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Foiling Expectations: U.S. Fencers Go For Gold

Posted: Jul 17, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- A bourgeoning group of young Asian American fencers is looking to usurp the sport’s Eurocentric stereotypes. At the forefront is the Massialas Foundation at Halberstadt, located in San Francisco’s Mission District. With three fencers currently ranked in the top 25 in the world, the M-Team has experienced an unprecedented degree of international success. Chief among them is Gerek Meinhardt, captain of this year’s Olympic foil team.

The most striking part of Gerek Meinhardt’s fencing is not his blade-work. Nor is it his sportsmanship—though these features, laden with fencing’s more aristocratic roots, are certainly in attendance.

In reality, Meinhardt, who is Chinese American and a San Francisco native, wields his foil at speeds too fast to see. And in reality, fencers today are prone to egregious roars of victory at the end of every bout—a far-cry from the dignified salutes (though these, too, still have a place) long associated with the sport.

    Photo: Nicole Jomantas, US Fencing

Indeed, fencing today bears little resemblance to its eponymous blood duels. Competitors fence atop a strip—14 meters of conductive metal—wearing masks that flash red or green when a point is registered. In light of these transformations, Meinhardt’s introduction to the sport seems appropriately mundane.

A Prodigy

“I actually used to take piano lessons from Vivian Massialas, my fencing coach’s wife, before I started fencing. Greg, my coach, was starting up the Massialas Foundation, so my parents signed me up, and I stuck with the sport because I instantly loved it.”

Since beginning fencing at the age of 9, Meinhardt has garnered accolades at both the national and international levels. Greg Massialas, his coach, maintains it is Meinhardt’ natural ability that has allowed him to succeed.

“His talents are that he’s very athletically fit, very intelligent, creative; he has good technique and he’s able to figure out the puzzle of your opponent which is very important.”

In 2007, Meinhardt became the youngest national champion in US history. Then, in 2008, he one-upped himself and became the youngest U.S. foilist to ever compete in the Olympic Games.

Now, Meinhardt is returning to the Olympic Games as a 21 year-old, along with fellow M-Team fencers Alexander Massialas and Doris Willette. Together, they represent the new generation of U.S. fencers—young, international (all three are Asian-American), and talented.

Outside the Box

Fencing is a growing sport. Meinhardt insists this is most apparent in the contrast between 2008 and 2012’s Olympic Games: “Although I received a significant amount of media attention in 2008 due to my Chinese American connection to the Olympics, there is a greater amount of media on all the fencing athletes this time around. I believe that some of the growth in media surrounding fencing also has to do with the rising strength of the United States at the World level.”

Meanwhile, American fencers are looking to debunk fencing’s Euro-centric image, a view Meinhardt calls “outdated”. But their ambition seems personal rather than national, grounded in a desire to share and continue the sport they love. If Italy, the reigning foil champ, is supplanted any time soon, these 20-something Americans want to be the ones to do it.

Gerek acknowledges the irony of fencing in the modern-day, the fact that images of knights, chivalry—decidedly un-American phenomena—are precisely what draw people to the sport in the first place.

“We all grow up watching swashbuckling movies and reading tales of knights—how could the sport of fencing not be appealing to the majority of people?”

For now, when faced with the upraised arm, the twirling finger—that mock en garde stance inevitably struck at the mention of fencing—he is content to merely laugh, shrug his shoulders, and maybe say: Yah, I know. It’s pretty weird.

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