VERONA, IT – Michela D’Orlando, a name most seasoned HEMA practitioners recognize, has fought over 120 competitive longsword matches in her decorated HEMA career. She is currently ranked 4th in the world for women’s longsword according to hemaratings.com (as of July 26th, 2018) and recently claimed her 21st longsword medal at the Albion Cup in Dorking, UK. She currently trains in Verona, Italy with Ordine delle Lame Scaligere, where she maintains her focus on tournament training. This powerhouse and competition veteran allowed us to pick her brain to find out what it’s like to be one of Europe’s most active female fighters.
Women of HEMA: Thank you for your time, Michela. First of all, congratulations on medal number 21! That is no small feat, how does it feel to have such a mighty hoard of medals?
Michela D’Orlando: Haha thank you, surely there are more decorated fencers. Feels like… 22 would be a better number? I don’t like to dwell on what’s already been accomplished. The medals I think about are always the ones I haven’t gotten yet.
You are a regular name on the rosters of almost every European HEMA tournament. Aside from the frequency and accessibility of tournaments in Europe, why do you compete as often as you do?
I just really like it and having discovered HEMA in my 40s I know it’s now or never so I simply do as much as possible of what I enjoy. Competition also gives me a lot of motivation to train to become a better fencer. Especially when I’m tired or discouraged, having a tournament to look forward to keeps me going, plus I really enjoy the atmosphere and the community. Whenever I get too stressed about competition, I remind myself I’m exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do: sword fighting.
You were previously located in the UK where there were plenty of HEMA events to choose from. Have you found your relocation to Italy has provided more or less access to tournaments?
Just a year ago when I moved to Italy, the UK competitive HEMA scene wasn’t actually so full of events. It’s thanks to the addition of the Wessex League tournaments that it’s now growing leaps and bounds. When I moved to Italy I had no idea I would have found so much HEMA going on in the country! I was pleasantly surprised. I’m told the scene has grown a lot recently and at the moment we have plenty of tournaments throughout the year, many of which are part of a National Championship (CSEN Championship). When I got back to training after injury had kept me away from competition for nine long months, I was really sword hungry and in Italy I found plenty of opportunity to fence in both open and women’s tournaments.
Your instructor, Daniele Adami, is also active in tournaments. How has his training helped you develop as a fighter since you’ve starting training in Italy?
Because I’m a dedicated competitor, it’s paramount to me to have an instructor that understands current HEMA tournaments, how they work and what they involve. Daniele met me and took me on as a student in a very delicate moment, when not only I had moved countries and therefore club and HEMA scene but, most importantly, when I was coming back from injury. He never asked me to change my style from German longsword to Fiore (which is what he teaches in the club) and focused instead on complementing my fencing with a better understanding of distance and footwork, which are certainly among his strengths, and a less impulsive approach. I’m known as an aggressive fencer and while “seizing the Vor” often works for me, to move forward and keep improving I need to be a more complete fencer and with Daniele I know I can work on the refinement I’m after. The fact he competes himself also means he’s often in my corner and having competed alone in the past, I know how precious good coaching is. He’s also skilled in different weapons and thanks to the weekly 1.33 sword & buckler session the club has been enjoying this year, I’ve been competing in this system too. I think about my training with Ordine delle Lame Scaligere as my chance to become a more complete fencer rather than purely a longswordist and I know Daniele has a lot to teach me in this regard.
In your HEMA travels, what observations have you made about different tournament cultures amongst the countries you’ve visited?
What I’m noticing right now is that tournament culture is growing fast even outside of the strongest HEMA scenes, like Scandinavia. Other countries are catching up, following in the footsteps of the leading countries and adding their own touch to things. The UK didn’t have a proper tournament scene until very recently, Ireland too, but things are changing. I’m told that Italy didn’t have many competitions going on either just a few years back, but that’s already changed and it’s getting even bigger. The main differences I’ve noticed at HEMA events across Europe are mostly organizational. In some countries, events are run with professional precision, while in others not so much, even if all that has to happen, happens in the end. The other big difference is in judging styles. The Nordics have their neat distinct style, for example, different from Italy, or the UK, where there’s more of a mix of Scandinavian and Polish style, but tournament culture per se is on the rise across most of the HEMA European scenes.
Everyone who has travelled for a HEMA event knows how unpleasant flights or time changes can impact their tournament experience. Was there ever a time when this was especially frustrating for you?
Every competitor has to deal with travelling but knowing it doesn’t make it easier when it messes with performance. My first gold in a Nordic Historical Fencing League event came after a delayed evening flight and consequent lack of sleep, for example. Even though in the end it all turned out alright, that’s one time I really didn’t manage to be zen about it, feeling unusually stressed and tired and on edge throughout the competition. Going to Albion Cup, my flight to the UK was delayed by 7 hours in total, making it impossible for my instructor and I to reach the venue before 5 am. With barely 2 hours of sleep, we were certainly not the best we could have been, the next day. We felt the lack of proper sleep in tournament but we managed to keep calm and not let that spoil our fun. My advice is to treasure your worst training sessions: pay attention to what you can and can’t do when you fence very tired or anyway not at your best, because that knowledge will come in handy in tournament, helping you managing both expectations and less than ideal energy levels.
As a well seasoned HEMA-traveler (ie: one who travels with swords haha), do you have any wisdom or advice for going abroad to an event?
I pack differently based on whether I have to bring swords with me or not. It’s always easier without, cause you just need a big suitcase for the gear but you don’t need to book sports equipment luggage, which is usually more expensive. If you have to travel with swords, my advice is to use hard cases for skis or snow boards or good dedicated historical fencing bags with at least a hard base, because the last thing you want is to find your tools broken. Pro-tip: once at the event, always put your gear next to the gear of the other fencers in your club or the ones geographically closer to you, so when you’ll pack somebody else’s knee guards or your mask ends up in another bag (it will happen), it’s easier to sort things out if you’re not in different countries or even continents. Tried and tested.
Do you have a favourite event that you return to again and again, or is there a certain country that has irresistible HEMA events?
Swordfish for sure, because it’s big and tough and competitive. I’m very fond of the Nordic scene in general. I took part to three editions (well, two and a half, because injury happened) of The Nordic Historical Fencing League across the Scandinavian countries, the first to include a dedicated women’s longsword category, featuring some of the best fencers in the world. It’s been my main battleground for the first three years of my competitive career and having the chance to regularly fence and hang out with such high level fencers as I could meet there, taught me a lot and helped me to grow as a fencer myself. For this reason, the Nordic scene and many people in it have a special place in my heart.
If you could go to any HEMA event in the world, what would it be and why?
Right now it would be a tournament in Russia, like the one in St. Petersburg, because there are so many good fencers there that we don’t see so often in European events, that I would like to fence and to learn from, like last year’s women’s longsword Swordfish champion, Elena Muzurina, just to name one. I would also love to compete at some major event in the USA, because I know the competitive scene is big there and still relatively unknown to me.
Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions! You have the last word, Michela!
https://ordinaryvisionary.tumblr.com/ is my Tumblr HEMA blog if somebody wants to check it out.