Harsh about sums up Minsk. A city of absolutes. As we approached the airport the surrounding country side was rigidly flat and seemingly uncultivated. As I travelled into the city in a taxi, with a driver whose understanding of the use of the hard shoulder could be described as unconventional, my initial impressions were altered only by the expanse of woods which boarded the arrow straight roads. Dense woodland of pines and birch stretch endlessly away. As we crossed the arterial ring road surrounding the city, bucolic gave way to urban instantly. Soviet tower blocks, designed by people with a penchant for windows and straight lines, covered the land into the heart of the city. They couldn’t precisely be described as attractive but one had to concede a certain grandeur to their scale. On our days off, wandering around the city, we discovered no further softness. It was a city seemingly dedicated to war. Vast areas of parkland were filled with memorials and statues encapsulating the suffering of the last century. When chatting to local people about what we should go and see one response summarised the rest: “Minsk is a city of sadness, there is nothing interesting to see here.” My ability to assess this claim was hindered by the weather, which was consistent in temperature but deeply variable in how it was presented. Blink and you would miss the transition from snow to blinding sun light. Given the chill and the biting wind, exploration was limited to occasional searches for food. Minsk’s hidden treasures, if existent, remain hidden.
The day of the individuals brought a 5 o’clock bodyclock start and a bizarre Belarussian breakfast. Choosing to eschew the broad selections of egg and rice, I dug out some sugar puffs and got ready for my first international in almost a year. It was reassuring how, as soon as my bag was settled and my kit was on, my mind and body both slotted back into what they have done so many times before. I stepped on to the piste, unsure whether the feeling in my stomach was nerves or aeroplane food. A tense but competent first fight dispelled the nerves and dash to the bathroom dealt with the latter. In my second fight, against a towering and talented Hungarian, I fought back from 0-3 down to level with only a few seconds remaining. I relaxed and backed off to the end of the piste, thinking of the upcoming minutes priority. But my opponent was Atillaesque in his pursuit. He pressed and then struck, catching me on the foot. I turned to the score box. 3-4. 0.6 seconds left. F**k. Despite this set back it seemed to be my day. Flicks were landing and 50/50s were going my way. I finished the poule a fair 4 up 2 down.
Ranked 20th after the poules I found myself against a Belarussian. As I made my way to the piste I noticed it was in front of a small stand at the back of the hall which seemed largely empty. As I plugged on and had my sword tested a stream of people seemed to be making their way towards me. In fact, it seemed to be a substantial portion of the Belarussians. Not just those in attendance but of the nation in general. I turned my mind back to the match, ignoring the small town gathering in the stands and at my opponent’s end of the piste. I have a feeling in the first point of a match whether I can win. There is an intangible wall of gaps and openings which are either present or not. Despite a cagey exchange of points to start I knew I had him. Each of his hits brought with it great bellow with it. This was no doubt encouraging to him but the gapping silence after each of mine seemed to have a greater effect. The weight of a nation’s expectations seemed to hang around his neck and each of my hits added about 40 kilos. My fifteenth hit brought a cheer from the three Irishmen who had come to my support and seemingly relief for my opponent.
My last 32 fight was a masterclass. Unfortunately, it was one in which I was the mannequin being used for the demonstration. My Italian opponent afforded me no rest and the intangible wall of openings which I spoke of earlier was flawlessly plastered. It became an issue of saving face, which I did perhaps partially by winning the second period but that was bolting the stable door after the horse has emigrated, started a new family and established a successful microbrewery. It was a convincing defeat and I was comfortable with a 32. 24th in Europe isn’t bad but it felt like a day in which something special could have happened. It’s that feeling which will drag me back next year and answers a question I’ve always had. Why do people, who don’t do very well, keep competing? There’s an element of pleasure in taking part, but more than this I think it’s the enduring and potentially misguided optimism of two words; next time.
Our team’s individual performance was probably slightly weaker than we would have hoped with one cut, one 64 and two 32’s. The team draw was seemingly not done off of this however and we found ourselves drawn against Russia. Dinner was spent dissecting their team, guessing at possible team orders and establishing contingencies. It was a team with two former U20 World Champions and they were undoubtedly the heavy favourites, yet as we stepped onto the piste to salute them there was the quiet hum of confidence among our team. Across weapons and genders I have never found a group as cohesive as men’s epee. The four of us in this team have fenced each other for the best part of a decade. A distressing reflection of my social life is that Paul is probably the person I’ve slept in the same room as more times than any other. I’ve stood at the end of Harrison’s piste from Surrey to Tashkent wishing his success while confusingly hoping he doesn’t do better than me. I’ve seen Nick kicked out of London night clubs, baffling comedians when called on stage and striding confidently into a communal shower of the world’s best fencers. All of this is to say that we know each other and we trust each other.
Our planning the night before paid off. We established a narrow lead at the beginning and refused to let go of it. The Russians had chosen not to fence their best fencer immediately but subbed him on in the middle period. On he came against Harrison in what seemed to be a vital match. He pushed Harrison to the back of the piste and scored an impressive fleche. We sat nervously at the end of the piste. Harrison was pushed back again and the fleche came again. The hit we all tensed in expectation of never arrived. Harrison wrapped up the left hander’s pommel and delivered a majestic and stinging flick to back. One of these is normally enough to put most people off but back Guzhev came for more and Harrison was happy to supply it. The lead jumped to six and there it stayed. Paul and Nick did a fabulous job of maintaining it to the final bout and Harrison finished off easily.
Our surprise at the victory was far less than others. The Russians themselves seemed stunned and I suspect they were anticipating their coach’s upcoming debrief which from the look on his face was going to perhaps be more physical than verbal. The Spanish and the Hungarians came and congratulated us, but it was hard to avoid the feeling that this was like the praise that you’d give to a dog playing the clarinet. Impressive but more than a little surprising. Another upset had seen Belarus beat Ukraine and this set up perhaps the best match we could have hoped for in the L8.
Just as in my individual fight, our piste was swamped by supporters. The referee, fortunately a Russian speaker, did an admirable job of keeping them quiet. At least while people were actually fencing. This was a match all about neutralising the best fencer. Another early lead was quickly established and then we employed tactical nous. Knowing I wouldn’t do well against their best fencer I subbed myself out for my fight against him. Nick stepped up and rather than just maintaining the lead significantly extended it. Harrison stepped on for the final fight 9 hits up. Using more tenacity than technique he battled for each of the 5 hits. The last one landed and we celebrated, only slightly worried about whether we would be allowed to leave the country.
The semi-finals were my third at a European championships and I had yet to get a medal. We had drawn Italy and I think a certain amount of air had left the team. It wasn’t that we didn’t think we could win but the two earlier matches had taken a little fight out us. The Italian’s established a lead, relying heavily on my opponent from the individuals. Having experienced him for themselves, my teammates withdrew some of their mockery from two days before. The gap never grew enormously but nor could we close it. We had left too much work for the last bouts and the Italian’s won a deserved victory. No one had fenced poorly we had just been out performed.
The bronze medal playoff brought Poland. Most of our team have trained in Poland in the tens of times. It was a team we knew and a match that was going to be close. We gained a minor advantage in the first few matches and carried it through to the last three bouts. But here was where the Poles came into their own. A late substitution proved devastating and they gained a 5 hit advantage for the last bout. Again Harrison was sent out to chase down the points but they just wouldn’t come. 4th it was. It was a team result, the product of individual and collective achievement. This was an amazing result, yet it still hangs heavy with those two words; next time.