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.

MORE: U.S. volleyball’s ‘Slugger’ goes from coaching to MVP

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Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

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LAS VEGAS — In Las Vegas on Friday, an elegant Nathan Chen performed a romantic short program to Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme,” earning 102.71 points and a 6.14-point lead at Skate America.

When the two-time world champion takes the ice for his free skate on Saturday, he’ll pop and lock to music from the Elton John biopic Rocketman — for the last 30 seconds or so of the program, he’ll be a hip hop dancer on skates.

After choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil presented Chen with the idea, it took him a while, or at least a couple of minutes, to get used to it.

“Originally, she just said Rocketman and I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine,’” Chen said. “Then she threw in the hip hop. I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ She didn’t tell me until I got there and she played the music.”

“I figured it would be fine,” he added. “My issue was telling [coach] Raf [Arutunian]. I didn’t tell him until I got back to California, but when I did tell him he was actually totally on board with it.”

Whatever concerns the coach may have had vanished when Chen showed him the steps, created with Dubreuil’s collaborator Samuel Chouinard.

“First of all, it looks like it’s professionally done and he executes it professionally,” Arutunian said. “I was watching ice dance last year and many of couples (were) doing hip hop dancing, and I think he would be one of the best at it. If you do something, you should do well, and he is doing it so professionally, you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.”

This isn’t exactly Chen’s first try at hip hop. He touched on it last season in his “Land of All” free skate, also created with Dubreuil and Chouinard.

“I was actually pretty cool with it because I worked with Sam last year. We did a tiny bit of hip hop to incorporate (into the program), it wasn’t truly hip hop,” Chen said. “I knew that’s (Sam’s) specialty, that’s what he’s great at, and I figured it would be fine.”

Chouinard, a Montreal-based choreographer and dancer, has created hip hop programs for other skaters, including Canada’s two-time Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Many ice dancers incorporated hip hop into their short dances for the 2016-2017 season. But as Chen notes, trying it in men’s singles competition is a different story.

“I did consider that,” he admitted. “I haven’t seen much of this. I know (U.S. skater) Philip Warren has done something like it this year and other kids have, and of course dancers did it. It wasn’t something that is never done, but rarely do you see it with the top six guys (in the world).”

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

Chen has to be encouraged by the reaction of spectators at his practices here, who screamed and clapped when the skater busted his moves.

“It’s a judged sport and the way the audience reacts to the program has some influence on how the judges interpret your performance,” he said. “I think we don’t want to stick to one demographic in terms of the fan base, the audience. It’s nice to incorporate everything. It’s cool to see all the guys competing have completely different styles, so each program new, unique and fresh.”

Now a sophomore at Yale University, Chen’s balancing act between studies as a Statistics and Data Science major and elite figure skater competitor, is getting a bit trickier.

“Homework is time consuming, each homework assignment takes six to 12 hours to finish and I have a couple per week, so that’s a lot,” he said. “It’s mostly exam times that are really challenging, right now is a little bit easier time for me at school. Obviously it’s going to pick up. It’s tough, but as much as I’m in the situation, I just have to manage as best I can.”

Fortunately, Skate America takes place during an academic break. Japan Open earlier this month was another story; the trip caused him to miss a midterm exam, which he later made up.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Nathan Chen holds commanding lead over Skate America men’s field

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Nathan Chen is on his way to winning his third Skate America title this weekend in Las Vegas to open the 2019-20 Grand Prix season. The two-time world champion hasn’t lost a Grand Prix event since his silver medal at the Grand Prix Final in 2016, and is about to make that list longer.

(In case you were wondering, Todd Eldredge has the most Skate America wins from the ’90s, with five.)

Chen, a sophomore at Yale University, scored 102.71 points in Friday’s short program and was the only man to break the 100-point barrier. Chen opened his short program, set to “La Boheme,” with a quadruple Lutz, followed by a triple Axel and a quad toe-triple toe combination.

Skate America results are here.

“I’m not entirely happy with how the program went, however, since this is the first outing, I’m pretty okay with how things went,” Chen said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I’m looking forward to competing tomorrow and hopefully cleaning up some of the mistakes I made today and keep moving forward.”

Russia’s Dmitry Aliev is in second place heading into Saturday’s free skate, trailing Chen at 96.57 points. His short program also included a quad Lutz and a quad toe. Canada’s Keegan Messing notched a personal best short program score with 96.34 points and is in third place.

2014 Olympian Jason Brown finds himself in fourth place with 83.45 points. Brown popped his triple Axel attempt into a single, which received zero points.

“It was a lapse of focus in the moment,” Brown said of his Axel attempt. “I should not have missed it; I have not missed one all week. I’m very irritated with myself. In the moment, you have to try not to relive it. Whether I was trying to stay relaxed about it or whether I was trying to attack it, I can’t remember. But I remember a moment of something right before [it happened]. I just said, ‘Don’t show emotion, just keep going.’ I think my experience definitely serves me well when it comes to making mistakes and having to pick back up like nothing happened. But that irritation doesn’t go away.”

The third American man in the field, Alex Krasnozhon, is in 10th place with 72.30 points.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, fourth at worlds last year, took a slim lead in the pairs’ short program earlier Friday. They told a 1.48 point lead over Russia’s Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin, who sit in second place.

U.S. reigning national champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are third with 68.20 points. The other two American teams in the field, Haven Denney and Brandon Frasier and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, are fourth and fifth, respectively.

“We’re building toward the world championships, and we’ve been very outspoken about our goal to be in the top five at worlds,” LeDuc said through U.S. Figure Skating. “Salt Lake was the first step, this is another. We’re building, and I think we’re really right on track for what we want. To have a big mistake in the program and still have a 68 is really awesome. We’re in a good place and excited to go into the free skate as well.”

Skate America continues Friday with the rhythm dance and ladies’ short programs, followed by the free skates in all disciplines on Saturday from Las Vegas. All of it can be seen live with the NBC Sports Gold “Figure Skating Pass,” which is offering a free trial for Skate America.

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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