When you’re on the strip, it’s like war.
That’s what people who don’t follow fencing usually fail to understand. There are a lot of preconceived notions about the sport, and that’s understandable. But once you look past the prim and proper trimmings, you’ll find as much passion, energy and athleticism at major fencing competitions as you will at any other sporting event. And make no mistake: these guys are tough.
I remember at one competition, there was this guy from Kazakhstan, who was fencing one of my teammates. The winner would go on to fence me in the next round. Now, this guy was just styling on my teammate, showing off after every point and just acting like a jerk. He ended up winning the match, and I’d made up my mind that I was going to show this guy up. If you disrespect my teammate, I’m going to prove a point to you. So at one point during our match, I hit him really hard to score a point, and tried to play it off like it was accidental. But he knew. So this guy loses it, and punches me in the stomach right there on the strip. The referees jumped in at that point like Woah, woah, woah, woah!
Part of the reason I love the sport is that there’s something kind of exhilarating about knowing that the person across from you is trying to destroy you. The matches are only 10 minutes, and every second is pretty tense. Part of my mindset when I fence is pitted in aggression and survival instincts, but another part of me feels this intense focus. When I’m at my best, time slows down during the match. I stay calm and maintain a certain zen that allows me to prioritize information, and really sort through everything that’s going on in front of me. To control that balance between aggression and calm takes a tremendous amount of training, but when it all comes together, man, it’s an adrenaline rush unlike anything else.
By looking at me, it’s clear that I probably don’t fit the mold you might generally associate with a fencer.
I was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and moved to the Bronx when I was five years old. I first discovered the sport when I was reading a children’s dictionary and stumbled across the word. I was only six or seven, but I still remember seeing that tiny image of a man in the en garde position, and running to my mom to tell her I wanted to be a fencer. I think she kind pushed it aside at the time, but a few years later we were watching TV, and a commercial for AT&T that featured two black fencers came on. I pointed it out to my mom, and I think just the visual of seeing these black males fencing was enough to make her think this was something that was attainable. She looked up a fencing foundation in the Yellow Pages, and it progressed from there. A month after taking up the sport at age 11, the club noticed that I was talented and paired me up with Yury Gelman, a four-time Olympic coach. Like that, I became a fencer.
Around the same time I started fencing, I began to attend a private school in Manhattan. For a long time it felt like I was living two different lives. Every school day I’d commute from 213th street in the Bronx, to a school where I was surrounded by some of the wealthiest kids in the city. After school, I’d go to fencing practice, where I’d be surrounded by even wealthier kids. The commute back home was always kind of dose of reality, but my circumstances never defined me as a fencer.
As I kept improving, eventually the sport didn’t just take me to Manhattan – it sent me around the world. At my club, I got the opportunity to watch Olympians train. Seeing how they prepared helped me gain an understanding of what it took to fence at that level. I made my first national team in high school and in 2009, I won a bronze medal at the Junior World Championships in Belfast.
Fencing is a global sport, and for the most part, the styles generally vary by culture. The Koreans are widely respected as the most dominant fencing country. They have their own distinct style, putting most of their focus on their leg strength and footwork. Those guys are training constantly. Then there are a lot of strong European fencing countries — Italy, France and Germany are among the best. And obviously you have Russia, where there’s big, big money to made in the sport.
Then there’s America.
We’re home to some of the best fencers in the world even though the sport is pretty far out of the mainstream. A lot of these guys overseas are living in subsidized housing, training three times a day and have access to state-of-the-art facilities. They have their training pretty much planned out for them, and their only focus is on competing at the highest level. This isn’t a luxury that American fencers enjoy. In this country, fencing is a passion more than a career, so we have to find ways to supports ourselves so that we can compete with the best in the world.
For example, I serve as a consultant for a marketing agency called Anomaly, where I focus on sports-driven insights. The role allows me to focus on my training while also gaining practical experience in a field where I can thrive once this phase of my life comes to a close. It’s not the exactly the same as the intensive training regimen that the Korean professionals have, but for an American athlete in a non-mainstream sport, it’s a great model for how we can thrive.
Interestingly, I think it’s the lunch pail mentality that American fencers possess that makes us special. I never feel discouraged by the fact that the guys I’m facing have every single possible resource at their disposal. Everything I’ve gotten from this sport has come from hard work. That underdog mentality makes winning feel that much better.
Most of the guys I’m fencing are probably 6’1″ or 6’2″, with longer reaches and many more years of experience. But I make up for it with my tactics, agility and tough mindset. I was an Olympian in 2012, and this year I became the first American sabre fencer to medal at the World Championships by earning a silver in Moscow. Other countries might have more resources, but I’m only getting better at fencing because I hold myself to my own standard. Now, I don’t only expect to be competitive. I approach every match with the expectation that I will beat the guy across from me. It’s one thing to say that — plenty of athletes do — but when you truly believe it, the results come.
I’ve found that like a lot of things in life, fencing is best performed with a clear mind. I’ve gotten in the habit of meditating before matches in order to get into the right place mentally. I’ve set it up as part of routine that kind of gets me in the zone. First, I meditate, then I go into foam rolling. I do some stretching and I get into some mobility work, then I do some footwork, and after all that, I fence. This is a sport with so many variables that determine your success, so I’ve found that being in complete control of as many variables as possible before I compete puts me in the best position to win.
But what I’ve accomplished in fencing and what I hope to accomplish in the future all comes back to my mom. She still my biggest fan — the first person to cheer me on after a big victory and lift me up after a devastating defeat. Even as I travel the world, now in pursuit of a gold medal in the 2016 Olympic Games, she reminds me of how far I’ve come.
I might not be as big as my competitors; I might not have as much experience as them. To most people, I probably don’t look like a fencer. But on the strip, none of that matters. It’s two people facing off for survival. That’s fencing.