In my last year at Stanford, I managed to secure a berth on our fencing team. When I was in college, most of the truly great fencers stayed in the East. But Stanford, being Stanford and very serious about athletics, managed to recruit one Olympic fencer and a killer competitor who transferred over from West Point for the women’s team. The rest of us served as filler—aka life-size pincushions.
That whole year, I could never catch a touch off our top teammates. I was out of my depth but still thrilled to compete. One weekend, we hosted a regional tournament, and teams from half the country descended upon Roble Gym.
Somehow I ended up in one of the last rounds, which absolutely should not have happened. I’d had my moments as a fencer, but, not to put too fine a point on it, I was really bad. I’m tall, but I had never learned to capitalize on my wingspan. I felt like a big galumph trying to fight against these elegant world-class swashbucklers, most of whom were tiny and elusive and could dart away from anything I threw at them, scoring points with only the lightest, perfectly calibrated nicks.
By contrast, I’d come barreling down the strip and they’d look at my crazy slashing in terror—not at the prospect of losing the point, but of the very real risk that they’d come in for bodily injury. In a sport that involves the wielding of actual weapons, no one liked fighting a beginner.
Anyhow, I found myself in this late round against a fencer from Notre Dame, thinking both “How did I get here?” and “This is going to be really embarrassing.” Still, I went for it, and, bizarrely, I beat her.
When the results were in, I’d placed ninth in the tournament. It may not sound all that impressive, but I knew I should’ve ended up 29th.
Walking to the locker room, I really wanted to feel proud of myself, but mostly what I felt was mystified. After showering, one of the Notre Dame competitors approached me hesitantly as I sat on a bench, putting on my shoes.
“Are you Ann Marsh . . . ?”
“Yeah,” I responded, furrowing my brow.
She backed away, as if reluctant to say more.
Only later did I learn that there was an Olympian fencer in another part of the country named Ann Marsh. Shorter and dark-haired, the other Ann Marsh looks nothing like me, but this was before Google and smartphones, and clearly my opponents had assumed I was her. Looking back on that tournament day now, I realize it was the first and last time in my life that I had managed to freak out an entire room of people—all armed, no less!—on the force of my name alone.
Is there a lesson in here? Well, in fencing, as in many things, psychological advantage is huge. Sometimes it’s everything. You might not know why you’ve got the edge, but when you have it, your job is to seize it—and ask questions later!
Ann Marsh, ’88, is a writer in Los Angeles.