So Pumped for SoCal! An Interview with Rachel Van Dyke to Hype us for the Biggest West Coast HEMA Event

HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF – SoCal Swordfight is just around the corner! From February 15th to 17th, HEMA practitioners can get their fight on in Huntington Beach, California. SoCal has a long HEMA history as being the event on America’s West Coast. This year’s event has seen staggering growth in competitors, classes, and things to do. Women of HEMA spoke with Rachel Van Dyke, of SoCal host club South Coast Swords, to give us some pre-event hype. Rachel is a HEMA multi-medalist and has been a familiar face at SoCal for several years. She is currently the Volunteer Coordinator for SoCal Swordfight but she wears many hats as part of the leadership team that organizes the event. When asked if she was competing despite being tasked with plenty of event duties, she said “I may have the home-field disadvantage, but it wouldn’t feel right for me not to compete. I love it“. The full interview with Rachel follows below!

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Rachel Van Dyke fighting Skye Hilton at SoCal Sowrdfight 2018 Photo: Angel Uribe

Women of HEMA: Thanks for your time Rachel! SoCal Swordfight is one of the largest West Coast HEMA events that one can attend these days. The event looks bigger and better than ever! Can you tell us a little bit about what SoCal is offering this year?
Rachel Van Dyke: This is going to be the largest SoCal to date! In addition to a variety of classes, some tournaments have practically doubled in size from last year. Over one hundred longsword and fifty rapier tournament fighters are registered. Two notable changes this year are the addition of a smallsword tournament and separate rapier tournaments for advanced and open. The rapier fighting at SoCal has always been intense, so I’m looking forward to watching the advanced rapier matches.

You guys were quite ambitious with your instructor list this year, having added a number of impressive names to the roster. For example, attendees can learn from Francesco Loda or Silvia Tomassetti. Which instructor are you most excited for personally?

Having such big international names as Loda and Tomasetti come out to our event is fantastic! The classes at SoCal represent the large scope that is HEMA, as well a few classes from other continents. To be honest, I was most excited to see your class on Ringen am Schwert [referring to blog author, Brittany Reeves]. Coordinating an event and participating in tournaments doesn’t leave much time for classes, but that’s the one I would like to attend this year.

How has SoCal changed since its inception in terms of goals and strategies? What does it offer to the West Coast HEMA Community, and how does it serve the wider community as a whole?

The first SoCal Swordfight was in 2012, and while I wasn’t around until late 2014, I’ve heard the stories and browsed through videos and pictures. Since the beginning, SoCal has provided a place for the local and not-so-local HEMA practitioners to gather for classes and tournament fighting. Since this half of the US doesn’t have the near plethora of events that the East Coast does, SoCal fills a need for community and competition. Many of the same people who attended the first SoCal will be here this year, showing the desire for events like this.

SoCal has grown in the same way HEMA has in that time, in the same way new HEMA clubs do still. Attendees in 2012 were taking classes outside on the grass, the fighting and techniques were not near the caliber of today, and the desire to learn more about HEMA was there. Numbers are definitely a sign of growth, but martial growth is clearly at the forefront. The ruleset is a work in progress each year, as the goal is to get the best martial fighting out of the competitors while limiting possible “gaming” of the rules. We only get one chance a year to test the rule changes on a large scale, so it’s something that is discussed quite a bit beforehand.

SoCal offers the expected tournament selection: tiered longsword, rapier, singlestick, sword & buckler. It also offers cutting, which is clearly gaining popularity in the community. However, cutting at SoCal (and even at South Coast Swords) is a little bit more exciting, isn’t it? Several people who have confirmed their attendance at SoCal were recently featured on the History Channel’s new cutting show ‘Knife or Death’. Do you think the skill level at SoCal this year will exceed that of most cutting tournaments by examining the roster?

Our head instructor at South Coast Swords, RJ McKeehan, is passionate about cutting and I’m sure he’s going to set out some great feats. There are some expected names on the roster, and a few I haven’t seen cut yet. From what I know about these competitors, the Open Cutting finalists will be separated by only a small margin.

You also do cutting as part of your training at South Coast Swords. Will you be competing in the cutting competition at SoCal? What is it like to learn alongside some of the Knife or Death competitors, has their experiences helped you with your own cutting?

Yes, I’ll absolutely be cutting this year. Learning to cut is an integral part of using a weapon that is designed to do so; it’s an important piece of swordfighting. It was fun to watch all of the HEMA competitors on Knife or Death, and I can’t wait to see RJ compete next season. Everyone represented HEMA well and put forth a good effort. From what I hear, it was exhausting, as I’m sure running around a battlefield was as well. In the end, it only served to reinforce what I have learned about cutting mechanics and using the entire body when cutting a large target.

As recently as 2018, other West Coast events have attempted to offer ‘Women’s Cutting’ in response to little to no women in competitive cutting, and to try to encourage more women to take up this part of our art. SoCal doesn’t offer a separate division in cutting as it does longsword, yet it has managed to have at least 7 women already registered for cutting out of 28 competitors. What are your thoughts on a quarter of SoCal’s cutting roster being fleshed out by women? When did you compete in your first cutting competition?

When it comes to cutting, everyone’s attacking the same target and there isn’t a major size advantage if the technique and form are there. While the Women’s Cutting at CombatCon [2017] was my first cutting competition, I don’t think a separate women’s category is needed. I believe what helps get women involved is representation coupled with an entry-level tournament; that’s why we have more women signed up this year. I remember the first cutting competition I watched and thinking it looked difficult, then by the next year the feats were even more complicated. I couldn’t imagine keeping up with the top cutters, but a beginner’s tournament sounded like something attainable, something to work for.

SoCal is also offering a Smallsword tournament for the first time. The weapon has a very small, yet dedicated following on the West Coast. What was the motivation for adding this tournament? Do you train smallsword as well? 

Almost every year, we have an “experimental” tournament. One time it was spear and rotella; the next it was messer. This year, Myles Cupp has worked out the smallsword ruleset based on a historical ruleset. We have several people travelling from the Midwest US who are excited for the smallsword tournament. I haven’t trained in smallsword, although several South Coast members recently bought weapons and have been training a bit. To anyone who has entered, I highly suggest going to the two smallsword classes taught by Joshua Gilbrech and Cody Flanigan, both on Saturday.

The women’s longsword tournament has also gained in popularity in the sense that this may be the largest women’s tournament in SoCal’s history. It has attracted some big name women to fight as well, including Sarah Potratz, Jane Johnston, and this year’s Krump Pow gold medalist: Nicole Green. Rachel, you’ve fought several times at SoCal as well as medalled there. What are your thoughts on the competition this year? How have you prepared for competing in the women’s longsword tournament?

It puts a big smile on my face to know that not only have we doubled the number of women from last year, but there are quite a few names on the list who I haven’t fought yet. As far as I’m concerned, anyone on that list could make it to elims, and then who knows. I’ve been focusing on my mental game lately, trying to stay alert while tired and under pressure.

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Rachel at SoCal 2018. Photo: Angel Uribe

SoCal boasts “sun, surf, and swords”. The sun and the swords are pretty abundant at SoCal Swordfight, but where does the surfing happen? Inquiring minds need to know.

The event is held in Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City, USA! The ocean isn’t too far off for those who want to take some extra time. I’ve seen proof of a beach visit with swords from an old SoCal, but I’m told that was before we moved to a 3-day event. Weather permitting, I’m up for the beach on the day after finals; the water is cold though, fair warning!

Thank you so much for your time, Rachel! We’re looking forward to seeing you at SoCal Swordfight this month. Good luck in your tournaments! You have the last words!

Thank you for featuring SoCal Swordfight! It has been an honor to help this event flourish over the last few years. If the readers want to learn more about SoCal Swordfight, go to our website ( and check us out on Facebook for how to watch the live finals on Sunday, February 17th!  (



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