Fencing

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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Mariel Zagunis qualifies for fifth Olympic fencing team, first as a mom

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Mariel Zagunis, the most decorated U.S. fencer in history, is going to a fifth Olympics at age 35 — and her first since giving birth to daughter Sunday Noelle in October 2017.

Zagunis, who owns four combined individual Olympic and world sabre titles, qualified after a satisfying weekend of competition in Athens, site of her Olympic debut and breakthrough gold medal in 2004.

On Saturday, she won a World Cup event for the first time since Jan. 29, 2016 and since becoming a mom. Zagunis dominated, ceding fewer than 10 touches in all six of her bouts and winning half of them by 15-6 or better.

Then on Sunday, the U.S. clinched qualification for the Olympic sabre team event. That meant three U.S. women were guaranteed individual spots in Tokyo. Zagunis has enough U.S. ranking points to secure one of those spots well before a late April deadline.

Zagunis is in line to become the oldest U.S. Olympic fencer since 1996. The U.S. fencing record of six Olympic appearances is shared by Norman Cohn-Armitage and Jan York-Romary, according to Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Four U.S. fencers previously qualified for the Tokyo Games — Lee KieferEli DershwitzAlexander Massialas and Gerek Meinhardt — with plenty more to come in the next two months.

Zagunis, one of two U.S. fencers to win an Olympic gold medal, was unsure about continuing for another cycle after being eliminated in the round of 16 in Rio. Four months later, she committed to a Tokyo 2020 run.

“I’m not fulfilled,” Zagunis, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Opening Ceremony flag bearer, said in December 2016, according to the Portland Tribune. “That’s part of who I am. I always want to keep going. I always want to do more. It’s a blessing and a curse to feel dissatisfied with not winning all the time.”

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Lee Kiefer, first fencer to qualify for U.S. Olympic team, eyes another first in Tokyo

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If Lee Kiefer is going to become the first U.S. woman to earn an individual foil medal at the Olympics, she’s off to a strong start this year.

Kiefer became the first U.S. fencer to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic team as No. 1 in the national team standings, according to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

Kiefer, 25, will go to her third Olympics. She reached the quarterfinals at London 2012 and the round of 16 at Rio 2016. Since, Kiefer made the quarterfinals of the last two world championships.

She’s been the top U.S. woman in foil for the last decade, a fixture in the top five of the world rankings for the last five years and became the first American to be ranked No. 1 in 2017.

But no U.S. woman has stood on an individual Olympic podium in foil, despite it being the longest-running women’s fencing event at the Games (since 1924). The U.S. earned a team foil silver at Beijing 2008 and made the podium of the last three world championships.

Kiefer married fellow Olympic fencer Gerek Meinhardt last year and is on leave from medical school at the University of Kentucky for the Olympic year. The wedding was at Keeneland, a famous horse-racing track in Lexington.

Other contenders to make the U.S. foil team include Olympic veterans Nicole Ross and Nzingha Prescod.

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