Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Requiem

I love Summer Nationals. It's such a gloriously insane idea.

You can have your World Cups, with your civilized two events per day and scheduled DEs. I'll take our noisy festival of six to twelve events each day, with fencers of all ages and parents and coaches and vendors and referees all running amok together.

NACs are nice enough. I especially like the December Div.I/Vet and the January Div.I/Jr events, which are great for spectators looking for terrific fencing, and the more relaxed March Div.II/III/Vet NACs, where we develop both fencers and referees, often to the annoyance of some of the more competitive vet fencers. And it's always fun to mix the Div.I and Youth events in the April NACs—where else would you get to see a tiny Y10 girls' saber medalist gazing up, up, up at the very tall Tim Morehouse presenting her medal?

But Summer Nationals puts it all together—the kids, their sometimes-overwrought parents, the recreational fencers, the hyper-competitors, the veterans who've seen everything and know everybody, and the newbies who aren't even quite sure what a conductive strip is, not to mention all the coaches and referees and other officials. And everyone has stories to tell, tales of yore (the time before the latest egregious rule change), tales of battle (as often coach vs. referee or coach vs. coach as fencer vs. fencer), and tales of intrigue (which could be almost anything—intra- or inter-club feuds, rumors of international bribery, or which referees broke up and are dating new people).

Summer Nationals is interesting.

Ten years ago, Summer Nationals did not exist.

1n 1996, USFA's National Championships were held in Cincinnati, Ohio, over nine days in June. There were individual competitions in all weapons in Division I (except for women's saber), Division II, Juniors, Veteran Combined, and Wheelchair (except for women's saber), along with Open Teams and Junior Teams (except for women's saber). There were 1502 entries in the 28 individual events and 189 teams in the 11 team events.

This year in Atlanta, we held 77 individual events (Divisions I, I-A, II, III, Junior, Cadet, Youth-14, Youth-12, Youth-10, Vet-40, Vet-50, Vet-60, and Wheelchair —except, of course, for women's saber) and 18 team events (Division I, Open, and Junior). There were 6,240 individual entries and 353 team entries. And we took only one day longer to make it all happen.

I'm going to miss Summer Nationals.

We've nibbled at the edges of the problem for the past few years, lowering the qualification rate at divisionals and sectionals to 25%, and increasing the number of events using the 80% promotion rate instead of 100% (though limiting the youth events would have been more useful than limiting the veteran events, many of which are already tiny). We've had poor old XSeed tweaked to its limits to make it do what we needed, figured out a way to semi-automate team seeding, and started using En Garde to run the team events instead of writing them completely by hand.

We've tightened up the standards for working bout committee at Summer Nationals: we no longer take trainees at SN—we can't afford the time and energy to teach people, and we can't afford to risk the kinds of errors that inexperienced hands can make. We've developed a crew of people who know what needs doing and cooperate to get it done.

But we're fighting a tidal wave. Summer Nationals is suffering from a terrible affliction, and that affliction is success. Fencing is booming, and we're losing the race to keep up with the growth.

We've tracked the numbers: for the past few years, the average growth for a SN event from one year to the next has been 20%. Each year it becomes more and more difficult to devise a workable schedule of events (especially when the schedule must be devised before we know what the final numbers will be).

We've known all this for several years now. But this year in Atlanta, we could feel it.

That punchy Day 6 feeling we've always joked about, that stage when we start asking each other again—only half-seriously—why we keep coming back to subject ourselves to this same old madness year after year, didn't hit on Day 6 this year—it hit on Day 2. This year there was just enough more stress, just enough less resilience to make a qualitative difference in the feel of the whole tournament. By Day 6, we felt pummeled and battered.

It's not a change that's completely obvious to most fencers yet. But the change is there: everybody's a bit testier than they used to be, coaches are more unhappy with referees, referees a bit readier to throw penalty cards. We've already lost some of the top referees who used to be SN regulars—they're simply not willing to deal with the brutal conditions for referees, and the attrition will continue inexorably. That Day 6 query, "Why is it we do this?" is no longer just a joke—it's a genuine question we can't answer anymore because the Summer Nationals we asked it about is already gone.

Next year's Summer Nationals will be more of the same—only worse. With the next quadrennial, we'll get whatever alternative the current Tournament Task Force and the Board of Directors come up with. Whether it will be as much fun as Summer Nationals once was is something we'll just have to wait to find out.

(And Summer Nationals will become part of the lore, part of the Good Old Days, when the fleche was legal at saber and flicks hadn't yet been invented. Golly, I can already feel myself getting crotchety about it all.)

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