Just back from Swordfish 2011 in Gothenburg, Sweden. In addition to a packed schedule of workshops, this year's event featured 5 steel tournaments (Open Longsword, Women's Longsword, Sword & Buckler, Sabre, Rapier & Dagger). The biggest event was the longsword competition with somewhere around 45 competitors. I was so heavily involved in judging and teaching that I didn't get to attend any workshops by other instructors, so I will confine my comments to the tournaments in particular.
Thanks to the usual cast of suspects at Gothenburg Historical Fencing School, the event flowed very smoothly (at least from a participant's perspective). This year had several innovations, most notable of which was a big first for HEMA - a live webcast of the final bouts from all 5 tournaments. If you had ever told me in the 1980s that one day you would be able to sit on your couch, eat popcorn, and drink beer while watching steel sword-fighting on your big screen television, I never would have believed you. But there we are, thanks to the innovative thinking of the folks at GHFS, especially Mattias Ryrlen. Along with Scott Hellroth of GHFS, I got to play commentator, which was pretty entertaining for me, at least. Apparently, there was even someone in Pakistan watching the event - go figure!
Organizing a tournament is an exercise in managing chaos. It is also (normally) a thankless task. With that in mind, I offer a standing ovation and huge congratulations to Robin Hedlund, Julia Strom, Axel Pettersson and Scott Hellroth of GHFS, along with Phil Marshall of School of the Sword, Tim Gallagher, and all the others who helped keep the event on track. Likewise, thanks to the referees, who helped manage another type of chaos (namely, the fighting in the ring) - Mikael Widegren and Martin Wallgren in particular.
The quality of the fighting in the tournaments is dramatically increasing, as we accumulate a larger and larger community of experienced competitors. For those of us who believe that tournaments offer one of the best paths to viable, effective application of historical techniques, it is gratifying to see the level of fencing skill steadily rising as each year passes. For the first time this year, I see fencers who are relative unknowns pulling off impressive single-time actions such as Absetzen and Winden with the longsword. I watched as one competitor in Ring 1 (nameless to me) pulled off three Absetzen in a row against an opponent who repeatedly attacked him with a right Oberhau. Of those, two parried the blow and connected with the point; the other parried the blow, but missed the target. And he was not alone; I have already seen Facebook posts featuring still photos of similar actions by several other fencers. Pretty impressive stuff.
I have posted elsewhere about the amazing performances by Krisztina Nagy, Kristine Konsmo, and Nicole Smith. But other women, such as Anna Stepien of Poland and Kit Smith of the UK, also impressed me with their fighting skills. Among the men, I was particularly impressed by the fencing of Carl Ryrberg of Sweden, Rory Van Noort of the Netherlands, Bert Gevaert of Belgium (who placed 2nd in the Open Longsword tournament), and Jan Chodkiewicz of Poland (who won 1st place in the Open Longsword Tournament).
The finals in all the weapons were exciting, impressive fights. One of the best was the bout for 3rd place in sabre, which was an amazing display of fencing by Ilkka Hartikainen of Finland and Jake Norwood of the USA. It was a pretty even fight at first, until Jake found a hole in Ilkka's defence and began landing blows on Ilkka's inside lowline. Ilkka tried hard to reverse this, and landed a big, dramatic thrust on Jake that drew cheers from the audience. Jake won that hotly contested fight, which featured a dramatic, bloody cut (from an exposed metal edge inside the fencing mask) to Ilkka's scalp. I have described the Nagy-Smith and Konsmo-Sannermalm fights elsewhere, but they were equally impressive in their own right.
But the Open Longsword competition is generally the centerpiece of modern HEMA tournaments, and the final bouts of this year's Open Longsword did not disappoint. The fight for third place between Axel Pettersson and Carl Ryrberg was an incredible display, with sparks literally flying from the blades - a by-product of the particular steel used in Ensifer longswords. Axel is a seasoned, highly aggressive fighter, perhaps the best all-around fighter in HEMA today. Carl Ryrberg is unknown outside of Sweden, but is an impressive fighter who dominated the pool fencing earlier in the tournament. The fight started off with an exciting back-and-forth, with each fighter gaining the initiative at different times. Eventually, however, Axel found a hole in Carl's defences, and hit him with a series of high-low feints. What was truly impressive was the text-book way that Axel parried Carl's after-blows, even after striking a deep target like the leg or side. Axel won the fight, but Carl Ryrberg earned his stripes on Saturday night.
The final event of the evening was the bout for 1st place in the Open Longsword, between Jan Chodkiewicz of Poland and Bert Gevaert of Belgium. It was pretty well understood that Jan would make it into the finals, given his track record of victories in recent Polish tournaments. Bert, on the other hand, was a real surprise. Relatively unknown outside of Belgium, he recently impressed a lot of people here by winning 25 straight fights in the Belgian-style longsword tournament in Bruges, winning the title of Koning (King) of the Guild of St. Michael. The fight for 1st place ended up being extremely exciting, with Bert initially surprising Jan with his aggressiveness, and repeatedly driving him out of the ring. In an early grapple, Bert even managed to take Jan to the ground and apply a chokehold, pinning him to the ground. The fight at this stage was fairly even, with points going back and forth to both sides. In the middle of the fight, there was another dramatic grappling sequence, where Bert managed to get behind Jan and pin his arms to his sides. Jan managed to strike over his own shoulder with his back edge, striking Bert twice in the head. (Now that's a move I've never seen before!) Immediately after, he managed to pull off a hip throw, throwing Bert to the ground. At that point, Jan apparently made the wise decision to change tactics in light of Bert's close-in skills. It was an excellent decision, since Jan then managed to stay at a much longer range, picking Bert off with a series of well-timed counterattacks to the arms as Bert tried to close distance. Ultimately, this broke the stalemate and won Jan Chodkiewicz the fight. All in all, an excellent fight. Nice to see someone other than a Swede win the longsword event at Swordfish, something which no-one has managed to pull off since Scott Brown won it in 2008.
Overall, this was a fantastic event, and the best tournament I've seen so far.
- Matt Galas / Mons, Belgium