and he has coached fencing there since 1991.
He recovered to beat Colorado’s Donald Alpertein, 10-9, in that round-of-16 bout. In the quarterfinals, he beat second-seeded Jere Bothelio of California, 10-9. Bothelio had beaten McDarby in pool play, 5-3.
He then beat the third-seeded John Ridge of Philadelphia, again by a score of 10-9.
Ridge was a lefty and, McDarby said, about a foot taller.
“For that,” he said, “you protect your high outside against lefties, especially tall ones, because they tend to come from above your shoulder and down.”
Strategy is the name of the game, especially in the Veterans’ Division, and that’s what McDarby likes most about the sport.
“At my age, it ends up being very strategic, because my brain still works, but my body only sort of works,” McDarby said. “So I’m much more inclined to try to out-think people instead of trying to out-speed them.
“It’s something that you can learn forever. I like stuff that has enough complexity that you can just keep adding to it. I’m a teacher, I’m a coach, so that’s the part of sports that I like.”
He also prefers the epee to the other two weapons used in fencing. Both the foil and sabre, he said, are based on traditional swordsmanship training, in which rules were in place to teach students what would and would not keep them alive when they switched to real weapons on the battlefield.
Epee is based more on dueling for first blood.
“If someone’s attacking you,” McDarby said of foil and sabre fighting, “yes, you could attack them back, but if the weapons you’re using were real, you’d both be dead. With epee, somebody’s attacking you, and you can hit them first, and it’s only first blood anyway, so it’s OK.”
That plays right into McDarby’s preferred strategy of forcing an attack by his opponent, then scoring a touch on a counterattack as the opponent comes in.
“If you’re somebody who likes to fence against what the other person is doing, and that’s true if you’re counterattacking or defending, you want them to be attacking on your timetable and not their timetable,” he said. “So part of my style is to throw short attacks at people, drive them back or make them feel uncomfortable until they feel like they’ve got to attack. Then they’re doing it on my rhythm and not their rhythm.”
It worked until San Diego’s Charles Alexander bested McDarby in the finals, 10-3.
“He shallumped me,” McDarby said. “But I was in it for a while.”
Despite the loss in the finals, McDarby said he’s “got the bug” again, and may fence in more tournaments. He may enter the New York state championships at Vassar in August.
“I tend not to go to a tournament for me, but if I have other fencers [students] going, I’ll go and fence,” he said. “I have a few signed up for the New York state tournament. I just haven’t decided whether I want to face the heat or not.”