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Pencil Shavings | Tessa Blair

Photo credit: Bobby Jones

“You must be strong, like bull!” Nickolay yells at me in a strong Russian accent as my pace declines and sweat drips from my face. I don’t know what he wants me to change so I just keep doing what I know: parry, reposte, parry, reposte. He begins rapping on my helmet with his sabre, yelling some obscure metaphor that doesn’t really make sense to me, but I’m sure means something profound. I kind of want to cry, but I mostly want to do better. I straighten up and try something new: parry, wait for another attack, parry, reposte to the other shoulder. Nickolay nods and continues to train with me. His black mask covers his face so I can’t see his expression; but he isn’t yelling, so I know I’m doing something right… or at least not anything wrong.

Nickolay would be an intimidating fencing coach for anyone, let alone an 11-year-old girl who isn’t used to criticism, which is probably why he holds such a dominant spot in my memory.

Prior to becoming a fencer, I hadn’t experienced much criticism. I had been in plays and choirs and done gymnastics and soccer, but they were all things that I either excelled at or was praised just for trying—as you can see by my 20 soccer participation trophies. Fencing was one of the first times I was really pushed beyond where I thought my limits were. It was uncomfortable, but it was rewarding.

And when I think back to why those few years were so impactful to me, it’s because of Nickolay. While I don’t think I would have done well if he had been my only mentor in life, I wouldn’t have been as successful or ambitious without him. Without a mixture of praise and criticism, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or motivation to improve in anything.

Sometimes people need to be told that they’re amazing. Sometimes people need participation trophies, because they deserve them. But sometimes, people also need an intimidating Russian fencer to yell at them to be better. It’s the only way we grow.

Tessa Blair
Tessa Blair

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