Our Guest Blogger (Interview) this month is Matthew Porter. For those of you who are fencers, you probably know him from his dedicated service fixing fencing equipment at national and international tournaments. For those of you who are not fencers, an armorer is the person who fixes the broken fencing equipment, fine tunes your favorite weapon, and solders together wires that have become inconveniently disconnected. We have even seen Matthew sew up holes in fencing uniforms so they pass inspection. The armorer is the person behind the fencing scenes that may be the most important element in team success!
The interview below provides some insight into the life and times of one of Team USA’s greatest armorers!
Q: Can you give our readers a brief personal history and how you got involved in fencing, were you a fencer, and more specifically, how you got involved in being an armorer for USA Fencing and the various world and Olympic teams you have been the armorer for?
Matthew: No-one starts out trying to be an armorer. I started fencing in college at the University of California Santa Cruz under Maestro Charles Selberg, and fenced for a few years there until I graduated in 1979. After that I competed at a local level in the San Francisco area for about 20 years. I was never very good, won a few local events, but enjoyed it tremendously. During my time in San Francisco I worked a American Fencers Supply, so I became familiar with how fencing equipment worked. I was at that time fencing at the Letterman Fencing club, and one of the other members there was a gentleman named Ed Purdy, who was among the best armorers of the day. When I wasn’t competing I would help Ed at local and regional competitions, and he taught me quite a lot.
In the early 1980’s a couple of NACs and a Nationals came to San Francisco, and as a local volunteer I was exposed to National level armorering. I guess I didn’t embarrass myself as I started to be asked to help at NACs, and in 1989 the World Championship came to Denver, CO. I was excited to be asked to be on the staff of the Equipment Control there.
After working with the legendary Dan Dechaine for some years, he thought I might have the skills and temperament to be a team armorer, and I was asked to come along as Dan’s assistant the the Junior/Cadet World Championship in Valencia, Venezuela, in 1998. Since then I have been armorer for the US team 27 times, including Jr/Cadet World championships, Senior World Championships, Pan Am zonal Championships, Pan Am Games, and 3 Olympic Games.
Q: From being on a total of 4 Olympic teams and a couple dozen various world championships teams (cadet, junior, & senior), we can say that the armorer is one of the most invaluable team members for athlete success. Can you give us an idea of what’s involved in a typical day for a team armorer at one of these big competitions?
Matthew: During an early day of competition there is still equipment check going on. You get up early to meet the other cadre and that morning’s competitors at breakfast and get to the venue, along with the 1 or 2 teams worth of equipment for check that day and all the tools you will need at the venue. At the venue you turn in the equipment for check, and get back to the fencers where they are warming up. Check to see if anyone wants to have any gear checked or tuned before they go on. When several are competing at once, try to be centrally located to be available for any checks, tune-ups, or repairs. As the day goes on, even with everyone staying in, this becomes easier as the event gets smaller. If a second event starts the same day you are divided that much more. As you are required to be there as long as a US fencer is still in the competition you hope for a long day at the venue, as that means US fencers are doing well. After the US fencers are done, you get back to the venue and finish any equipment that has to be turned in the next day, maybe get it from a fencer so that you can check it, fix it if necessary, and organize it with the rest of that squad’s gear. If you can, get a start on checking some of the gear that will need to be turned in two days later. When you finish, and the equipment submission bags are packed and inventoried and your venue tools are ready to go, get some rest. In the early days of a championship 0 to 3 hours of sleep is typical.
Q: After traveling around the world to a variety of events, what country/event has presented you with the biggest challenges in terms of accomplishing your work? Can you elaborate a little on what these challenges were, how you dealt with them, and how impactful they ended up being?
Matthew: Access to the competitors is always key to being able to do an effective job. Countries are restricted in the number of credentials for cadre that they can get, and sometimes USAFencing decides I can do my job from the public/audience part of the venue space. If this is combined with effective security that can actually keep me out, my performance will suffer and the team might suffer. This was the case in Rio at the last Olympic Games. The Team Captain had to carry my tools in as I could not get them past the public security I had to go through. I also had to pretty much sneak through from the public part of the arena past armed security into the restricted areas in back where the athletes were. I was able to do so, and the team ended up not impacted.
Q: What has been your favorite or most memorable event/country that you have been to and why?
Matthew: My first Olympic Games was in Sydney in 2000. At that time there was no live-in USOC Training facility, so all the Cadre were in the Olympic Village. Staying in the Village was amazing, and we were allowed to stay for the entire run of the Games, so after fencing was finished I was in Sydney as a tourist with credentials and staying in the Village. Many other places have been great, Nimes, France, Linz Austria, Lisbon, Portugal, but Sydney stands out.
Q: Since you must deal with many armorers and officials from countries all over the world, do you speak any foreign languages that facilitates communication with them? Do most of them speak English? How else do you communicate with them when you need to?
Matthew: Many speak English. I do not speak any foreign languages, but I speak fencing, and so have many French names and fencing phrases in common with any fencer. For exact rule wordings, I have the English translation of the FIE (International Fencing Federation) rules, and can refer to a specific rule number which anyone can look up in the French version or their own translation.
Q: For anyone who has an interest in being an armorer, what advice can you give them and what is the most important personality characteristic needed to be successful?
Matthew: I have often stressed to other Armorers thinking of trying for the team position that the role you must play in the team is as important as your technical skills. We probably have dozens of Armorers in the U.S. with the technical skills and physical stamina for the position. More important is realizing that you are part of a team with the common goal of allowing our fencers to compete at their best with as few distractions as possible. The Team Manager is dealing with logistics, the Trainer is helping with aches, pains, injuries, the Captain is interacting with the tournament officials, the Armorer is getting gear through control and dealing with repairs and checks, all so the coach and competitor can give the competition their complete attention and best effort.
Q: Anything else you would like to tell our readers?
Matthew: Being the team Armorer is some of the hardest work I have done in my life, draining physically and mentally. And being a part of the US Team has allowed me to not only meet, but to be in a position to help, some of the world’s most amazing athletes. To be sure, one doesn’t unnecessarily disturb someone as they are focusing on an upcoming competition, and putting your all into sport cannot help but to be emotional, nevertheless I have been treated with warmth and appreciation. And I have been privileged to be doing this over a span that has taken USA Fencing from being pretty much a non contender to being one of the big threats in the fencing world. Go Team!