What to expect at your first international fencing tournament
By Will Spear
Traveling overseas to compete can be an incredibly emotional experience. You’re probably feeling a mixture of anxiety from going headfirst into an entirely unknown realm and excitement from moving into the next stage of your competitive fencing career. Let Better Fencer be the first to say: don’t panic. Everyone who has traveled overseas has gone through these same emotions. It’ll be okay. At the end of the day, you’re just going to be fencing, something you’ve become quite familiar with at this point.
This guide is designed to help with those feelings of anxiety about your first international tournament. We will go over exactly what you should expect and this guide will cover everything a first-timer should know, from packing to how to take care of yourself to the actual tournament. By the end, you should feel confident that you won’t encounter too many surprises on your trip, and you’ll be ready for competition day.
Lastly, this guide will assume you’ve been fencing for some time, and you’re making the jump from competing nationally at NACs to competing at world cups. Most of the advice will be catered to travelling to Western Europe because most world cups are located there. This guide applies to cadet, junior, and senior world cups and the specific things you should look out for when traveling to a world cup instead of a NAC.
This short section highlights what to expect while traveling overseas. This section assumes this is your first time or you have limited experience travelling overseas. If you’ve traveled internationally extensively, skip the next section.
What to pack
Packing is an important part of any trip. By now, you have a pretty good idea of what you like to bring to fencing tournaments. Your packing list should include everything you normally bring to NACs. It’s very important that you do not change up your routine too much. Remember, it’s just another tournament.
With that said, here’s a short list of items that are essential to bring. No matter what happens, if you have these you’ll be able achieve the main task of getting there and competing in your tournament.
- Fencing equipment* – We’d suggest creating your own checklist for the items that you always bring, so you don’t forget something in a last minute packing frenzy
- Passport – You would be surprised how many times over the years of competing we’ve seen teammates turn up to the airport without this essential document
- Money – more on this later
*I always recommend bringing the most essential fencing items that you cannot borrow from other fencers in a carry-on bag that you bring with you. The most important item is your fencing shoes. You have broken them in specifically for your feet, and if you had to borrow or buy new ones you can be assured that you are going to some terrible blisters. The next most important is your soft equipment like glove, knickers, jacket, plastron and lamé. If you have space for your mask, that’s great, however, a mask is easier to borrow. Obviously, weapons should stay in your checked bag so that you don’t have TSA giving you funny looks.
Please, please heed this advice because there is nothing worse than arriving to your destination airport to find that your bag is still at your departure city. Once upon a time, airlines used to reimburse you when they lost your stuff, and I’ve heard stories about fencers buying completely new equipment on the airline’s dime. That’s not possible anymore, and you should consider yourself lucky if they will even spring for some clean underwear!
Here’s a secondary list of items we recommend you bring to make your trip more pleasant and productive:
- Entertainment – non-electronic useful for long trips
- Refillable water bottle
- Snacks for the flight
- Portable Charger
Getting to the airport
Most airlines recommend you arrive at the airport 2-3 hours beforehand for international flights. This is often a good practice, since it can sometimes take a little extra time to get through security at international terminals than you’d expect. It also doesn’t hurt to leave a little earlier than this since it’s your first time traveling internationally.
The flight itself will be pretty boring. From the east coast, it takes about 6-8 hours to fly to Europe, depending on where you’re going. You’ll also typically have a layover or two. Be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting around.
We recommend you bring something you’re willing to do for long periods of time. Flying is also a great time to get any work done you may have. A lot of US fencers are also students and have written papers and studied for tests while crunched into tiny economy seats.
However, if you don’t have any work (or are procrastinating), airlines almost always offer complimentary entertainment that includes movies, TV shows and music. The selection is often pretty current and varied, so you’ll be able to find something you enjoy (I only seem to watch new movies on airlines these days).
However, you should also bring something of your own like an iPad with content pre-downloaded or paperback book. A Kindle is a particularly great investment because its battery can last for weeks on a single charge and it saves you from having to carry heavy books around with you. There is a lot of down time while traveling, such as waiting in airport lines or during layovers, where you will not be able to rely on the airplane to entertain you.
Also you won’t be able to depend on being able to charge your devices if you can’t find an outlet (e.g. on the plane) or you haven’t got the correct adapter accessible. This is where the portable charger comes in. Running out of a power within the initial hours of your trip can be really painful.
It’s difficult to get to some competitions. Most of the time, you’ll have a layover (or two). If you haven’t already booked your flight, we recommend that you leave a couple hours for your layover, especially since you’ll be traveling overseas for the first time. The airports you go to will be unfamiliar. European airports are not that similar to American airports. It’ll probably take you some time to find your way around.
Don’t worry though, unless you’re going somewhere pretty obscure, most airport officials will be able to speak English quite well. They’ll be able to help you find your way.
You should also make sure to have a plan for money. Most European countries will largely accept any credit card you have (even AmEx). However, it’s important to note that your credit card issuer will likely charge a fee for using the card overseas. So it’s always a good idea to check with your bank about international fees before you go so you don’t get slammed.
There are some great credit cards for travelling that don’t have foreign transaction fees like Capital One. You should also let your bank know that you’re traveling so a hold isn’t put on your account when they see charges from abroad.
The best way to get cash is to use your bank card with a local ATM. As mentioned above, there are usually fees associated with doing so, however, you are much more likely to get a better exchange rate than at an exchange desk. However, that being said, you will want to exchange a small amount of cash at the currency exchange at the airport so that you have at least a little money when you arrive in the event that you can’t find a working ATM. However, you will want to limit this amount to about approximately $50 because the exchange desks make a killing. You’ll likely need that money to buy food during your travels and when you arrive. If you’re taking additional forms of transportation (such as a taxi or a bus or a train after you arrive at the airport), you’ll want to account for that as well in your cash stash.
Taking care of yourself
This section deals with how you take care of yourself as an athlete before a tournament. Even if you’ve traveled overseas extensively before it’s a good idea to read through this section. It contains important details of how to handle the stress traveling puts on your body so that you’re ready as quickly as possible to compete.
This is probably the most difficult one to get right. Being well rested is incredibly important for you to perform at your best. It isn’t always that easy though. A typical travel schedule will have you leave two evenings before your event and arrive the middle of the following day. Due to this, you spend an entire night traveling. You MUST sleep on the flight, or you’re missing an entire night of sleep.
Flights to Europe are weird. Most tournaments you’ll travel to will have about 6-8 hour flights. Not enough time to sleep properly (unless you’re lucky, unlike me, and can sleep the instant you board the plane). You’ll get to your destination with around 4-6 hours of restless sleep after your traveling is done.
When you finally arrive at your destination, you’ll get the urge to sleep. Especially around mid-afternoon, when it starts to be bedtime back home. You must resist this urge to sleep when you get in. I recommend not napping at all unless you are very good at waking up. Most of the time, it’s way too hard to get up after only 45 minutes in a real bed after a night of restless airplane sleep. If you sleep more than this, you will are much more likely to have difficulty sleeping when go to bed in the evening (even though you are really tired already). When you start to feel that urge to sleep in the afternoon, it’s good to get out of the hotel. Both moving and sunlight can help your body better handle jet lag. If you have the ability to do so, it can also be helpful to do a little light exercise (like a jog) or go for a brief swim to help your body readjust.
If you stay up to a reasonable hour (~10pm local time), you should be able to get to sleep that night due to exhaustion, despite the fact that your body thinks it should be time to get up. It’s also quite natural to wake up early in the morning because your body is a bit out of sorts. I used to stress out about this because I felt that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. The key is not to panic. One night of less than perfect sleep isn’t going to kill, so just try to use the time to relax, read or listen to music.
Sitting for long periods of time, especially in uncomfortable plane seating, can be really bad for your blood circulation. Getting a pair of compression socks can help. These are socks that are tighter than regular socks and generally go up to right below your knees and apply a consistent pressure to your legs which which helps the blood move around.
While on the flight, in the hours you aren’t sleeping, you should try to get up every hour to stretch your legs. Usually there is a little space by the lavatory where you can move your body and do some light stretches. This can make a big difference to how you feel when you get to the other side.
As mentioned above getting out and about, moving around or doing a little light exercise or stretching on the day you arrive can also help you feel much more ready to perform the next day at the competition.
You need to eat. I cannot stress this enough. It’s surprisingly easy for you to go to a tournament and not eat enough. This is the single biggest difference I made that I found helped my performance after I started traveling. Your eating cycle will be thrown off by the time zone and changes to your sleep cycle. Eating at the right times for your new time zone will also help adjust your body (and thus help you sleep), so it works on multiple levels.
You will also be pretty tired and stressed, which can contribute to making you feel less hungry than you typically do.
It will also be slightly more difficult to obtain food than you’re used to. The language barrier and lack of familiarity with the city can make finding quality food difficult. In these instances try to resist the urge to simply eat at fast food restaurants while abroad. It’s tempting to go to a Mcdonald’s simply because you recognize the brand and know what you are going to get. However, fast food and elite athletic performance do not make good bedfellows. Spend the extra effort to ask around or speak to the hotel to find a place when you can get higher quality food.
Having snacks on hand can help you prevent making bad food choices as well keep your blood sugar up while competing. So, I’d suggest making sure you have a least a few granola bars, bags of nuts, or whatever else you like to eat. You can also wait to buy them at your destination however, you will have difficulty finding exactly what you’re looking for or you will be too cranky or tired to make the extra effort of finding a grocery store.
A small note about eating during the tournament: By now, you’ll probably know what and how much you like to eat during a competition. You can stick generally to this, although I find the days tend to run a little longer at international tournaments ,and I have to eat a little more than I’m used to at a NAC.
Staying hydrated is another big challenge for international travel. You need to be hydrated to perform at your best. Unfortunately, you have a variety of things working against you, and so it’s important to pay extra attention when traveling overseas.
Planes will dehydrate you. Make sure you’re drinking a lot of water during the flight. I try to drink about 1.5 liters of water (three small water bottles) during a 6-8 hour flight. You should not count on flight attendants to give you water. They will, of course, but usually only in small cups which makes drinking enough water difficult. The best way to bring water with you is to take a refillable bottle and fill it up at a water fountain at an American airport (more on international water below). Or you can also just buy water at the airport.
You’ll also want to pick up water bottles at the local convenience store once you arrive. Some tournaments will be able to sell you water, but not all of them, so it’s good to be prepared with enough water for the day. The front desk at your hotel will be able to point out where you can go.
Some fencers like drinking sports drinks like Gatorade at tournaments. If this is you, pack the powder packets and mix them with water you acquire at your destination. This is by far the easiest way to have these drinks, as you’ll often not be able to acquire them once you get there.
Special note: I have heard mixed reports on whether you should drink the water traveling overseas. It is safe to drink the water in most countries you will travel to (always check before you travel either way), but depending on your tolerance, it may upset your stomach (I believe this is due to differences in the microbiome and makeup of the water). It could still be fine for you, however: some people drink tap water the entire time no problem, and some people have issues if they even brush their teeth without bottled water.
My advice is for your first tournament, don’t take any chances. Drink bottled water for the duration of your stay. If you’d like to know for the future, test drinking some of the tap water after you’re done fencing.
Keep in mind your sensitivity will vary. If you are really worried, it’s best to avoid traces of tap water. Order drinks without ice, use bottled water to brush your teeth and avoid fresh fruits and vegetables which might have been washed in local water your first time through. Better to be a little inconvenienced than have stomach troubles on competition day. You’ll test how much you can handle after the tournament (most people have no problem with the small amounts of water in ice, fruit, and brushing their teeth), so you’ll only have to go through this once.
Communicating with foreigners
This is more of a note than a full section. I have had many first-time overseas travellers who approach me and were worried about communicating without speaking the language. The long and short of it is do not worry. Most people you encounter will be able to speak some English. This is especially true where you’ll be frequenting, such as hotels, airports, and restaurants. You can also get the Google Translate App, which allows you to download many foreign language dictionaries (so you don’t have to rely on wireless data), translate text using the camera (e.g. menus), and or translate out loud english text that you enter into the app.
One more quick note: While it’s beneficial to speak in simple English, do not resort to speaking in broken English. For some bizarre reason, it’s really tempting to mimic bad english back at the speaker because you think they might better understand language spoken to them in the way they speak. It’s not. So you are better off saying “May I have some pasta?” than “ME. WANT. PASTA.” Most foreigners you meet will have taken English classes in school, so correct grammar will be how they’re used to hearing it and will actually help most of the time. If they have trouble understanding you, just repeat what you said, start using gestures, or worst case break out the Google Translate App.
Tournaments are run slightly differently overseas than they are in the US. It is good to be prepared. In my experience, there are a few main differences:
Many competitions have some kind bus that will take you from your host hotel to the competition venue. You will want check the tournament information packet on the FIE website or ask around at the hotel to find out when it’s leaving. This is by far the best way to get to the tournament, as it is free transportation and the best way make the tournament on time. The one exception to this is if you require a long warm up before the event. Taking the bus may not leave you enough time if it only arrives an hour before the tournament starts. You can find alternative ways to get to the competition earlier, however, I don’t advise you do this unless you have wireless data on your cell phone and can follow your progress on Google Maps. That way, you can visually redirect the driver if they take you somewhere other than your destination.
Tournaments in Europe will tend to have actual schedules. The organizers will release pool times and strips the day before. They will almost always put the times in the official hotel lobby. If you’re unsure, ask a coach or another fencer from your team who has traveled before to help you out. DE bouts will also have times that are posted when the tableau is released. Knowing when your pool or DE starts will help you plan out when you want to wake up, eat, get to the venue, and warm up. Just be sure to arrive in time to check in to the event. Also some tournaments allow you to do weapons check the day before the event at the hotel or fencing venue. We highly suggest you do this because it’s one less thing that you need to worry about on the competition day.
Also, unlike NACs, not all international competitions have fencing vendors present where you can buy equipment. So you want to make sure that you have everything that you need before you arrive (if you lost or forgot some of your fencing equipment, this means finding teammates who are willing to loan you some gear). The same goes for food. Usually there is some place to get food and water at the venue, but there’s no telling how good it will be.
Also, international refereeing can, at first, feel unfamiliar. I can only personally speak for saber, but calls are made in different style than they are in the US. I won’t go into too much detail about the specifics (as the specifics will change over time), but you must go with an open mind and be willing to adapt to the referees that you encounter. Referees will also card more willingly than they do in the US, so be prepared for that and don’t let it get to you.
Foreign fencers may have different styles than you’re used to. You shouldn’t let that get to you. At the end of the day, they’re competing in the same sport you are. Everything you learned about fencing still applies. I see many new international fencers try to fence an entirely different game than they’re used to, with poor results. Stick to your guns, and keep doing what you were doing to get this far!
Finally, one thing I often hear from fencers who are traveling to world cups for the first time is that easy bouts are rare at world cups! Often (once you get to the level of international competition), a fencer will be used to being able to take it easy for a couple of pool bouts at a NAC. At a world cup, however, even the lowest seeds at the tournament will have gone through a similar qualification process as you. You have to make sure you take everyone seriously so you don’t drop winnable bouts. A proper warm up routine can help you to be as prepared as possible for anyone that you encounter on the strip.
That is pretty much everything you need to know to get your feet wet at an international tournament. While competing overseas might seem daunting, it can be tackled with a little discipline and knowledge. Follow the advice that works for you and remember that you know your body best. Above all, it’s important to remember that fencing is ultimately the same sport the world over.
For more articles on competitions, check out our articles on competition preparation. Or check out the Academy of Fencing Masters Blog "What to Expect at Your First Fencing Competition".
Image Credit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0
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