Take a new stab

Crystal+Qian+poses+with+her

Photo by Anirudh Seshadri

Crystal Qian poses with her

Crystal Qian

In a 17,000-seat stadium, the scintillating light beams peel my eyes open. The clanging of fencing blades reverberate through my skull as beads of sweat glisten on my temple. Swallowing my nerves, steadying my twitching lips and silencing the drumming of my heart, I connect myself with the fencing strip.

I was halfway across the globe, among towering pyramids and shaggy camels, in the dusty landscape of Cairo, Egypt. This was it. For all my life, I had worked toward this moment: making the U.S. World Team and competing at the World Championships.

For a fleeting moment, I had it all — until I didn’t.

On the biggest stage of my life, I crumpled under the pressure. Thoughts of failure whizzed through my mind as my confidence disintegrated into chaos. The moments following my defeated footslog out of the stadium were a dizzying blur of disappointment and desperation.

Hazy recollections from a year earlier began flickering through my mind. I flashed back to April 2020, when I was training in my unventilated, dust-lined garage through the four corners of my Zoom screen. I was battling a stress fracture in my  aleft foot, and I resorted to swimming to maintain my athletic shape. My disconnection from the fencing strip morphed my fervent drive into a soup of disorientation and sentimentality. Nothing felt right — nothing came close to emulating the intensity and rapture on the fencing strip.

Where was the familiar cacophony of clanging blades, blaring lights and screeching rubber soles? Where were the deafening screams of ecstasy following every point? Where was the tingling adrenaline that rippled through the pores of my being?

I missed everything about fencing. I missed my travels to distant corners of the country and the world for competitions. I missed the time when I furiously scribbled annotations to seven chapters of The Kite Runner on my flight back from Marseille. I missed the goofy smiles and the effervescent chatter of my East Coast friends that greeted me monthly.

But as COVID-19 restrictions loosened, and I fenced with a foil in hand again, my trepidation melted into the shadows — and it stayed there until a year later, upon my lamentable performance at the World Championships.

I was unaccustomed to failure of this degree. While clinching a spot on the U.S. World Team had been my lifelong dream, my poor exhibition nearly made me wish I hadn’t competed at all. Coupled with the reemergence of my foot injury, my grapples with adversity shocked me into stringing together my jumbled daydreams of quarantine: I was afraid to let go. I was afraid to let go of what had defined me for so long. I was afraid to let go of my cat-like reflexes; of my purpose and commitment to excel; of eventually leaving my fencing club, my wellspring of constancy and comfort.

My crippling incompetence to cope with failure was fueled by my desire to fence at a high level endlessly. I allowed my grasping ego and pride to consume me; in reality, I lacked the technical prowess to achieve my quixotic expectations.

Today, I still seek solace within the frayed walls of my fencing club: a haven of immutability amid external entropy. In my darkest days, I channel my turbulent emotions behind my mask. Fencing has given me a second family, innumerable lessons about character and a chance to achieve the unexpected.

When I first picked up a foil, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be representing Team USA on the international stage. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be recruited to fence at the collegiate Division I level. Who knew how dramatically a flimsy metal stick would shape the trajectory of my life?

But my reality shock from the World Championships has colored my perception of achievement, imploring me to open a new chapter in my life: to emerge from the sport that has defined me for so long — and venture into the fluid cosmos that is my future.

Collegiate fencing is the bridge that guides me away from my unvarying past, and toward an inevitable future when the phrase “I can’t, I have practice” is of a bygone era; when I won’t have 60 missed classes in a single semester; when I’ll actually have a social life; when days are not exhausted in a convention center — stomach flipping, head spinning, legs trembling — in nauseating nervousness.

And maybe that’s okay.