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World Sword Swallowers Day 2013 Is Anything But Pointless

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Nearly 200 sword swallowers all over the world will be participating in World Sword Swallowers Day on Feb. 23, an annual event that honors this ancient sideshow art.
Nearly 200 sword swallowers all over the world will be participating in World Sword Swallowers Day on Feb. 23, an annual event that honors this ancient sideshow art.

Secretaries get honored once a year, as do mothers, fathers and even people who talk like pirates, so why shouldn't sword swallowers?

That's what sword swallower Dan Meyer thinks.

For the last seven years, Meyer, president of the Sword Swallowers Association International has declared the last Saturday of February to be "World Sword Swallowers Day," a 24-hour period when the world's 200 or so sword swallowers sharpen their skills collectively.

This year, World Sword Swallowers Day is on Feb. 23, and blade gobblers will gather at various places around the world, including 18 of the 32 Ripley's Odditoriums, to perform solo swallowing and a simultaneous swallow at 2:23 p.m. local time.

WORLD SWORD SWALLOWERS DAY (Story continues below)

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Sword swallowing dates back to around 4,000 B.C. Practitioners of this ancient sideshow art face death each time they attempt the feat -- and not just because the blade usually comes within one-eighth of an inch of the heart.

"You have to reprogram natural reflexes and retrain your conscious brain to take over," Meyer told The Huffington Post.

It's meant to be entertainment, but Meyer points out that sword swallowers have also made many other important contributions that benefit humanity.

For instance, in 1868, a sword swallower assisted Dr. Adolf Kussmaul in Freiburg, Germany, in developing the first rigid endoscopy, and a sword swallower underwent the first esophageal electrocardiogram in Wales in 1906.

In both cases, the researchers got the credit, but the sword swallowers' names disappeared down the esophagus of time, and Meyer just doesn't think that's right. "Sword swallowers go unrecognized, but their physical and mental abilities to shut off bodily reflexes is very helpful to scientists studying the inner workings of the body," he told HuffPost last year.

To emphasize that point, Meyer scheduled World Sword Swallowers Day in February, which is also National Swallowing Disorders Month.

Making the body able to swallow a sword is not easy. Training the conscious mind to overcome gag reflexes and to move muscles and organs out of the way of the plunging sword can take anywhere from two to 10 years. Once that happens, the sword swallower may feel mastery over his or her own body, but still has to deal with cutting remarks, according to New York-based sword swallower Todd Robbins.

"The great thing about learning how to swallow a sword is that, after you master it, you get the feeling anything is possible," Robbins told The Huffington Post. "On the other hand, people think it's a trick that uses collapsing swords."

Even worse are the innuendo-laden comments suggesting how the swallowers might better use their ability to take long objects into the esophagus -- like this one posted by a HuffPost reader on a recent article about 20-year-old Asia Ray, the youngest female sword swallower in the world: "I'll bet she's extremely popular! I'd buy her dinner."

Interest in sword swallowing has sharpened in recent years, thanks to renewed interest from places like Ripley's Believe It Or Not! and the AMC series, "Freakshow," which has three sword swallowers among its cast.

Ripley's spokesman Tim O'Brien said that despite its long history, the act of sticking a sharp object down one's gullet still remains unbelievable. "[Sword swallowing] is performance art at its finest," he told HuffPost. "There are lots of blockheads [people who hammer nails into their noses] and fire eaters, but not everyone who can do that can swallow a sword."

Mastering the swallowing is just the beginning, according to Meyer. "Just being able to stick a piece of metal down your throat doesn't make you an entertainer able to captivate an audience for 45 minutes to an hour," he said.

Asia Ray, whose attempts to swallow her first sword are depicted on the Feb. 21 episode of "Freakshow," admits she tried to learn as quickly as possible. "I was extremely determined to get it done," she said. "I did it as often as possible."

Part of Asia's training meant sticking coat hangers down her throat, an act that worried her Dad, Todd Ray, who runs the Venice Beach Freakshow, which is also holding a special World Sword Swallowing Day event. "I could hear her gagging in the bathroom," he told HuffPost. "Picture your daughter doing that. It was hard."

Asia said she's still getting used to the brain changes caused by learning to swallow swords. "Right when I was training, I drank a sip of water and freaked out because I was more aware of it going down my throat."

Morgue, another "Freakshow" cast member, said mastering the art gives practitioners mastery over their lives. "It's liberating and confidence boosting," he said.

Morgue's co-star, Brianna Belladonna, agrees that sword swallowing has helped her feel she can do anything.

"It is a process and you have to have discipline to do it, because your brain is screaming against it the whole time," she said. "It taught me not to be over-emotional."

Belladonna has also learned an important lesson about when not to swallow swords. "I don't push myself," she said. "I know too many sword swallowers in the hospital. I'd rather swallow my pride than hurt myself."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that World Sword Swallowers Day is held in February because it is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month. Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month is actually in April and February is National Swallowing Disorders Month.

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