I have taken photos of longsword competitions in previous years and enjoyed watching the fitness and skill of the practitioners. This last weekend I took the step of entering into the Swordsquatch Open Steel competition so I could experience the action first hand.While I do not actively practice HEMA, I am a member of the Lonin collective and use their training space to work on my Chinese and Japanese weapons practices. One of the early Lonin members practices another koryu, and he and I engage in free practice to further our own training. The opportunity to spar members of other ryu is rare, and generally discouraged in koryu communities. I am also a practitioner of Chinese swordsmanship, where the idea of sparring is not verboten, and Jiki Shinkage-ryu was known for its aggressive, sparring heavy, approach to mastering the sword. In any case, I have found doing so very useful. We have adopted using some components of HEMA armor for our sparring sessions, as they can stand up to the abuse provided by the Nen-ryu fukuro-shinai (leather wrapped bamboo swords) we use. I have started reading through some of the available manuals on European Longsword available and last fall attended the open mat session at Lonin called "Fight Night", where members of different HEMA groups spar in a collegial manner.
I found the experience exciting and engaging and found it interesting to adapt to the increased distance and speed (the "Feder" is lighter than the weapons I typically use, for safety reasons) found within the Italian and German longsword practices. I enjoyed sparring people I had not met before and trying to adapt to their individual styles without much prior knowledge of what they would be doing.
The way I cut in kenjutsu and Chinese swordsmanship is a bit different than is common in HEMA; with proper body organization it is possible to generate sufficient power with smaller movements than are used in HEMA, but it takes a long time to develop that kind of skill. It is part of what makes those arts so special. So, I did not score well in the matches, but did manage to keep my focus and intensity and looking at the video footage, am generally pleased with how things turned out. I was there to experience freestyle sparring at speed with new opponents, and test my skill. That much I accomplished.
In the spirit of owning it, accepting strengths and limitations, striving to exceed the latter while developing the former, and taking the good with the bad, below are links to my matches:
Some thoughts. If I were to do this more often, I need to learn better the angles of attack at range to be able to protect myself better, given the speed at which the feder (feather) sword can move. I was happy with my ability to close and to uproot opponents backwards to make room to cut; a challenge with the rule set is how small the rings were. Part of how I fight involves closing with an opponent, removing their options by getting them off-balance, and then cutting them. One way to do the latter is to drive them back using body organization and cut. In my matches, I found that driving someone back to do this often took them out of the ring, calling a halt to the action.
I did succeed in executing two throws spontaneously, drawing on my Taijiquan, using an arm entangle and stab from Bagua Jian, and in escaping from an arm grab at close range. So, some of the Chinese Internal Martial Arts skills are coming through for me in free practice. The mat was a bit slippery and I lost my footing once. At least my opponent was moving backward and out of range when that happened, but falling was much less than ideal.
I found the continuous format very intense, as it required a great deal of stamina to stick with the flow of battle while wearing the relatively heavy armor and protective gear. I am glad I have been bicycling up hills recently. The ring, however, was a bit small to maneuver in, and caused many of the engagements to start too close. I would like to be able to do a similar format with more space as often by the time I was able to drive a person back, they were out of the ring.
I think I will make time to attend Fight Night in the future, maintaining an esprit de corps with the other groups at Lonin. The open steel format is different enough from what I am trying to develop in my YCGF and my kenjutsu practice that I am not sure I would optimize for it in my training, and make a point to start entering HEMA tournaments regularly, but they are a great resource that I want to point out exist for testing one's spirit, especially to the koryu community.
I think most koryu practitioners would find doing so useful as a calibration, even if not part of their regular training.