Trip Report: Capitol Clash DC HEMA Open

I’m back from my first East Coast swordplay event, and it was awesome!

When I got the invitation to teach at the 2019 DC HEMA Open last summer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that it was a big part of the local tournament scene and that it would be their first year including workshops in the event, and that was pretty much it. My contact with people from the eastern HEMA community was limited to a few friends I’d made at Swordsquatch and those I’d run into on social media (which isn’t really the best representation of any community, especially not one as physically-oriented as martial arts). So I pitched a workshop that I hoped would have pretty broad appeal, booked my flights, and crossed my fingers.

Things started out a little rocky. A polar vortex was affecting the middle of the continent and I’d booked a connecting flight through Toronto. Sometime between the plane landing at 6am to an announcement that it was -20C with 40km/h winds, and my arrival on the far side of US security, my flight to DC had been cancelled. I learned later that the airport was so badly affected by the cold that planes had frozen in their hangars. I was automatically re-booked onto a flight that was due to leave at 9pm, which would have left me with way too little sleep before my early morning class the next day. So I tried my luck with standby and managed to get out of the airport on a 11am flight that actually took off around 2pm. It wasn’t the day of sightseeing in DC that I’d hoped for, but I also dodged a serious bullet. Two other instructors had been booked onto that evening flight as well, and were stranded overnight as it was cancelled. And then the airline lost their luggage.

I made it to my hotel with time to grab dinner and drinks with Lisa Losito and Joe Ceriante (aka the masterminds behind Team Mimosa). These two wonderful humans are easily worth an entire paragraph. Their warmth and hospitality was unwavering and genuine, and I am a committed fan of Team Mimosa after spending a weekend seeing firsthand how much they live their values of bringing fun, inclusion, and community to HEMA. Ever since Lisa found out I would be at the event, she’d been giving me advice on how to navigate the region, offering to lend me gear so that I wouldn’t have to fly with my sword, and tweaking her plans for the day in response to my increasingly frustrated travel updates. Once I arrived, she and Joe took me out for food and glittery, unicorn-themed cocktails, introduced me to a whole host of wonderful people, and generally ensured that I would have had a fantastic time even if the event had been a complete bust.

It wasn’t. Things kicked off with the cutting and rapier tournaments on Friday, and I had a blast watching the competitors and getting a feel for the local rapier scene. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of skill on display. There were a few high-profile international competitors, including gold medalist Francesco Loda, but the majority of the fighters were local. They came from a broad range of technical focuses and backgrounds — from Fabris, to Capoferro, to Meyer — and included members of the SCA and sport fencing communities, in addition to HEMA regulars. The variety meant that all of the fights were dynamic and engaging, as fighters constantly adapted to new challenges rather than facing an army of cookie-cutter products of a single style, and everyone was friendly and welcoming regardless of whether they’d known each other for years or just met that afternoon. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought “God, they look fun. I want to fight them!” after nearly every match in a tournament.

The next day was my workshop, Reading and Deceiving Your Opponent. Everyone who showed up was focused, dedicated, and a ton of fun to work with. Because we were working on observation, communication, and psychology, rather than specific techniques, we ended up with a great mix of fighters and weapons, from rapier to sidesword and longsword. We worked together to build our ability to spot tells and openings in an opponent’s movement; identified our own; and then learned to use communication and an understanding of how the brain processes stimuli to use those apparent weaknesses in order to set up successful feints. It’s a tough thing to pull off on the fly, and I was delighted to see everyone complete a clean, textbook deception at least once over the course of our short practice, and even more delighted when a few students used what they’d learned about themselves in the workshop to improve their fighting in the women’s longsword tournament the next day. I couldn’t have asked for a better group.

I also spent every morning from 7am – 8am (or 4am – 5am, Vancouver time!) leading warmups for the day’s competitors. The idea had initially been for me to run a big group session before the morning tournaments started, but the very early start time combined with a more staggered pacing for the tournaments themselves meant that attendance wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for. I quickly pivoted to offering one-on-one coaching to the students who did show up in the mornings, and had a really rewarding experience getting to know a few fighters better and working with them to address their specific needs. Over three days, I found myself helping with everything from shoulder mobility, to proprioception and balance issues, to psychological preparation for specific competition challenges. It was the kind of work I really love doing, and it made me want to figure out how to integrate more private coaching into my future event appearances.

Sunday was another relatively quiet day for me, with just the morning warmup and some timekeeping during the sword and buckler tournament. This gave me a chance to do some free sparring out on the fancy marble mezzanine of the hotel. I hadn’t fought any of my sparring partners before, and was working with a lower level of armour than they were used to (mask, gorget, and light jacket and gloves). I trusted everyone I fought to spar with control and care for my safety, as I cared for theirs, and was rewarded by fun, clean fights that felt completely controlled. Highlights included getting to fence with Joe for the first time; playing longsword vs rapier with the lovely Harley Jelis; and engaging in the time-honoured tradition of making new friends by stabbing them with Connor Kemp-Cowell. I wound down the evening at the bar with my new friends, and Monday brought a few hours of sightseeing in downtown DC and a blessedly uneventful flight home.

Capitol Clash was an enormously successful first venture into the East Coast’s HEMA community. I was impressed with the depth and breadth of fighting skill on display; with the strong sense of community and camaraderie; and the boundless energy that pushed people through 8-10 hour days with limited breaks and tons of competition. It was a pleasure to meet so many local leaders and instructors, including Capitol Clash organizers Perica Lòpez, David Rowe, and Dagi Johnson; Josh Parise of Broken Plow; Keith Cotter-Reilly of Atlanta Freifechter; David Biggs of the SCA; James Clark of CKDF; Kiana Shurkin of MKDF; and others I’m certainly forgetting in the throes of jetlag. Equally important was connecting with the competitors and students, and watching them kick ass and grow as fighters over the course of these three days. I especially loved watching Isaiah Baden-Payne flourish his way through the eliminations in both longsword and sword and buckler; seeing Monica Gaudio give Francesco Loda a serious run for his money in rapier; and cheering on Robyn Alman and Leanne Gonzalez-Singer as they took the podium in women’s longsword.

Thank you everyone for the warm welcome and the excellent fights. I can’t wait to get another chance to come out and play with you all. Vancouver friends, if you’ve been wondering if getting to compete or train with folks out east is worth the cost of travel, I can unequivocally say that it is.