Not being the best sucks. I’d gotten over my competitive bug when I was younger, in the world of unarmed martial arts. Picking up a rapier changed that. The first time I got hit in the face, I realized there was no longer any question of outcome or rules. I got hit in the face. If it was sharp, I was dead. And everyone in the damned room saw it, so you had to deal with it. Pure martial honesty. It was love at first sight to me. No bullshit, no posturing. Everyone’s skill level was put right out there for everyone to see. You called every shot that even remotely touched you, because if you let a blade get that close you were a chump. End of story. You called back every shot that wasn’t pure gold because, damn it, you wanted a chance to do it again, better. I threw myself into it completely, more than any other martial art I had ever studied.

When people started talking me into going to competitions, I was reluctant. But I reasoned that the honesty would make it better than previous experiences. It did, for a while, until I learned how people can cheat the system anyway. It’s become a field where cheaters can actually prosper. But that doesn’t change the fact that some people are pure magic on the tournament field. I’ve had the privilege of fighting the best, and beating them became my goal. My old competitive drive flared up again, and then some.

I wanted to be better than the best fighters. With years of training and my personal advantage of having a very analytical mind, I learned to beat the top guys in tournaments. Occasionally. But winning a bout in a tournament isn’t the same as being better. Everyone has holes. I can exploit those holes better than other people. But the best fighters learn instantly and change up the game. And I have way more holes than they do. And far less ability.

It sucks to admit that. It burns. I will never be as good as the best. They talk about things I just don’t get, they do technical things that I can only imagine. It just rips my guts out to know that I will never have the talent they have, no matter how hard I train. I can push myself and pull a trick out of my hat, but what is that in the end? Okay, maybe it’s more than most people will ever hope to achieve, but still…I aimed for the stars, and found I could only attain orbit.

But I’m in good company. And it’s not a bad thing to be second rate. It’s just hard to accept. Most people who take up competition dream about being the best, and have to deal with the crunch of realizing they aren’t going to make it. It’s that terrible moment of doubt that hits almost all of us, eventually. I think the worst thing you can do is become fatalistic about it. So many people give up immediately. They can’t be the best, so they give up trying to be better. They start to cut themselves down with attempts at humour, and start to poison the atmosphere around them.

Others deny that moment, and subconsciously start the cheat train. They start to ignore hits, and ramp up the power. These are the angry fighters who give off a palpable vibe of entitlement and righteousness. These are the real destroyers, the ones who can burn down an entire system…and will, rather than face their own shortcomings.

Others drop out. Some do it slowly, taking more and more classes off until they just fade away. Some people make a big dramatic show about something or other, and away they go. Of course, some never make it past the first few classes. It’s kind of a given that buff, pretty, naturally athletic students never seem to make it past the first class. When everything comes easy, failure is to be avoided. It’s strange, but I do give extra credit to the ones who get past that.

Despite what people think, there is value in being second-rate. Life isn’t about getting things, and success is just another thing. Even if you aren’t the best, and never will be, you can still be better. It’s just harder, and gets harder the more you learn…but that just increases the value of the experience. At the end of things, that is all there is. Training, and competing even when you won’t win, is about getting into your own head in the best and most honest way you can. It should be a drive for finding yourself living a complete life in the moment. It’s the stoic question…if this is my last moment, am I living it as best as I can?

If my last moment happens to be while I am fencing, then I want that answer to be “yes.” Winning or losing doesn’t matter nearly so much as the awareness I can bring to the moment. And no matter how second rate I am, no one can ever win that feeling away from me.