“For years, Ben had walked toward him in dreams and sudden thoughts. If he could, Ben would have told him about the soft places a boy reserves for his first coach, his unruined father who enters the grassless practice fields of boyhood like a priest at the end of a life. Coach Murphy was gentle.”

“What kind of world is it, Ben thought, that lets its coaches die without his boys around him, buying him Cokes, calling him by his first name, and rubbing his shoulder with Atomic Balm? He died without a face in a room I never saw without my kisses in the stained gauze or without my prayers entering the center of his pain. But worst of all, O God, you let him die, let Coach Murphy die, let Dave die, without my thanks, my thanks, my thanks.” (Pat Conroy, The Great Santini, 1976)

It’s curious. I had predicted this moment. No, I hadn’t. I had rehearsed this moment. As Francisco messaged me on October 4, saying that Master, his father, coach Angelo Pio Buonafina had passed, I was extremely sad. I cried for a long time, and hours later, my glasses were splashed with the salt of dried tears. Did I dream about this moment? I didn't know. I contacted my siblings to share the news. I'd have to call mom. Master and mom were the same age (a few months apart) as Francisco and Lena, my big sister, are also contemporaries. Master and mom were born in 1925 and 1926, respectively, and the big siblings in 1953.

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That’s when I realized that I have been rehearsing this moment since mom had pneumonia. Mom and dad are mortal, I realized. One day they will be gone, it followed.

That can't be right. Death is a loss, and loss is the subtraction of something, the inevitable outward travel of something one owns, I thought. Why am I not feeling that anything is flowing in that direction? Because it isn’t.

I looked at myself in the mirror, and I had this epiphany: I have been slowly transforming into them. So slowly that the change is imperceptible. It is manifested in the anagram obsession, the amusement I get from seeing patterns in numbers and words, the game that plays inside my dad’s head and makes him laugh, and now makes me laugh. “Oh, look, your number, 18181, is an anagram”. It’s so out of place in the conversation that everyone ignores what I say. That’s right, like my dad’s anagrams were so often ignored. It is manifested in mom’s neologism compulsion, now mine, that need to fill meaning gaps with invented words. "Poorthingification." It's not victimization or self-victimization. It's the act of talking, writing, or describing the other as a poor thing or empathy-deserving victim. Friends dismiss it as my love for nonsense. However, these are tiny bubbles on the surface of a deep lake where something of monstrous proportion is taking shape at the deepest of depths.

One day, I thought, I will wake up and realize I have become them. They will have become permanently integrated into me, and we will, once again, be one entity.

Certain people don’t die the same death as others. They die to become immortal. They become immortal as we incorporate them at a deeper level, and we become them.

Since I was forcibly plucked out from fencing at 15 years of age, everything about what happened there kept being replayed only in my memory. Little by little, most other people in the script faded away, and at the center of it, only Master remained. Francisco came in and out of focus as the voice of reason.

In the end, there was only Master. His exact words or the conversations we had are blurry, almost silent. They remind me of the dreams where grandma comes and smiles. The dialogue between us is a wordless interchange inside my head.

What I retained, incorporated, and amalgamed into my very soul are abstract notions.

Growth includes an interplay of forces—one of transformation and one of conservation.

Fencing is the only martial art in which the metaphor of overcoming oneself is tangible: Once the mask is put on, opponents look almost identical. It is not hard to see the bout as an attempt to overcome oneself.

The two fencers are dressed in white, and in my days, the mask was also white. The weapon handle may be customized, but otherwise, weapons also look exactly the same. They are standardized.

I learned that when my opponent lent me their body to fight the other me when I managed to abstract their personal identity completely, I had a chance of winning. If I retained their identity, especially if I retained anger or contempt for them, I almost certainly lost.

“Transform” and “conserve” are two expressions lost in polysemy. When used in ideological or political discourse, they serve a contextual purpose and should stay there. Unfortunately, we often fetishize these terms, which become morally-laden. To transform is good and to conserve is bad.

That is not how things work in reality. Transformation and conservation are two sides of the same coin. Nothing can be transformed if something is not conserved. The opposite is equally true.

At each bout, growth can only happen if the two are balanced. An attack or defense can only be transformed into something better if all the learned skills are conserved. Otherwise, it is not an improvement: it's destruction.

I can transform myself, and maybe, if I'm good enough, I can transform the game. I can never transform the other.

It’s a subtle difference when we consider that growth often involves collective transformation. Collective transformation (and conservation) can only happen if we surrender our identity in that, and only that, context. The individual and collective dimensions also exist in dialectic relation and only in that relation.

When a scientist publishes a revolutionary idea, whether a discovery or an invention, he will only impact science and society as a whole when he makes that idea public and surrenders his ownership. Authorship and merit are pleasant individual experiences. Nature and nurture are also at play here since humans are capable of feeling pleasure with “work well done.” That pleasure happens at the individual level. The transformative impact, though, is socially constructed.

“People don’t change” and “people always change” are both true. They are two sides of the same coin.

The fencer is a different player at each bout. Sometimes he transforms into a different fencer within one bout. Sometimes the transformation is the cumulative result of a whole round.

The Master is the ideal type, the perfect mirror. His tunic is different, and he is both right and left-handed. He is super-human in a very Nietzschean sense. Each attack, circle beat, change of engagement, lunge, or feint are repeated again, and again, and again, against the perfect mirror. It is a controlled interaction focused on automation of skill: controlled, incremental learning with an emphasis on conserving the base.

It is only when these skills and knowledge are put to the test during an assault or bout that qualitative transformation can happen.

At the end of each bout, Master would lecture me. Sometimes I dreaded this moment because I saw on his face that he was not happy. I took the longest possible path to get to that seat, sipping a little water on the way and taking my time, hoping that he would be less angry when I got there. It never worked. His anger never lasted long, though. There was always something to learn, and his level of satisfaction had nothing to do with winning or losing the bout. Frequently, he was most critical when I won: “You forced your win," he would say. “The weapon is like a key, and the skilled move is like turning a key into the keyhole.”

Growth must be pruned to follow a positive path.

Only skilled growth matters. Only growth that happens with harmony and fluidity from top to bottom is true growth.

The corollary to this is that improper skill leads to negative development like a deformed fetus into a stillbirth. With enough repetition, anything will be automated, and that includes bad technique.

One can win with bad technique. But does that win matter?

The win, the result of a game, represents the game as much as a mummy represents the richness and complexity of someone who lived 5,000 years ago.

Many years after I had ceased to be a competitive fencer I became a competitive powerlifter. Formally, I was a much better powerlifter than I ever was a fencer. For years I ranked first in my weight class worldwide, in the inter-federation ranking. I also broke several “federation” world records and even an all-time record. Imagine how many medals and trophies I would have collected in 15 years of competitive life. I didn't, though. I threw all my medals, trophies, and memorabilia away. Not only they never mattered to me: they disturbed me.

It took me years to understand why. The awards session at the end of a championship made me uncomfortable and frequently depressed. When I lifted alone in a class, the award made me feel even worse. I felt shame. That medal was the materialization of my complicity with fraud. I knew that it was wrong at several levels to take home a gold medal when competing alone.

I tried not to think about that and instead focus on skill, and my absolute and relative numbers (the lifted weight and the relative strength coefficient). Math is real so that was real.

It was impossible to look away from a fraud conducive culture, though. In Brazil, there was a sanctioning body that held open competitions. Paying members to that federation would, however, be granted a 10% increment in their totals on the results spreadsheet. The president of this organization is a known ex-convict who did time for serious felonies and whose son was killed during a robbery, following the father’s career. This was the same organization whose former director, a corrupt ex-cop, was executed with three shots on the face. Both had an excellent relationship with their City Councils, obtaining government grants and support. Their behavior as sports directors was a seamless extension of their criminal careers. The uncomfortable feeling of complicity with fraud became all too clear to me.

Even in competitive environments where felonies were not being rubbed on my face full-time, what I experienced was a culture of win-at-any-cost and award fetish. In this context, a competitive win is power and a representation, however fake, of achievement.

What is a win, then? A win and its award are a recognition of one’s accomplishment. The accomplishment is the result of growth. In a sense, the winning award is the collective acknowledgment that the achievement happened: "You are not delusional, and you didn't dream it: We all saw it, you did it." That's all. Depending on how much extrinsic motivation there is for the formality itself, the less the content matters.

Those familiar with the academic career know that the Ph.D. title itself, no matter how reputable the sanctioning university is, doesn’t necessarily mean that the research and the researcher are good. I've been in dissertation committees in some of the highest-ranked universities, and I (and all other four members) approved work that shouldn't have reached that level. Yet it did, and nobody has the heart to turn down a student at that point. This is one of those unspoken shameful things that everybody knows, and we pretend they don’t happen. If this happens in academia, imagine in less quality-demanding occupations and less standardized judgment systems.

That doesn't mean we should throw the Ph.D., the Olympic medal, literary awards, or the baby out with the bathwater. A decent hospital will require the doctoral degree and examine the candidate’s CV to hire a physician, but they won’t look at the diploma and tell the guy to put on his scrubs because he has surgery in one hour. The hospital must be sure that the "proof of achievement" corresponds to the necessary skills and proficiency required to operate on a human brain, for example.

The win is a formal, static representation of something that may or may not have happened. It is only that: a representation of the contextual acknowledgment of an observed achievement.

Before applying this approach to my professional life, I had to learn it. I learned it from my parents, who couldn’t care less about my grades in school (my dad didn’t even know which grade I was in), and from Master.

As a coach, Master was obviously interested in wins because he was responsible for the team. And our team usually won. Master was interested in our growth and accomplishments.

When I knew nothing about all the fraudulent actions in powerlifting and sports in general, each time I was called to the podium I looked at Master. The win only meant anything if he smiled. He smiled when he was satisfied with my performance, with how much I applied what he taught me, of which the win was just a consequence.

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After fencing and Master were taken from me, something was missing in everything I did for many years. I now know that I had lost the measuring tape for my progress and growth. I was still too young and lost. Master was not around for me to check if he smiled or not.

As I matured, I acquired an “inner Master” like we have an inner mother and an inner father. I knew what Master would smile at and what he wouldn’t. Eventually, I became the measuring tape for my disciples, and I knew how to behave.

Unfortunately, many, if not most of them, fell prey to the fetishization of medals, trophies, diplomas, and rank.

Goals are hierarchically nested, and there is only one top goal: the purpose.

In the 1970s, we knew little about strength and conditioning for sports performance. We needed to pass a Cooper test to be approved to participate in a national competition. For that reason, we jogged. My relationship with jogging changed in time. When I started fencing I was one of the little kids trained by a female coach. I don't particularly remember her except that she understood the importance of jogging. I came to enjoy jogging as I learned how to establish goals and compete against myself, running a little faster or longer each time.

At that time, when the kids' training ended, I stayed at the gym waiting for the grown-ups and Master to arrive. He only arrived after 5 PM. The thing I wanted the most in life at that point was to be promoted and train with Master.

Eventually, that happened, and I completely lost interest in jogging. It felt like a waste of time. It was stupid, boring, and I cheated: I ran slower, lagged behind, and as soon as nobody was watching, I returned to the gym to play. Our playtime was an infinite number of assaults in which we, "promoted children," were players, judges, and time-keepers. We rehearsed adulthood. That, too, is part of growing.

The top goal was to be a good fencer. A good fencer was one who had mastered good technique, was capable of applying it to real-life bouts, and who had self-control at all times of their lives, from the ability to handle difficulty in training to exerting emotional control in a competition. I had no idea what the purpose was then.

Now I do: the purpose is being as competent, creative, and productive a member of a society as one can be, to contribute to collective growth. From each one according to their ability and to each one according to their need. The purpose is to transcend and to contribute toward the collective good. The purpose is to mirror back Master as Master presented himself.

Mentors are needed for growth, and authority is the trust disciples have for them.

Master was a human being with all the peculiarities, shortcomings, and awesomeness of a human. When he was playing his role as a coach, Master was the teacher, the friend, the authority, and the role model. This is an incredibly high responsibility. Young people looked up to him beyond learning how to fence.

The less mature and the younger we are, the more we depend on mentors to grow. The first and most important mentors we have are our parents. However, at a certain point, everyone must be able to cut the umbilical cord and metaphorically kill one’s parents. In healthy families, that doesn’t bring about any serious concern. It does mean that the child and then the adolescent can be challenging and annoying as they express their quest for autonomy and to construct their identity.

That’s when the mentor, the coach, Master comes in as the “unruined (parent) who enters the grassless practice fields of (childhood) like a priest at the end of a life” (from the Pat Conway quote at the beginning of the text).

I am incredibly privileged to have had Master. With him, I could be the obedient, respectful disciple that takes in every word and action from their mentor. Because of that, all these lessons and guidelines were imprinted on me for life.

That is something not even the most horrendous and psychopathic people I had the misfortune of crossing paths with could take from me. Just like they were deformed for life, because of Master and my parents, I am ethical and centered for life.

Because of Master, I became the master of my fate and the captain of my soul (from “Invictus,” a poem by William Ernest Henley).

Legacy is only transcendence. Legacy is the product of one’s life that becomes irreversibly incorporated into collective life.

I sneer in scorn and contempt whenever I hear or read someone boasting about their legacy. While I know it is not commendable behavior to sneer in scorn and contempt, I’m not a monk, we’re going through particularly dark times, and dark times are when the evil, deformed, narcissistic, and opportunist individuals raise their voices. That is when the sowers of chaos are most active, working on eroding everything valuable in human culture.

The risk is forgetting that legacy cannot be taken or claimed. Legacy happens as one transcends. Transcendence means going beyond oneself.

Master taught fencing out of some universal kind of love. He didn’t know who he would reach, but he was there for those who heard the call. And then the magic happened: I don’t remember how many times he was there on a weekend, he and me alone, working on something I needed to improve.

I developed a mysterious injury on my right hand once, and it was severe enough to make me stop using it for a while – weeks, maybe a month. At first, this was the most terrifying thing I had experienced: would I lose fencing? Realistically, yes. My dominant hand is the right one. Against all odds, master believed in me to the point of training me to win the national championship as a left-handed fencer. He spent hours every day preparing me for that. Eventually, I was cleared to use the right hand again. Again, he was there on weekends helping me catch up.

Was I special to deserve all that attention? Everybody was. Everybody who took his teachings seriously enough was special, unique, and deserving of his infinite ability to love.

His teachings are his legacy and as such, immortal. We are his legacy. Everything I do, the articles and books I write, the students I teach, and even my dubious post-fencing athletic achievements are his legacy. Everything good and selfless that the hundreds of us do every day is his legacy, a result of his selfless ability to shape good human beings.

… and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

The world was a wiser, kinder place with Master in it. Now his body is dead. I guess it is up to me, then, to live up to his legacy. In the end, it is always a very lonely choice. I do believe, though, that it is every disciple’s duty to care for and breathe in life into their Master’s legacy.

Like growth, this too can be perverted. The moment a disciple neglects their duty, when pride and vanity take over, and they seize items from the legacy that belongs to the world, they attack immortality. They become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.

But you see, that’s impossible for me. I have already become Master as I am becoming my mother, my father, and my siblings. The differences are fading away and in the magic mirror, what I see now are the immortal images of these people.