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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Qualified athletes go into limbo with Tokyo postponement

Mariel Zagunis
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For the 76 U.S. athletes who had already qualified for the 2020 Olympics, a new waiting game has begun, and many of them are talking through their mixed emotions on social media.

Shooter Kayle Browning‘s thoughts played out in real time. She gave a glimpse of her new routine on YouTube (after tending to her dog, who had to go out) but didn’t know whether she would keep her spot on the team. She learned afterwards that USA Shooting intends to keep its qualified athletes on the team despite the postponement.

Fellow shooter Phillip Jungman also went from sadness to relief: “When I saw the news that the Olympics was postponed, my heart dropped a little. A few hours later @usashooting put out an official statement backing all of their athletes that had earned Olympic berths. I just wanted to take this moment to thank them for supporting us all in this time of so much uncertainty.”

LIST: U.S. athletes qualified for 2020 Olympics

Other athletes were relieved that the uncertainty of knowing whether they would have time to train was no longer a problem.

Modern pentathlete Samantha Achterberg: “Lots of mixed emotions, but a sense of relief in some ways.”

Fencer Mariel Zagunis, who has qualified for her fifth Olympics, quipped that she’s throwing herself a “pity party” but was “glad a decision was made sooner rather than later.”

“Disappointed that I won’t be able to go out and fence in the Olympics in 2020, but I’m relieved that the IOC is putting global health first,” said fellow fencer Alexander Massialias.

Several athletes sounded as determined as ever.

“News of the postponement of the Olympic Games means its time to adjust the goggles and refocus,” said triathlete Summer Rappaport.

“Let’s roll,” said sailor Paige Railey. “One more year to become stronger and healthier!”

“I’ve waited my whole life for this moment,” said marathoner Molly Seidel. “To make the @olympics safer for everyone I’m willing to wait a bit longer.”

“If these past years have taught me anything it is that I am capable of going through hell and high water for the sake of achieving the Olympic Dream!” said taekwondo athlete Paige McPherson.

Sailor Charlie Buckingham spared a thought for Olympic organizers:

” I can’t help but think of Japan and what they’ve endured to host the games this summer, only to be faced with the current global situation. To have responded the way they did so quickly is impressive and knowing their culture, next summer’s show will be even better.”

The U.S. softball team is adding one year to a 12-year wait since the sport was last contested at the Olympics in 2008.

“(N)othing has changed as far as the mindset, the work ethic or the goal that we have as a team,” said Valerie Arioto.

Swimmer Ashley Twichell, who had locked down a spot on the open-water team, supported the decision but expressed disappointment and urged “everyone right now to acknowledge whatever feelings they’re having – anxious, sad, confused, lonely, scared, isolated, stressed, frustrated, just to name a few – and know that they are validated.”

But Twichell also drew inspiration looking ahead: “The Olympics can wait, and they’ll continue to be the beacon of hope that they’ve always been, perhaps now more than ever.”

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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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MORE: List of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics