Alexander Massialas left Rio Olympics with two medals, two words he won’t forget

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Fencer Alexander Massialas repeated the word in interviews last year, remembering his immediate reaction after the Rio Olympic individual foil final: Devastation.

Massialas, then ranked No. 1 in the world, had a golden opportunity to become the first U.S. man to win an Olympic fencing title in the modern era of weapons.

After the comeback of his life in the quarterfinals, scoring seven straight touches to avoid elimination, he ran out of magic in the final against Italian Daniele Garrozo.

Garrozo was ranked 11th in the world, had never before earned an individual Olympic or world championships medal and had never beaten Massialas in a regulation bout.

“[Garrozo] was having a day,” said Massialas’ father and coach, Greg, a three-time Olympian (the first being the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games).

The moment from Aug. 7, 2016, that will most stick with Massialas came seconds after Garrozo whipped off his mask and sprinted off the stage in jubliation. Massialas, who had been shielded by a stars-and-stripes facemask, was enveloped by his father just off the strip.

“Though you can’t see it,” Massialas said, “I’m definitely crying.”

It’s OK, his father told him. Greg repeated it: It’s OK.

“Those were two of the most impactful words I’d ever heard,” Massialas said last autumn. “All I needed to hear.”

Growing up, Massialas was inspired by his father’s trophy case. He said he wanted to become not just an Olympian, but an Olympic gold medalist, before he even started fencing. That was early, given Massialas yearned to pick up a weapon around kindergarten. But his dad’s age minimum for any student was 7 years old.

Massialas attended three Games — 1996 (age 2, his dad was a referee), 2004, 2008 — before he made his first team in 2012 as the youngest U.S. male Olympian across all sports in London (18).

In Rio, Massialas was perhaps the best hope to end the U.S. male gold-medal drought in fencing, where the most well-known Americans were women — double Olympic champion Mariel Zagunis and barrier-breaking Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Massialas missed practices leading up to competition in Brazil, though, with a wrist injury. In the quarterfinals, he was trailing Italian Giorgio Avola 14-8, one touch from elimination. Massialas never beat Avola in three previous duels.

Greg watched from the coach’s area. With his son on the brink, he peered at another strip, where another American pupil, Gerek Meinhardt, also trailed in a quarterfinal. Greg decided in that moment to stay with his son.

After the comeback, Greg remembered being in a back room. Across it, Avola sat motionless, still in his fencing gear, until people told him to leave because they were closing.

Hours later, after the final, Massialas was in a similar place in the arena. Greg decided then to share a thought he had right after the defeat.

“You know what, going into this morning, if I told you that you were going to get a silver medal, I would take it,” Greg said. In fencing, every round of a medal event is held on one day. “A silver medal at the Olympic Games is kind of an amazing accomplishment, especially for U.S. fencing.”

Three days later, Massialas returned for the team event. Again, the U.S. was a medal favorite. Again, there was an upset. This time in the semifinals against Russia. Massialas’ turn was up with a 40-39 lead. The first team to 45 wins. He lost six of the next seven touches to Russian Alexey Cheremisinov.

“I was almost certainly more distraught when I lost that match than when I lost the individual,” he said. “We could’ve won the gold had I just fenced a little bit better.”

Massialas would win his last competition of the Games, though. He beat Garozzo 5-1 in the team bronze-medal match, as the U.S. rolled 45-31 over Italy.

“I’m just glad I was able to do it,” he said. “I just wish I had done it three days earlier.”

A third Olympics for Massialas — a fifth for the family, as competitors — could bring another unique experience.

Younger sister Sabrina is likely to qualify for her first Olympics, four years after just missing the U.S. women’s foil team. Sabrina, an NCAA team champion at Notre Dame, since spent seven months on crutches after foot and hip surgeries.

Greg said she’s now ranked fourth in U.S. Olympic qualifying with the process close to completion. Four make the team.

As for Alexander, he has a Stanford mechanical engineering degree ready to put to use. After he completes his Olympic medal collection.

“It feels a little bit more like unfinished business,” said Massialas, who qualified for Tokyo before the coronavirus pandemic, is ranked fifth in the world and won a 2019 World title in the team event. “I’ve proven that I can do amazing things. I can win World Cups and Grand Prix. I can win all kinds of results, but the dream ever since I was a kid, before I even started fencing, was to be an Olympic champion.”

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