Iman Blow
Photos via Christine Schozer

Iman Blow faces fear in Olympic fencing pursuit

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By Christine Schozer, special to NBCSports.com

NEW YORK — En garde. Step, recover, step – retreat. En garde. Step, recover, step – retreat.

As the end of June nears in midtown Manhattan, young fencers line up against the acclaimed Fencers Club’s white walls garnished with posters of Olympians.

Standing alert in the center is a 21-year-old woman adorned in Columbia University’s powder blue. She is more attentive than the rest, her positioning more complete. Her presence is large and dominant.

She wants you to know her name – Iman Blow.

As the group practices on the silver grated strips that cover the expansive room, Blow sets herself apart. She asks questions. She is focused. Her hands and foil weapon are in position at all times.

In the next year, Blow hopes to defend her NCAA title and qualify for her first senior world championships. In 2020, the Tokyo Games.

At the same time, Blow is taking a full senior course load, majoring in neuroscience and behaviors at Columbia. In a sport historically as white as its uniforms, Blow, who is African-American, seeks to inspire and empower others through her social media platforms using the hashtags #Blackexcellence, #Blackgirlmagic and #AspireToInspire.

Born to Louisiana natives Charles Blow and Angela Long in 1997, Blow calls Park Slope, Brooklyn her home.

Charles Blow, a New York Times op-ed columnist, and Long, a jewelry store owner, introduced Iman to fencing when they discovered the Peter Westbrook Foundation (PWF), a not-for-profit organization that uses the sport of fencing to enrich the lives of young people from underserved communities in the New York metropolitan area.

“It used to be…where you had an African-American kid join and standing in a room full of all white folks dressed in white and they’re like, ‘Well, is this a good place for me?’ The foundation really…makes it a little bit more comfortable,” said Buckie Leach, an Olympic and National team coach.

The PWF helped transform the sport in the U.S. over the last 26 years, making it more visible to the black community. The program sent black members to each Summer Olympics since 2000, most recently Daryl Homer, who earned a silver medal in Rio.

The demographic has expanded, and the foundation is now a gateway for many young kids of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

When Iman arrived at her first class, the 9-year-old was unprepared. She wore wedged boots with khaki fur instead of sneakers.

She recalled when the founder, Westbrook, a six-time Olympian and first African-American Olympic fencing medalist, announced to the room that foundation member, Nzingha Prescod, won a cadet world championship at age 13.

“Wow, that’s crazy,” Blow remembered thinking. “When you see someone like you has gone there, it’s like a light at the end of the tunnel, I know there is destination. Someone has done it.”

Yet within a month, Blow was ready to quit. Her father insisted she stick with it. “Fencing can take you places,” he told her.

Iman Blow

Charles Blow was right.

Westbrook saw the same potential. “When I got selected by Peter Westbrook to his program, he told me, ‘You’re gonna be an Olympian one day,’” said Blow.

Charles Blow, who writes on issues of race and social justice, also taught Iman to appreciate how her ancestors never could have imagined the places she has traveled, especially for fencing. He reminds Iman that they made her trajectory possible.

Blow embraced her trailblazer role in a predominately white and Asian sport. She purposely styled her hair on top of her head for a photo shoot to emphasize her natural curl, a look she only recently felt empowered to flaunt.

Six years after taking up the sport, she began training under Leach, who has coached for 40 years.

Blow’s young fencing career was highlighted by an age-group title at the 2012 U.S. Championships and a 2013 Junior Olympic crown while wearing sparkly makeup she calls “glow.”

In 2014, Blow qualified for cadet worlds, her first national team. She struggled mentally at major competitions — anxiety and panic attacks.

At the 2015 World Junior Championships, she experienced symptoms of ulcerative colitis and panicked. She was hyperventilating and unable to breathe. Off the strip, a nearby coach tried to help manage her attack. She recovered and finished 14th.

She continued to compete internationally after enrolling at Columbia University in the fall of 2015, with modest success. At the 2016 World Juniors, Blow experienced another anxiety attack, but this time at breakfast.

The schedule was accelerated, and her morning routine rushed. She dropped a croissant while hurrying to warm-ups. Everything blew up. She was short of breath, emotions were heightened and tears swelled. She headed to the bathroom.

“She has a few moments where she just gets a little over excited,” Leach said. “It’s always going to be a bit of challenge.”

She again lost in the round of 16.

Another setback surfaced before her sophomore year when Leach told Blow that after 17 years at the Fencers Club, he was leaving to coach at Notre Dame, Columbia’s rival.

Losing a coach in any sport is difficult, but in fencing, the athlete-coach relationship is different, Leach said. A fencing coach is constantly engaging with the athletes in one-on-one bouts.

Blow felt frustrated and abandoned.

“No matter what, at a certain point during an athlete’s career, they need to learn to be self-motivated,” Leach said. “Whether it happens in this case because I left, or even if I had stayed, Iman would have had to make that mental transition to get to the next level.”

Blow at first relied on a friend, Ahknaten Spencer-El, a Columbia coach and PWF mentor.

Iman Blow

In February 2017, Blow returned to the Fencers Club and began training with two new coaches, Sean McClain and Alex Martin. McClain, Leach’s former student, has been coaching for 15 years, while Martin is a 10-year veteran.

McClain calls Blow “the big bad wolf” because her presence on the strip is domineering, fierce and aggressive.

“I’ll apologize [during practice] and Sean will say, ‘the big bad wolf doesn’t apologize,’” Blow said.

She surprised herself in competition, placing sixth at NCAAs as a sophomore ahead of junior worlds.

“The entire season I had been scared to lose and I just said to myself, screw it, I’m over it,” Blow said. “I’m done. I’m tired of it. If I’m gonna lose, screw it, I’m gonna lose. I might as well try to fence my best.”

She did, earning bronze, the biggest result of her junior career.

Blow then transitioned to the senior international level last season, while captaining Columbia’s team collegiately.

She reached the NCAA Championships final, falling behind 10-9, a situation that a few years earlier would have been challenging.

Blow instead focused and recorded six of the last nine touches to win. Her scream echoed throughout the room.

“I was in such a trance, and I took my mask off and my body was expelling this joy,” she said. “I had all the doubts. And it was great for me because it was like I conquered those fears and doubts to make that medal.”

In 2008, Blow’s mom encouraged her to watch the Olympic fencing competition. Erinn Smart, a PWF member, earned silver in the team event, becoming the first African-American woman to make an Olympic fencing podium.

Blow turned to her mother and said, “OK, OK, I’ll go to the Olympics.”

That could happen in 2020.

In late July, Blow flew to China for the senior worlds as an alternate for the first U.S. women’s foil team to earn a global title. All four members of the team were at least three years older than Blow.

Blow is studying which tournaments she must enter to accumulate enough points to qualify for the Tokyo Games in two years.

Two-time Olympian Lee Kiefer, who is ranked third in the world, is a favorite, but about fewer than ten others are in contention for the other three spots.

“I am working to see myself as an Olympian,” Blow said.

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J’den Cox repeats as world wrestling champion; Kyle Snyder stunned

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If he wasn’t crowned already, it’s clear U.S. wrestling has a new king.

On a day when Rio Olympic champion Kyle Snyder was upset and London Olympic champ Jordan Burroughs rallied for another bronze medal, J’den Cox repeated as world champion in Kazakhstan.

Cox, the Rio Olympic 86kg bronze medalist, completed a perfect run through the 92kg division — not giving up a point in four matches — by dominating Iranian Alireza Karimi 4-0 in the final. He became the second U.S. man to win an Olympic or world title without surrendering a point in more than 30 years (joining Kyle Dake from last year).

“I don’t know why, but it feels like a ton better [than 2018],” said Cox, whose tattoos include one that reads in Latin, “If I cannot move heaven, I will raise hell.” “I made more sacrifices … I wanted to do it better.”

Earlier Saturday, Snyder was shocked by Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov 5-2 in the 97kg semifinals, denying a third straight world final between Snyder and Russian Tank Abdulrashid Sadulayev. Sharifov, the 2012 Olympic 84kg champ, clinched his first world medal in eight years.

Snyder, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion at age 20, failed to make an Olympic or world final for the first time in his career. He will wrestle for bronze on Sunday, while Sharifov meets Sadulayev for gold.

Burroughs earned his seventh straight world championships medal and second straight bronze. Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic 74kg champion, rebounded from losing to Russian Zaurbeck Sidakov on Friday with a 10-0 technical fall over Japanese Mao Okui.

Burroughs gave up a lead on Sidakov with 1.3 seconds left in the semifinals, a year after Sidakov overtook him as time expired in the quarterfinals.

“A lot of people in 2016 called me a quitter,” said Burroughs, who tearfully missed the medals in Rio, “and I think that after watching the amount of devastation and heartbreak that I’ve taken over the last two years and still being able to come back and take third place is a testament.”

Burroughs, 31, shares third with Adeline Gray on the U.S. list of career world wrestling championships medals, trailing only Bruce Baumgartner and Kristie Davis, who each earned nine.

Burroughs’ bronze ensured he gets a bye into the 74kg final of the Olympic trials in April. But this will be the first time he goes into an Olympic year as anything other than a reigning world champion.

“At this juncture of my career, I feel I’m running out of time,” said Burroughs, who next year will be older than any previous U.S. Olympic wrestling champion. “That can be really scary.”

Dake marched to Sunday’s final in defense of his 2018 World title at 79kg (a non-Olympic weight) by going 23-4 over three matches. Dake, who at Cornell became the only wrestler to win NCAA titles at four weight classes or without a redshirt, gets Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov in the final, a rematch of the 2018 gold-medal match.

Next year, Dake must move up to 86kg, where Cox will likely reside, or down to 74kg, where Burroughs has won every U.S. Olympic or world trials dating to 2011. There’s also David Taylor to reckon with. Taylor won the 86kg world title last year but missed this season due to injury.

“We’ve got a guy at 79 kilos that’s going to win a world championship tomorrow,” Burroughs said, smiling, of Dake, “I’m hopefully going to be waiting for [Dake at Olympic trials], healthy and prepared.”

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Alexandra Trusova, 15, becomes first woman to land three quadruple jumps

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Alexandra Trusova established herself as the world’s leading female figure skater … in her first senior international competition.

Trusova, the 15-year-old, two-time world junior champion from Russia, became the first woman to land three quadruple jumps in one international competition program, posting the world’s highest free skate and total scores on the early season.

Trusova previously landed three quads in the free skate at the Russian Federation’s test skates in early September.

She opened Saturday’s free skate with a quadruple Lutz, a quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination and another quad toe to run away from Japanese Olympian Kaori Sakamoto by 44.27 points. Video is here.

She won a lower-level event in Slovakia with 238.69 points, which would have beaten Japan’s top skater, Rika Kihira, and Olympic bronze medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva by more than 14 points at an event last week in Canada. However, judging panels can be more or less forgiving from event to event.

Still, Trusova established herself as a force going into next month’s Grand Prix season. She will face Kihira and Medvedeva at Skate Canada the last week of October.

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