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Complex, Multifaceted, Fragile

Dagmara Wozniak talks to her coach Yury Gelman about different attacking moves | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

By Hristina Tisheva

The space is literally a garage. If it weren’t for the equipment, it would fit just one small car. A basketball player would have to bend to get inside.

There are three lockers on the right, a table on the left, on top of which there are all kinds of supplies like oil, Windex, space heaters, towels. Tires, weights, medicine balls of different sizes, hammers, a garden hose, and two weight machines are all over the garage floor. The actual space in which Dagmara Wozniak can work out is about 11 feet long and 6 feet wide. There is not even a place for the personal trainer to sit down. The temperature inside is the same as the outside – around 32 degrees. “This thing is so cold,” Wozniak says, as she starts her fitness program for the day – swinging a kettlebell 25 times with each hand.

In another exercise, Wozniak has to pull herself straight up, without bending her arms, holding on to two gymnastics rings hanging from the ceiling. She also hits the climbing rope hanging from the ceiling. Her left wrist hurts even more now than before because of the cold. Mark Nagy, her personal trainer, considers whether “to be nice to her” by making her do easier exercises, but she shakes her head signaling, “No.” Next for Wozniak: 50 pushups, 25 situps, 25 burpees (kicking her feet back to a push up position then to squat position and then jumping as high as possible), 50 kettlebell swings, 50 squats, 25 throws with a 20-pound medicine ball, and 50 jumps on the bosu ball. As she struggles to keep her balance, Nagy keeps her focused.

“Don’t look down, think of it like fencing,” he says. “What happens when you look down? It throws your posture off.”

After 20 minutes and 3 seconds, she’s done.

“How do you feel?” he asks smiling.

“Tired,” she says almost whispering as she holds on to the table, sweating.

That is how Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays start for Wozniak: with a rigorous workout program at the improvised gym or, sometimes, at the Retro Fitness center in Rahway, N.J.

About 30 miles north of Rahway, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Daria Schneider, a saber fencer, is early for her 10 a.m. lesson. Immediately after entering the Dodge Physical Fitness Center at Columbia University, she is already warming up at the fencing strip. There’s no one else but her coach Aladar Kogler in the gym.  Today she’s having problems with her attacks.

“It’s slow, it’s not wrong but it’s slow,” Kogler says.

“It feels like I can go faster but I’ll miss because my body is too far away,” she replies and tries again.

“Now it’s a little faster, but not good,” Kogler says. She tries again. And again…for the next 40 minutes. This is how Schneider’s day starts six times a week.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, 60 blocks south of the Columbia campus, near Columbus Circle in New York City, four other saber fencers are starting their day. Tim Morehouse, James Williams, Daryl Homer and Jeff Spear, along with six other fencers, practice at the New York Athletic Club from 9:30 until 11:30. Bags, towels, masks, socks, street shoes, T-shirts lie scattered on the floor. The janitor swabs the floor but the fencers don’t even notice him as they warm up. Nor do they notice the huge flag with the Olympic rings, nor the posters from past Olympic games and national competitions on walls.

Morehouse is checking messages on his phone, Spear is doing footwork on one strip, Williams is jogging on another, and Homer is just putting on the white fencing jacket and the lamé.

They have seven strips to work on at the right side of the gym. There are no coaches, no one-on-one lessons, and no group classes. It’s just them, just fencing. “It’s definitely the most fun practice,” Morehouse says.

“Ready, en garde, fence!” Sounds of blades clashing fill the gym. There are occasional bursts of emotion when Homer wins a point and shouts “Yeah!” or when Spear misses one yelling “Uhhh!” or when Morehouse fences a good bout and celebrates with a passionate “Opa-pa-pa yeah!”

There is one thought behind every shout—the Summer Olympics in London. They are all thinking about it but not discussing it out loud among themselves. “Successful Olympic performance is a complex, multifaceted, fragile and long term process that requires extensive planning and painstaking implementation. It seldom happens by chance and can easily be disrupted by numerous distractions.” This is a quote from a study done by the United States Olympic Committee identifying and examining factors that are perceived to have positively or negatively affected the performance of U.S. Olympic athletes and coaches before and during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

The two women and the four men working out in the tri-state area know the true meaning of these words because the words are with them every day, in every practice and in every bout, and they will be with them on July 27 if they make it to London and march into the Olympic Stadium on opening day with the rest of the U.S. team. That moment will validate the long hours in the gym, the loneliness of being a competitor in an obscure sport and the literal pain that every world-class athlete endures.

***

In this summer’s Olympics, women’s saber is only an individual event. The top 12 in the world automatically qualify but no country can send more than two fencers. The first spot on the American team is already taken by Mariel Zagunis, who is the No. 1 female saber fencer in the world. (Because women’s saber is only an individual event in London, the U.S. ranking does not matter.) The battle for the other available spot is between Wozniak and Schneider. Wozniak went into the winter of 2012 ranked No. 13 in the world and Schneider was No. 18. They had eight points between them and eight World Cup events to compete in before the Games. “Anything can happen,” Wozniak says. “I’m just trying to fence my best at every competition and, hopefully, I will make it [to London].”

It’s a little bit easier for a team to qualify. Men’s saber has a team event, and the U.S. saber team automatically qualifies because it’s No. 1 in the American zone, which includes the U.S., Canada, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The question is, who will make the team. This is where the U.S. ranking matters. The top 3 fencers are automatically in. The fourth fencer on the team, the alternate, is usually the 4th ranked, but the coach can make a case, if he wishes, to choose someone else. As of March 19, 2012, Homer was No. 1, followed by Morehouse, then Williams. Spear was No. 4.

The fencers don’t have illusions that they will become famous or make a lot of money from the sport. Competitions are not televised and athletes rarely receive endorsements. They have to scramble economically, often balancing school and fencing or work and fencing.

A medal at the Olympics is why the elite fencers continue with the sport. A gold medal at a World Championship is second on the list of dream accomplishments. “Other competitions are basically another practice for the Olympics,” says Keeth Smart, an Olympic silver medalist from Beijing in the Men’s saber team event and the only American to gain the sport’s world No. 1 ranking for this weapon.

Three weapons are used in fencing: saber (or sabre), foil and epee. The saber is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword. According to the International Fencing Federation, the target area is the entire body above the waist, but not the hands. The foil was formerly used by nobility to train for duels. It has a flexible, rectangular blade about 35 inches long and it weighs less than a pound. The target is the torso, from shoulders to groin in the front and from shoulder to the waist in the back. The epee, literally meaning “sword” in French, is also a descendant of the dueling sword, but weighs about 27 ounces, has a stiffer and thicker blade, and a larger guard. In epee, the entire body, head-to-toe, is a target area.

Fencing, which used to be called the aristocrats’ sport, has been included in every modern Olympic Games since the first in 1896. In 1904, Albertson Van Zo Post of the New York Fencers Club led the U.S. by winning five Olympic medals including two golds. Almost a century later, in 2003 Sada Jacobson reached the No. 1 spot in Women’s Saber. Currently, Zagunis, who lives and trains in Beaverton, Ore., is No. 1. She won the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games, when Women’s Saber was first introduced in the Olympics. Zagunis won the gold medal four years later in Beijing. She is also the first American female fencer to hold four World Championship titles in one season in 2001. Athens in 2004 was the first Olympics in 100 years at which the United States won a gold medal in fencing, according to the official website of the U.S. Fencing Association. And it was the 20-year anniversary of the last medal (a bronze), which was won in 1984 by Peter Westbrook in Men’s sabre.  The last individual foil medal (bronze) for the United States was won in 1960 by Albert Axelrod. Axelrod is also the only U.S. foil fencer in history to reach a World Championships final in 1958.

Masks and saber blades at Manhattan Fencing Club | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

In terms of talent and level now, “the U.S. is very strong,” Smart says. After the 2004 Games in Athens, where the U.S. Men’s saber team finished in 4th place after losing to Russia 45 – 44, the mindset of the athletes changed. “We are always going to be contenders,” says Smart, who retired after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where he won the silver medal in the team competition.

Despite the success of present-day legends like Zagunis, Smart and Westbrook, fencing is not a popular sport in the U.S. “If I go to Hungary and walk into a restaurant, people would know me,” Smart says. “But when you get off the plane [in the U.S.], you’re just like anyone else getting off that plane.”

Unless fencing becomes a professional sport, it will not be popular, says Westbrook, the only American 6-time Olympian and founder of the Peter Westbrook Foundation, based in New York City. Fencing is regarded as an amateur sport in the U.S. “It really comes down to money and in America, we put money sports first,” Westbrook says. The solution, he says, is to get people and corporations behind the sport, and to organize events and competitions with money as a prize. “Do you know how many people will try and train hard for $100,000?” Westbrook says. Money gravitates to sport and it is money, Westbrook says, that attracts a person to a sport.

Elite athletes receive monthly stipends from the United States Olympic Committee. The amount is $2,000 for fencers ranked 16th or better in the world and $1,000 for fencers in 17th through 30th place. The stipend is only based on the International Fencing Federation rank, not the domestic rank. The amount of the stipend is designed to help fencers financially support themselves while training, said Greg Dilworth, the executive director of the U.S. Fencing Association. “The promise in return is that they will keep a certain schedule, go to events and competitions and keep practicing,” Dilworth said.

Making money is not why fencers stay in the sport, which, Dilworth says, is a $5.3 million a year business in the U.S. Many of the athletes have to find a way, in addition to the stipends, to support themselves while training twice a day for the Olympics. Some, like James Williams, get a part-time job. Others, like Morehouse and Wozniak, try to find sponsors on their own. “I never think of fencing in terms of TV time and money,” Wozniak says. “It is the sport that I like and the sport I have chosen to do and be a professional at and that’s it.”

Morehoue fences Williams while Homer and their coach Gelman observe | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

Morehouse, Williams, Homer and Wozniak have an agreement with their coach, Yury Gelman, and do not pay for the 20-minute one-on-one lessons. Gelman refused to comment about why he doesn’t charge, but the fencers say that when they were struggling financially, he did not make them pay for lessons or practices because they were good and he wanted them to develop their potential. They also don’t pay membership fees to the Manhattan Fencing Club, which they represent and which Gelman owns. They are a rare exception. The usual annual fee to join a fencing club in New York City is close to $1,000. Then, a single session with a coach costs between $40 and $45. It’s $70 for non-members. The prices for group classes vary from $25 for members to $70 for non-members.

As American fencers win more medals at international events, there are definitely more sponsorship opportunities, Dilworth says. “It’s very likely that we’ll be able to make it such that competitors for the U.S. will not need a second job.” The key, Dilworth says, is that unlike in many other countries, the U.S. government does not provide any financial support to the United States Olympic Committee. Russia, for example, gives millions of dollars to its Olympic Committee.

The United States Olympic Committee is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Its spokesman and communications director, Mark Jones, says about 40 percent of the funds come from broadcasting rights. Fencing is televised during the Olympics. “Another 40 percent comes from sponsorship and the other 20 [percent comes] from fundraising and personal donations,” Jones says.

“We are expected to raise our own funds, “ Dilworth says. Recently, funding opportunities have increased because fencing is a growing sport – the U.S. Fencing Association had 9,986 members in 1996. The number of members more than doubled to nearly 23,000 in 2011.

The United States Olympic Committee covers expenses for the Senior (20+ years old) team at the Olympics. It does not pay for Paralympics and for the Junior (under 20) and the Cadet (up to 17-year-old) category, Dilworth says. The direct costs per one fencer at the Games amount to $40,000, excluding the stipends, he says. Adding the costs for support staff like coaches and physical therapists, the expenses increase to almost $70,000. Direct costs include the weapons, shoes, training camps, housing, airfare, meals and reimbursements for fencers’ expenses.

 ***

“Do I have to kill people?” 11-year-old Dagmara Wozniak asked her father when he showed her an ad in a newspaper for a Polish-American fencing club in Avenel, N.J. Because their daughter was very energetic and was always imitating moves from the “The Three Musketeers” movies, her favorite, the Wozniaks thought fencing would be a good sport for her.

“I like it,” Wozniak told them after the first practice. Originally, she started with both epee and saber but eventually her coach at the time told her to stick with saber. She was too aggressive for epee; she was hitting too hard.

Twelve years later, after three gold, three silver, and two bronze medals at the Pan American Games and the World Championships; after a $22,000 overdraft on her parents’ credit card for equipment, practices, plane tickets and hotel fares while away for competitions; and after suffering from tendinitis in her left wrist and left knee, Wozniak still lives in Avenel but travels every weekday to New York City to practice. She changed clubs in 2007 when she was accepted on a full scholarship at St. John’s University with a major in Biology. She transferred to the Fencer’s Club to work with Gelman (also the head coach at St. John’s), until he founded the Manhattan Fencing Club, which is her second home. Half of her day is concentrated around the club as she spends three to five hours there, five and sometimes six days a week, catching some sleep on her 40-minute train ride to Penn Station.

Nothing else matters for the second-ranked female saber fencer in the U.S. and, currently No. 13 in the world, as she steps off the elevator onto the 2nd floor of the building at 225 W. 39th Street. She warms up, listening to David Guetta’s “Titanium” on her iPod, while fencers of all levels are getting ready for the 6:30 p.m. class of 13 people, which she often leads. “It’s not about taking a big step, it’s about being fast,” Wozniak tells them as she shows them how to properly advance (taking a step towards the opponent), lunge (launching towards the opponent by pushing off from the back leg, which generally remains stationary), or retreat (returning to en garde position after lunging). Wozniak usually does the exercises while going around the strips correcting the fencers’ positions, but she doesn’t do it today. Her left wrist, with which she holds the saber, hurts.

Wozniak has tendinitis in that wrist. The microtears in the muscle tissue can’t be seen on X-rays, but they cause a lot of pain. She goes to physical therapy twice a week, and her wrist is taped around the base of the thumb in order to prevent movement that exacerbates the problem and the pain. “Basically she will do taping for the rest of her career but at least pain can be a limited factor,” says Brett Ratner, a physical therapist assistant at Carteret Comprehensive Medical Care in Carteret, N.J, where the owner Dr. Sean Basinger, a long-time family friend, doesn’t charge Wozniak because she’s not insured. The only way for her wrist to heal and get better is through rest, which, Wozniak says, is not an option. “[The pain] won’t go away,” she says. “It won’t get better. I just have to get used to it.”

Wozniak massages her knee after hurting it during practice | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

Since October, Wozniak has been getting used to bursitis, an inflammation of the fluid-filled sac that lies between a tendon and skin, or between a tendon and bone. The middle muscle in her knee is weak, so after she bends her leg, the kneecap doesn’t come back to its right position when she straightens her leg. Ratner says with proper exercises and treatment, they can strengthen the muscle, so Wozniak’s knee can get stronger by June, right before the Olympics, because “it’s a muscle issue, not an overuse issue like her wrist,” he says.

As Wozniak is doing leg squats in order to strengthen her knees, one of the nurses recognizes her. “USA! USA!” the nurse whispers while passing by and raising both arms as people do when they are celebrating victory. Wozniak, who is tired, barely shouts back “Woo-hoo!” and switches to pull her leg against the wall with a stretching rubber rope, tied to her ankle, for resistance.

Before it’s time to leave, a therapist, Michel Mirabueno, massages her lower back, which has been mildly bothering her for the last six months. As they talk about Wozniak’s busy schedule of training, fencing, and helping her parents around the house while they renovate, Mirabueno says, “I’m trying to convince you to cut back on conditioning but I know it’s not going to register.”

“No, it’s not,” Wozniak answers with a smile.

After two and a half hours of exercises, massages, and ultrasound, Wozniak leaves the rehab center, driving home to rest for two hours and to help her father with the bar he’s constructing in the living room. Then it’s time to catch the 4:30 train to the city. “Helping my parents around the house keeps me sane,” she says. Wozniak is not a party girl so helping her parents, who work at Costco (her father is in the maintenance department and her mother works in packaging), and hanging out with her older sister and boyfriend of three years, is how she socializes. That is, when she is not tired or at practice. So, when fencing allows it, she relaxes at home watching The Food Network (cooking is a talent of hers, which she demonstrates especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas when she bakes cookies); painting – her secret talent, demonstrated by the huge drawing above her bed, a self-portrait with a blade; and occasionally going to the movies. The last film she saw was “The Three Musketeers.”

 ***

“No one remembers 2nd place! You want that flight to London?!” shouts Antonio Valverde, Tim Morehouse’s personal trainer, at Peak Performance Fitness. As Morehouse takes a deep breath, trying to rest between sets on the bicep curl machine, he responds:

“Tell me again about the flight.”

Valverde uses this tactic to keep Morehouse motivated. “I often tell him there is someone out there, maybe in Eastern Europe, who is training right now, so Tim has to give his best,” Valverde says. “And he does.”

Morehouse fences James Williams during afternoon practice at Manhattan Fencing Club | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

The 2008 Beijing Olympics silver medalist writes in a memoir due to come out in March about those Games: “And then it was the closing ceremony. I tried to soak in as much Olympic spirit as I could, crossing my fingers that health, motivation, and talent or whatever that is would allow me to return in four years. At the end of the ceremony, Beijing passed the torch to London, and the flame left the stadium on a red, double-decker bus. I wanted to follow the bus right then, to hop on the top deck and ride it to the next Games. I knew what the next four years would look like.”

Morehouse, part of the U.S. Men’s saber greatest triumph, usually goes to the gym at 21st Street and Eighth Avenue on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He and his trainer have been working together for a year, always trying to do exercises, which don’t put pressure on Morehouse’s back, which has been hurting for the past 18 months. “We do other exercises that put pressure on the abs, not on the back,” Valverde says. “We leave that to his [physical therapist].” Today they focus on the upper lat area. “His shoulder is not strong yet and it has to be because that’s what he uses to attack,” Valverde says.

Every couple of weeks, and always before competitions, Morehouse will focus more on physical fitness rather then on fencing. “It’s not smart to fence when tired,” he says. “Then a lot of the fencing is pretty sloppy.” Morehouse, 33, will skip practice but will work on fitness. “I’ve been fencing for 20 years…I want to make sure I work out, work on endurance.”

Ranked No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 28 in the world, Morehouse will retire after the season regardless of whether or not he makes the team. “I’m 33, I want to have a family,” he says. The Games in London could be his third Olympics. He will be the team leader. “He has to be,” Keeth Smart says. “Tim knows what it’s going to feel like. He is the only one, other than [Mariel] Zagunis, who has this much experience.” Morehouse participated in the 2004 Athens Olympics when the men’s saber team finished fourth and in Beijing when the team won the silver medal.

Morehouse, who has a Bachelor’s degree in History from Brandeis University, and a Master’s degree in education from Pace University in New York City, wants to be an ambassador for the sport after retirement. He is forming a non-profit organization that will teach fencing in schools to students from predominantly low-income families, and he is still doing the legal paper work on getting 501(c)(3) status for the foundation. He pays for all expenses from his own pocket but will organize in April another Fencing Masters in New York in order to raise money. (The first Fencing Masters NYC, which he hosted, took place in November 2010.) In April, competitions are over, the results are in, and fencers know who qualifies for London. “No one is going to take care of us,” Morehouse says. “If you don’t make the team, that’s it. There’s no money.” He hopes his non-profit organization will ultimately change that by popularizing the sport.

Morehouse doesn’t have a full-time job. Other than the monthly $1,000 stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee, he earns money from giving motivational speeches and participating in social events like attending a promotional party for TechnoGym’s, the producer of fitness and wellness equipment, a line of home gyms. He speaks at schools and at corporations. He generates media attention through his various personal and fencing blogs. He spoke about his experience in Beijing at Google, Hugo Boss, and General Electric. He was paid $1,000 for a 15-minute speech there.

When it’s time to stop discussing his role of fencing’s envoy, it’s time for a reality check. Morehouse’s herniated disk is injured and he has a plantar fasciitis in his left foot—that is an inflammation of the thick band of tissue —and Morehouse is due at Bodhizone Physical Therapy at 110 E. 23rd St.

“Where does it hurt?” asks Dr. Scott Weiss, a physical therapist and board certified athletic trainer in New York State and owner of the center.

“Hard to identify,” Morehouse answers. “Feels like it’s in different places.”

After 15 minutes of electric stimuli and heat applied to his lower back in order to relax the muscles, Weiss applies pressure as he talks about common friends and acquaintances. Morehouse can’t say much, he’s busy fighting for air.

“Does it hurt?” Weiss asks.

“It’s a good hurt though,” Morehouse responds.

Next, Weiss works on his legs.

“Hold this tight, Tim. Just try to relax,” Weiss tells him as he stretches Morehouse’s legs on all sides and tries to make them really flexible.

“I feel like a pretzel,” Morehouse whispers, squeezing his eyes.

After the session, he normally walks to Manhattan Fencing dragging his Leon Paul stroller with fencing equipment crosstown and up 16 blocks. As he gets off the elevator on the 2nd floor and enters the club, he is welcomed by himself. There is a huge poster of him, Williams, Smart, Jason Roger and their coach, Gelman, proudly wearing the silver medals in Beijing, hanging from the ceiling. “Welcome to Manhattan Fencing!” it says.

Morehouse has earned other people’s admiration too. As he fences Daryl Homer, a younger fencer is standing on the side, looking at them as if he’s thinking: “When will I be this good?”

 ***

Jeff Spear rarely eats out. He usually cooks for himself. “I’m cheap,” he says. But it’s more complicated than that. He says he can’t trust what ingredients have been used for the meal he orders. He has celiac disease: a digestive disorder that affects the small intestine. Basically, the body is attacking itself when gluten is consumed through food. Spear is also allergic to dairy.

Jeff Spear taking a break during a lesson | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

With so many limitations, and after his mother told him she wasn’t cooking for him anymore because he had to learn how to take care of himself, he learned how to cook. “I don’t care too much about what I eat, as long as it’s reasonably nutritious,” he says. And so at his rented apartment on West 111th Street he takes a baking pan, puts some sliced potatoes and green beans in, some olive oil on top, turns the oven on to 350 degrees and waits. “I make stuff as I go along but mostly eat carbs – pasta, potatoes, rice,” Spear says.

During national competitions, he brings his own food. For the North American Cup in Kansas City he brought prepackaged food, Indian fare, corn bread that he made, cereal, and peanut butter. “I let my body go to hell for a few days, Spear says. “And I never eat before a bout.”

Eating at international competitions gets more complicated. “I drink soda when I travel because you know what’s in it,” he says. As for food: “I thought of reaching out to the [Columbia] language department [to] get them to write some business cards with what I can eat,” Spear says. He is used to asking for help from his teammates or from other fencers who speak the local language when they compete in Russia or in other countries.

The social life of the 24-year-old fencer from Albany, N.Y., extends to a dinner with his three roommates every Saturday and occasionally going to a basketball game at Columbia University where he takes private lessons from his fencing coach, Dr. Aladar Kogler, five, and sometimes six, days a week. Spear doesn’t even go to the movies. He has seen most of them on a plane, traveling for a competition.

After a morning practice at the New York Athletic Club, of which he has been a member since the fall of 2008, Spear, ranked 79th in the world, goes straight to Columbia for his lesson from Kogler.

During the 40-minute session, Spear works on trying to hit softer and being more relaxed when executing an attack.

Hitting softer is also more challenging for Spear than it is for other fencers. He has the reputation for being the hardest hitter in saber. His teammates at Columbia often mention him when they discuss each other’s strong and soft spots. Jeff can be dangerous, Daria Schneider says, pointing to her bruised right bicep.

Spear is also known for braking three blades during just one bout at a competition. He now carries four blades with him.  Competitors are actually required to have two. “I’m due to break one soon,” Spear jokes. A week later, he did.

Spear at practice with his coach Aladar Kogler | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

The lesson is over but not the practice. The gym is empty. Only Spear and Schneider stay after their personal lessons with Kogler. They are doing drills talking to each other in fencing jargon.

“Should we do the same as before of half step first?” Schneider asks.

“Half step first in the beginning,” Jeff says.

After an hour of drills, Spear and Schneider lie down on two stretching mats, cooling down, too tired to even talk, with just the noise from the air-conditioning filling up the empty space in the gym.

In the three hours he has until it’s time to go to a Christmas party, Spear has to finish writing an analysis for Kogler of his performance in a tournament in Kansas, has to make peanut-butter cookies for the party, and check a student’s article on a study about mercury. For his part-time job, he works on Mondays from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. at Columbia College’s Core Curriculum office where he deals primarily with students from the Frontier of Science class. Spear checks the students’ papers and he also tutors students. At the end of January he got another part-time job, a job Daria Schneider gave up to go on administrative leave because she travels a lot for world competitions. The job includes taking care of administrative work, coaching the fencing physical education classes, and coaching the college team on Sundays through the Spring semester.

Analyzing his fencing during the competition in Kansas City, where he finished tied for third with James Williams, is a time-consuming task. “God, I didn’t do anything here. Oh, he crosses his feet, I could’ve scored that touch,” he said to himself after replaying a bout on YouTube. “I broke distance too far and gave him too much space to attack me,” he says. He will add this observation to his nearly 4,000-word analysis.

Spear also has to work on his application for the Ph.D. program in Biological Anthropology at New York University. He graduated from Columbia in 2010 with a Bachelor’s degree in evolutionary biology and is applying only to a school in New York because he wants to continue fencing after the Olympics through 2013. “After that, we’ll see,” he says.

He knows, however, what he’ll do if doesn’t go to London. He will take a road trip with a friend, but Spear, who is ranked 79th in the world, won’t watch the Games. He won’t be able to, he says: “Nothing makes me more upset than being eliminated before the competition even started.”

***

“Hi, Jeff! Is there practice today?” Daria Schneider, asks Spear on the phone. She has just returned from Boston after Thanksgiving. Schneider, like Spear, has also been a member of the New York Athletic Club since 2008. Spear is not sure about the practice. She calls the club. It closes at 7 p.m.

She then calls Morehouse to find out whether Manhattan Fencing will be open for practice. He doesn’t answer. Then she texts James Williams asking the same question, and she waits while replying to e-mails about her participation at the upcoming winter camp in Portland, Ore.

Morehouse calls back but seems reluctant to cut his rest time to fence.

“You can work on your footwork while we’re fencing,” Schneider says, trying to persuade him. He still won’t go but at least now she knows the club is open. Practice at Manhattan Fencing at 6 is now on her schedule. “I would have been upset if I didn’t have practice,” she adds.

Actually it would be her second practice of the day. She was already at Empire Fencing United, a predominantly epee club near Penn Station in Manhattan, working with Jed Dupree, a 2004 Olympian from the U.S. Men’s Foil team, who is her personal trainer. She went there straight from the airport.

The only fencer at Empire Fencing, she jogged for a few minutes to warm up. Then the challenging part began. She had to lift a 15-pound kettlebell with one arm, going from standing position to lying down and vice versa. Then she had to stand on one foot, pick up the kettlebell from the ground, and then sit down. “How is this,” she often asks even when she’s not corrected.

On her way home, carrying three bags and a winter jacket, she calls Kogler in an attempt to schedule a lesson the following day. She leaves a voicemail.

Schneider, originally from Brookline, Mass., turned down Harvard University to come to Columbia because of its fencing program. She majored in Russian literature. Until taking a leave of absence in January because she would be traveling for international competitions, she was a part-time assistant coach there. In addition to teaching the Physical Education classes for undergraduates every Monday and Wednesday, she leads the Sunday afternoon practice.

She is first at the Dodge Fitness Center, where the fencing gym is located. It’s cold. She is already in her fencing clothes, when everybody starts walking in. She goes to each one and hands them a fencing diary in which everyone writes down what he or she wants to accomplish during today’s practice. Then, she starts practice. “Everyone, few laps around the gym, stretch, warm up. Then we’re going to do five-touch bouts each.” One fencer walks in late.

“I’m sorry,” the fencer says apologetically.

“Don’t be sorry, be on time,” Schneider replies firmly.

The entire two-and-a-half hour practice consists of 5- and 15-touch bouts. Each fencer must fence the other eight people who showed up for practice. Schneider, who is ranked 17th in the world, loses once. And it is close: 15-13. Even though she fences and is not looking at every fencer individually, she still keeps an eye on how they’re doing. After the practice, she tells a fencer, “You fenced Sammy the worst, I saw.” And then she told her what she did wrong.

Daria Schneider teaching fencing during a gym class at Columbia University | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

After practices during weekdays, Schneider has to work. She shares an office with Michael Aufrichtig, the head men’s and women’s fencing coach. She shares a concern about a freshman on the team, who practices too often. “He really needs to be told to not do anything for 10 days. No fencing, no working out, no nothing. I just responded ‘DO NOT COME TO PRACTICE.’ He’s always on the verge of a lot. If you could just tell him. I know it’s difficult to stop from personal perspective, but…”

“Ok, I’ll talk to him,” Aufrichtig says.

Then Schneider goes back to the scouting reports. Part of her job is to observe high school seniors and juniors at competitions. However, scouts are not allowed to approach fencers directly at events, according to National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. Schneider later reaches out to them, mostly through Facebook and e-mail, and asks them to fill out a form if they’re interested in the university. “They know [scouts] are there. I wear a Columbia shirt, which makes them really nervous and I’m sorry. They’re so cute,” Schneider says.

Schneider, 24, knew she wanted to represent the U.S. when she saw Mia Hamm and the U.S. women’s national soccer team win its first World Cup in 1991. “She was so overwhelmed with joy and I wanted to know how winning championships felt like,” Schneider says.

Before concentrating on fencing at age 10, Schneider played everything from volleyball to soccer. “I do remember having a sense of being an athlete was what I wanted from when I first started playing soccer and it grew as a got older and started playing other sports,” Schneider says.  Her coach, Ariana Klinkoff, made fencing interesting to her and also pushed her to do better. “At that age, I needed someone to push me, otherwise I wouldn’t take many things seriously,” Schneider says.

And fencing has become so serious for her, she plans her Christmas vacation around it.  She spent New Year’s Eve with a friend in Portland, Ore., because the winter training camp started there on Jan. 4 and it ended just before the North American Cup in Portland. She doesn’t have much of a social life. She’s just tired and doesn’t want to go out when friends invite her. They’ve even stopped calling because they just presume I’ll just stay home,” Schneider says.

Yet, she doesn’t see herself doing anything else but fencing. “Maybe at 50 I can go to Law school when I’m physically not able to fence anymore,” she says.

***

Daryl Homer missed his opponent’s first attack and was not able to riposte. As he usually does when not fencing well, he throws his mask, yells at himself and hits the wall with his blade. Gelman, his coach, is the referee for this bout. He tells him to calm down or leave.

“Fine. I don’t want to fence him anyway,” Homer answers, annoyed.

After a few more touches, he leaves insulted. At the door, another coach at the club tells him, “Don’t argue. There’s no point.”

Homer, 21, is the No. 1 saber fencer in the country and is also the highest ranked American in the world at 14th place. Like all fencers, he still needs to work on his technique, but, Gelman says, Homer also needs to work on handling stress. “It’s all psychological with Daryl. When he loses a touch, he’s supposed to take it normally,” Gelman says. “He gets upset too much. It’s not supposed to be like that at practice. He puts himself in a difficult position.”

Daryl Homer perfecting the basics | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

Homer is different during his one-on-one lessons. He and Gelman are alone on a strip, both wearing masks and a glove covering the hand with which they carry the sabers. Surrounded by groups of young fencers practicing, other coaches giving private lessons, and, the never-ending sound of blades clashing, Homer doesn’t seem distracted. Every lesson starts slowly with the basics—perfect en garde position; arm must be straight during an attack, pointing in the right direction. Then Gelman opens up, giving Homer more chances to attack. He identifies the open area for a cut, then attacks. This goes on for a few minutes as the coach slowly speeds up and adds more movement. “Hold your distance,” Gelman shouts. “Step here if I’m here.” Homer apologizes for every mistake he makes while Gelman continues with instructions, his voice fighting the sound of clashing blades.

“Focus! In a situation like this, you have to speed up as much as possible. You corrected yourself but you stopped. Don’t stop,” Gelman tells him. “This is the best distance for this and you should move fast. Bring a step back to fencing position because it brings you very good control.”

Homer started fencing when he was 11, but the sport was on his mind from long before when he read the word “fencing” in a dictionary. At 10, he saw a commercial on TV and thought, “it looked cool.” He then badgered his mother to bring him to practice. She took him to Peter Westbrook’s Foundation on West 29th Street.  His mother could not afford lessons but Homer was identified as the young new talent after several practices, and was assigned to Gelman as a student. “I got a pretty sweet deal at 11,” Homer says. “Till this day, I have not paid a dollar for practicing.”

This also puts pressure on Homer. He wants to win a medal because of his personal relationship with Gelman. It’s Homer’s way to repay Gelman’s efforts and patience with him throughout the years. Homer receives a $2,000 monthly stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee. For the last three years, he has been earning an extra $200 a week coaching every Saturday—except when out of town for a competition—at Cobra Fencing Club in Hoboken, N.J. He teaches 9- to 11-year-old children some fencing moves used in all three weapons and gives one-on-one lessons in saber and foil. His coaching style is similar to Gelman’s—start slowly with the basics, make sure the fencer’s arm is straight when making cuts, identify open spots for attack, and keep distance. Homer has little patience with them when they don’t listen. “Guys, stop talking,” he yells at them. Sometime he doesn’t let them take a break. “You don’t need water because you didn’t do anything. Get en garde and, please, no more talking.”

Homer, sitting out the 2011-12 season to train for the Olympics, is a senior at St. John’s University, majoring in marketing. His life is on hold until August when the Games are over. Then, he says, he is thinking of retiring. “I want to be successful in something else and I want to get my career going ASAP,” he says. Homer does virtual work for Eddie Brown. He is a former head of the Nike’s Olympic marketing division and now a licenser of Nike, which uses the brand’s name on his products like fencing equipment. Homer met Brown at a competition in Catania, Italy. Homer researches marketing strategies that may help bring Nike to the fencing community. “I don’t do much because I don’t have much time,” he says, “but I’ll try to do more.”

Other than the fact that he hates losing, Homer is actually scared of it. He started fencing with the idea to be an Olympian. He says, however, “You do get tired of fencing just like people get tired of a job.” What kept him putting on the nickers and the lamé was the Olympic image of fencing he has envisioned since he was 11. “I had Olympians all around me,” he says. “I wanted to be like them.”

Now, when he’s getting tired of the sport, he has this one chance to fulfill his dream. He says, “I don’t want to spend another four years fencing.”

***

James Williams looks over his resume multiple times, making sure he knows how to react to any question related to his experience. He takes a deep breath and dials John Hasna from the Human Resources department at TD Ameritrade Holding Corporation, an investment firm working with individual investors on how to meet their financial goals.

“Hello John, how is it going?” says Williams, who was on the Men’s saber team that won the silver medal in Beijing.

He is hoping to get a part-time job at the company’s Customer Service department. He found the employment opportunity through the United States Olympic Committee “Team USA Career Program.” It helps U.S. Olympians find a job at companies that are willing to tolerate the athletes’ busy schedule and still pay $14 an hour.

“I’m free half day on Mondays, full day on Wednesdays and Fridays. And I can do all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, except in the morning,” Williams says. “I’m willing to work full day if it’s a requirement.” When he is not free, he is fencing. Sunday is his day off, most of which he spends sleeping.

Williams is a member of the Manhattan Fencing Club, but, like Wozniak, Homer and Morehouse, he pays no fees. Also like Morehouse, he goes to Bodhizone Physical Therapy for free. For physical fitness, Williams sometimes uses Equinox’s free promotional daily passes to go to a gym. His monthly income was the $1,000 stipend he received for being No. 3 in the U.S. and No. 23 in the world. His parents help him out when he falls short on cash and needs assistance.

One of his three roommates, who works at DC Comics and supplies Williams with a lot of reading material, says it’s hard to imagine Williams is a professional athlete. His roommate, Blake Kovaghigawa, says, “Kobe [Bryant] is a professional athlete. It’s difficult to imagine professional athletes who don’t make millions.”

Until six years ago, Williams, originally from Sacramento, Calif., didn’t imagine himself as a professional either. He was planning to stop fencing after he graduated from Columbia University, where he double-majored in History and Russian Studies. “I didn’t have any good results [from fencing tournaments],” Williams said. “I don’t even think I was in the Top 10.” He was, in fact, ranked 12th in the U.S.

He changed his mind on Jan. 14, 2006 when he won the North American Cup tournament. “Came out of the blue,” Williams says. “I never thought I’d win. Never been in Top 4 before. Never won a national at any age level. It was a big deal. I was super tired and happy, and just really sore.”

Retiring has occurred to him again. After London, regardless of qualifying or not, he says he will get a full-time job, but he has not decided whether he will continue to fence competitively. “I’ll examine my priorities but I am getting anxious about starting something new,” he says. Williams, 26, has been fencing since he was 9 years old. He adds, “I want to start providing for myself and start a career, preferably in finance,” he says.

James Williams stretching and concentrating on his practice routine | Photo by Hristina Tisheva

Until it’s time to make that decision, working hard to qualify for the Olympics in July is the only thought on his mind. Every weekday, except Wednesdays, from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Williams, Morehouse and Homer have practice at Manhattan Fencing under the close observation of Gelman. The entire second floor and all 14 strips are just for them and Gelman. The lights are on only above the four strips at the corner of the floor, which the three fencers occupy.

“Hi guys, you’re early today,” Gelman says, greeting them.

“My fencing was really bad today,” Williams says, referring to the morning practice at the New York Athletic Club.

“James, I don’t know why,” Gelman says in a low, trembling voice. “Tim, how about you?”

“Huh, nothing great,” Morehouse replies unconcerned.

After a short pause, Gelman goes to Williams, who is wearing a “Get Ready For London” shirt and putting his fencing shoes on. Gelman says with certain energy in his voice and with a smile: “It’s impossible to fence every day well.”

As the practice starts, Gelman sits in a chair in the middle with a coffee in hand. No one else is in the club. They fence. Gelman corrects. “Small steps! James, be different! Don’t start attack the same way!” He has to take small steps not only because it’s a general rule in fencing, but also because he has hamstring bursitis in his right leg. Dr. Scott Weiss, his physical therapist, says Williams knows he has limitations but has no complaints about them.

Williams prefers to keep his emotions to himself and get back on the strip and practice. He says his work ethic dates back to when he was 13: “I had an epiphany. If I worked really hard, I’d get better. I had just started going to tournaments. I saw the Fencing World Cup in ’96, where I saw there were better fencers. I realized if I could get better, it would be through hard work.”

Williams got the job at Ameritrade. His first day was Jan. 23, 2012 and his second was Feb. 9 – a day after he returned from Bulgaria after competing at the first World Cup of the season. He will work three days a week.

***

No matter what the fencers are going through during the week, they come together every Friday for an evening practice at Manhattan Fencing. At about 6 p.m., Daryl Homer comes in, often with a chicken sandwich from the Freshly Roasted Bakery around the corner. He does not have time to eat at home, and it is time for practice. He will not even take a break when he has a cold or a headache. Instead of coffee to go with the sandwich, he takes NyQuil. “I’m not going to let a cold or a headache stop me from practicing,” Homer says. “That’s stupid.”

Daria Schneider comes in, too, after taking a 40-minute nap after a long day of a private lesson at Columbia and a workout session at Empire United. But the “LET GO” sign she taped on the wall motivates her. “I put it up there in September when I was getting frustrated about things that weren’t important, like new freshmen on the team who needed more direction and explanations of how the Columbia University fencing team works,” she says. “I used a lot of energy on that and worried too much.”

Dagmara Wozniak rushes in, successfully having walked through the hundreds of tourists between Penn Station and 39th Street. She puts on her nickers, jacket, lamé, and finally her glove with the word “BELIEVE” written on it. She’s ready to fence.

As Jeff Spear, James Williams, Timothy Morehouse and top members of other clubs come in from previous practice or a physical therapy session, the U.S. Men’s saber elite team is in one place.

Younger fencers start to come in, too. One points to Morehouse and turns to her mother: “This is Tim Morehouse!” She goes to him and to Homer and asks for an autograph.

All 14 strips are occupied. Two coaches are giving lessons on the farthest left side of the club. Williams works on endurance and footwork. Using a stretching rope, pulled by one of the younger fencers for resistance, Williams imitates an attack with a triple advance and a lunge.  Other younger fencers pick up the same exercise and imitate it.

On the right side of the club, among the sound of clashing blades, Morehouse shouts in French, like he sometimes does when he’s having a good bout.

“Merci!” or “Touche!”

And then, between bouts, he talks about basketball with younger kids. “Wade is not getting as many rebounds. And forget about Bosh,” Morehouse says referring to Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade from the Miami Heat. The Heat would beat the Atlanta Hawks 116 – 109 later that night.

While Homer is taking a break, a young fencer goes to him and asks him to check his new blade. “It’s all right,” Homer says and goes back on the strip to fence whoever is available.

Wozniak, whose taped wrist still hurts, is not taking a day off either. Tired from the workout and the physical therapy, she is trying not to move her hand so much and to be more creative with her footwork. But she fences anyone who is willing to fight her.

Exhausted, sleep-deprived, and each with his or her own personal concerns, they don’t stop practicing, because they know that “Successful Olympic performance is a complex, multifaceted, fragile and long term process that requires extensive planning and painstaking implementation.”

Postscript: Dagmara Wozniak earned the second slot in the Women’s Saber individual event. Daria Schneider was just 22 points short in surpassing Wozniak in the standings. Tim Morehouse, James Williams, Daryl Homer and Jeff Spear qualified for London as well.

 

8 Responses to “Complex, Multifaceted, Fragile”

  1. Patty L. says:

    Well done! Congratulations!

  2. Allen Evans says:

    This was an excellent and nuanced article, focusing on the real people behind the sport.

  3. Thanks a lot for sharing us about this update. Hope you may not get tired on making posts as informative as this.

    Fencing is one of the sports that people love aside from the skill that you’ll gonna learn, you also learn sportsmanship and self defense.

  4. very good publish, i definitely love this website, keep on it

  5. This article is very well written. It takes me back to my close pal Jim who always kept discussing this. I am going to forward this post to him – I am sure he will enjoy reading the material it. Thanks for sharing with us.

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  8. Lindsay E. says:

    amazing! This is my favorite sport. Unfortunately don’t have chance to do it…no team around.

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