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No sitting on the fence as Barrett gets to the point

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Our fencers have certainly been making their point on the global circuit in recent times, writes Mark Etheridge.
Hard on the heels of Thulani Manzini’s fine top 30 placing at the World Junior Championships came Juliana Barrett’s silver medal at African Championships in Egypt.
An expert in the epee discipline, Barrett was until recently training in Chicago, US where she’s just finished her second year studying Political Science and International Studies at Northwestern University.
Although the Cairo environment was nothing new to Barrett, having been there on two prior occasions, there was still plenty of motivation. ‘African Championships carried a lot of pressure, mostly self-applied, for two reasons,’ she told Road to Rio 2016. ‘The first reason is that last year, I won bronze at the same tournament held in Cape Town so I felt I had to do better than that. But I also knew that if I got too nervous I’d crumble. The second reason is that this tournament is the largest decider for who qualifies for the Olympics via African Zonal qualification!’
Studies played a big role in her tournament preparation, or lack there-of. ‘I wish I could say I went into the tournament as my best fencing self but the two weeks before the tournament was the end of my second year at university. That meant I had to pack up everything, study, write my final papers and take my final exams.’
It also made a big dent in her actual training. ‘I had no one to practice with because we all had our heads buried in our books.’
So next stop was New York where her coach lives. ‘I trained with my fencing coach and took lessons for two days before I left to Cairo. There was no ignoring it, I was rusty even from only two weeks off. So on the plane trip to Cairo, I decided I had two options. I could stress out or I could cut myself some slack. As an athlete, you want to do your best and the sport loses value if you’re not trying your hardest when it counts. But sometimes, especially in a very mental sport like fencing, you need to think differently in order to actually fence your best.’
She decided she had two options, one to go all out to improve on her last result. But that pressure may well have seen her lose both the plot and her focus. So she opted for the second option, admitting she hadn’t had the idea build-up and instead focus on fencing intelligently and confidently to the best of her ability under the circumstances.
And it was music she turned to as an ally. ‘I even had a special song that I listened to on full blast every time I began to think negative and result-oriented thoughts. The song would come on and I would force myself to only listen to that and not my own stressed out thoughts. It worked surprisingly well.’
That song was Magic Man’s Paris and she was soon working her own magic in the competition arena.
‘I just controlled the variables and fenced my best. I also tried to remember to have fun! I was in a nervous but good headspace for most of the competition and it allowed me to make it all the way to the semi-finals against Mokabel from Egypt. She was a good opponent, left-handed like me and very fast. I fenced very strategically against her and did my best to adjust immediately when one of my attacks stopped working. This was the bout that would determine if I had improved.
‘In the first round, pools, I beat Mahdy from Egypt, who had beaten me in the semi-finals last year. So, I knew that I had improved when it came to fencing her specifically. But, I needed to be able to fence anyone to make it to the final. And I think that my confidence and experience improved this year tremendously and put me in place where I could beat Mokabel, and I did!’
The final saw her taking on Tunisia’s Sarra Besbes, currently ranked 14th in the world and training in Paris.
‘She was a formidable opponent, but was not unbeatable. Unfortunately for me, I had focused so hard on fencing well to make it to the final that I didn’t think about what I would do once I actually made it there,’ she admitted.
‘But I’m optimistic. My reaction to receiving silver at African Champs went beyond the feeling of happiness or accomplishment one gets from a great result. It was a feeling of justification in what I do. I felt justified in all the time and energy I’ve put into fencing for the past 10 years because now I can clearly mark my progress. I’m also excited to say that I was named “Most Improved” on my Northwestern University fencing team, which only encourages me more because this means others have noted it too.
‘I find hope in the knowledge that I’m continuing to become a better fencer and that next year, with even more progress, I will qualify for the Olympics.
Her studies will also expose her to the cut-throat world of European fencing this year. ‘I’ve just finished my second year and for the first part of my third year I’ll be studying at University College, London and that will be beneficial for my fencing because I’ll have convenient access to tournaments all over Europe. I’m already planning to go to Commonwealth Games in Scotland and a World Cup event in Milan.’
After Cairo there was little time for reflection as Barrett barrelled right into her next competition the South African senior championships in Bloemfontein.
‘Nationals were a great experience. A lot of my main competitors were not there for various reasons, so it was actually more stressful for me because the path to victory was easier in a sense, but also that made it even more expected for me to win. I just focused and fenced confidently and was able to retain my title, which was great!
‘The real pleasure of the championships was helping my Gauteng epee team win the team competition. Last year, we won and even the girls on my team were shocked. One, Lindokuhle, actually cried tears of joy! She had never got a gold medal! This year, there was no question of not winning! The girls were confident and ready to win. So, I wanted to see what they could do with that confidence on their own, without my help. So, I made myself the reserve (three fencers actually fence, one extra can be swapped in).
‘In the first match, I did not put myself in at all, I just coached them and specifically reminded them to ‘trust themselves and have fun’ and they won with over a 15-point lead. The final match was very similar, and after they received their golds I reminded them that they didn’t need me to do this well. They just needed a game plan and confidence! They completely agreed, so I didn’t feel super-needed but that was kind of the point.’
Precisely… point taken!
Barrett’s most recent venture was World Championships in Russia but any challenge she may have mounted was blunted by the fact that her her bag of equipment, including her epees was lost just before competition.
‘So I spent my warm-up and mental preparation time trying to organise something to fence with. It was really upsetting for me because I felt I had a very good pool, with good fencers, but no one was unbeatable.
‘But without a proper warm-up and full of stress nerves, I fenced horribly. Épée is one of those sports where you can either have a great day or a really bad day.
‘I’m just making sure with all my training that that’s the last bad day for a while as I now train for a World Cup in Legnano, Italy and then the Commonwealth Fencing Championships in Largs, Scotland in November.
‘I’m also excited to be studying abroad in London at University College, London because I’ll have access to good training and these tournaments will be much more accessible.’


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