Fencers can sometimes seem to come out of nowhere and onto the world stage, but there is always a long and hard development behind that explosion. Even if you’re just twenty years old. Meet Nick Itkin.
Nick Itkin is currently ranked number seven in the world, which is truly remarkable for such a young fencer that just aged out of Juniors. He is the first American fencer to win titles at the NCAA Championship, Junior World Championship, and Division I in the same season. He also juggles his studies at Notre Dame, where he’s a junior and fences on the team.
Among the many remarkable things about this young man is his perspective on his place in Team USA as we move towards Tokyo 2020. He is a fencer who grew up looking up to the legendary Men’s Foil Team, who won Bronze in Rio in 2016 and Gold in the 2019 World Championship. He is knocking on the door of competing alongside those same foilists for Olympic glory next summer. How he has gotten there, through determination and humility, is part of what drives his success.
Nick spoke to us from Los Angeles, where he is currently training for the last qualifier to guarantee his individual spot at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. He already qualified to represent the USA in the team event. In this interview, we learn how he has taken advantage of opportunities and discovered a boldness that is both valuable and inspiring.
Nick Itkin Interview
Igor: Hi Nick! I see you’re in Los Angeles. How is the situation there?
Nick Itkin: Good morning! The situation is back to quarantine, kind of. The whole situation with the fencing club is unclear. For now they’re still open, but it’s still mostly just lessons. No classes really.
IG – Let’s talk about your road to fencing, how you started. What inspired you?
NI – I started when I was seven years old. Working with my dad when I was seven. But I didn’t really receive the results that were up to the level until I was like sixteen. That’s where I had my first jump to a high level fencing where I started winning tournaments. Before that I was not at the same level. As soon as I reached sixteen I started taking it more seriously, when I was looking into training for college. Then when I reached college – it worked well for me, the college program worked well for me. I feel like a lot of fencers go to college and it doesn’t work for them. They stop fencing, they stop training. I think the program there made me better so I improved even more when I went to school because the system, the coaches, and the training was really good for me.
Emphasis on winning
IG – You said that you reached the results when you started to be sixteen years old, Cadet. Why didn’t you get the results before then?
NI – I think it was a lot of mental. I had never won any tournaments growing up before that, and when I reached Cadet level I started to participate in the Cadet European Circuit and then I won one tournament. From then on it was like I gained more confidence and was more confident in my actions. Then I had a wave of great results, good results after that. I think that was a big jump for me.
IG – In the United States, and you know this first hand, a lot of parents put emphasis on winning all these medals and judging the kids future, the kids progress based on what they do in youth.
NI – I think it’s a huge problem in the States. There are huge athletes like Foconi, his height was when he turned twenty-seven, twenty-eight. Before that, he was never really at the same level. People are still growing. Imobden, he also had like a late peak. He was not too good in the youth. I think like I’m still young too. I still have a lot of room to improve. Especially in the youth you’re still learning and trying to get better. You’re still trying to grow and get better as a fencer. It shouldn’t be too important to focus on the results at that point.
IG – The jump from Cadet to Junior and Junior to Senior is a big one. What prevented you from winning youth tournaments? What was the roadblock?
NI – I think my fencing was a lot more basic back then. I think I had just a couple of actions that I liked and that’s all I would do. I was not comfortable doing anything else. I think my fencing became a lot more complex and more interesting throughout the years. I think my fencing is constantly growing, and I think that when I was a kid I was a lot more limited to my actions than how I am now.
IG – As a child of a fencing coach, fencing club owner, did you feel any pressure on you?
NI – Maybe some yeah. There’s positives and negatives. It’s definitely different when someone’s coaching you and you know that they’re really invested. I think that it’s a good thing and I think it helped me a lot. It’s also definitely very difficult and I don’t know that it works for everyone.
IG – You are reaching the dream of almost everyone to be on the Senior team and be able to shoot for the Olympic Games. How do you feel about this? Especially now with everything up in the air.
NI – The Olympic Games has been my goal for a while. I took the year off from school to train and focus only on fencing. It’s weird because we had one tournament left, one qualifier left, and I was getting ready for the tournament and it was in Anaheim and it was canceled two days before. All of a sudden there’s just no training and no events. It was kind of hard to adjust, but I just see it as kind of an off season now. They moved the tournament to March, so we have a long time to train. It’s a slow, long off season and I’m mostly working on conditioning now. Hopefully I can get back into that training session, I mean go back into the mindset. Because there’s one more qualifier and I need to perform well, so there’s going to be a lot of pressure. I just need to prepare for it and I’ll be ready.
Nick Itkin: It was surreal
IG – Let me ask you this very bluntly – do you think the team would be most successful with you?
NI – I think it’s hard to say. I think it’s important for me that when I made the team to be put into the World Cup because I needed that experience. We’ve medaled at every team tournament. We’ve got four gold medals and one silver and I think our team is incredibly strong.
I know that [previous] team is incredibly strong as well, but I think our team is incredibly strong too. We have fenced at an incredibly high level at all of these tournaments. Regardless of who is on our team, our team is incredibly strong. Every one of those members. Gerek Meinhardt, Race Imboden, Alex Massialas, every one of those members are high level athletes. I think that’s why this team is so special with Miles or with me. Every single fencer is hard to fence. There’s no weak link. That’s why every team struggles to fence with us.
IG – You are fencing now with the Senior team. These guys, they define modern fencing here. How do they accept you as a newcomer?
NI – It was definitely surreal because growing up, those were who I watched all the time. So it’s kind of interesting to be on the same team as them. Just being on the same team, we have the same goal. We all want to win. I have a good relationship with everyone. It’s good because that’s one factor about why we’re such a good team and we’re medaling in every event.
IG – Do you think the US has a shot on the title at the Olympic Games?
NI – I definitely do. We’re number one in the world and we’ve got all of these really good records. I think it’s whoever shows up that day, and I think we’ll be ready.
IG – Who’s in your opinion the most dangerous team for the U.S.?
NI – Italy, France, and Russia. All of those teams are a real threat. If I had to say one team, I’d say Italy.
IG – Who is the most challenging, the most satisfying to fence?
NI – Honestly Italy. I’ve only fenced them one time in the team event, but that was a really good bout, a really good match. Honestly I think that they’re a really interesting style to fence against for sure. Unique.
Transition to Seniors
IG – What does it mean to you to move from Juniors to Seniors?
NI – It is definitely a difficult transition, the hardest transition to make. There are so many Juniors who go from winning the tournaments to struggling to make it to the second day. Especially in the U.S. – that’s where a lot of fencers stop fencing. It was definitely difficult but I think that I started fencing and started getting results my last year of Juniors. I was just starting to get more and more used to Senior level fencing and I think I’m still getting used to the Senior level. Not fencing in the first day in pools is still something I’m getting used to right now since I’m top sixteen. It’s definitely, definitely a major jump.
IG – Does the fact that you do not fence on the first day play to your advantage, or do you miss this opportunity to fence to five touches?
NI – I think it can be both, but I’ve run to my experience where I run into my first or second bout and I’m not warmed up, I’m not ready. It’s kind of coming in cold and the other fencer is coming in warmed up, he’s already fenced a whole day. I’m not prepared for the bout so the bout doesn’t go well. It’s definitely an advantage for sure because it’s a whole day of fencing and you could lose to a lot of good fencers. It’s just something to get used to where you don’t have those pool bouts and that whole day of getting used to fencing, it’s getting ready for a fifteen touch bout from the first day, and it’s just different. Something I will get used to.
Long term goals
IG – What is your end goal? What is fifteen years from now?
NI – It’s difficult. I keep changing what I want to do and I’m not entirely sure. I know I love fencing. At least for now, and I think for the next coming years I’m definitely going to be focused on fencing. But if there are any opportunities that come up after that, I’m going to find that out along the line.
IG – One of the biggest challenges of American fencing is that there is no career after college, right? What are your thoughts about this?
NI – I think it’s a very big flaw in American fencing for sure. It’s very difficult to train and compete without having another job. If you are in the top sixteen you will have some funding, but still not much. I’m not really sure how to encourage more except encouraging more funding. I think that will encourage more people to stay, I think that the top level fencers like our team, I don’t think they’re going to be finishing any time soon because I think that’s all that they’re focusing on right now.
It’s just more complicated in the U.S. because there’s not enough money for you to just focus only on fencing for your entire life unless there are some exceptions, you can have sponsorships. If you have sponsorships or something else going on, it’s possible. I definitely am focused on fencing and that’s what I want to do. I want to fence at a high level for as long as possible. I want to get my degree so that after fencing if there is more that I want to do outside of fencing then I am able. But I definitely am focused on fencing for as long I’m competing at the high level.
IG – I think in my very biased opinion, yours and mine, that fencing is the best sport ever.
NI – (laughing) yes.
IG – And in the last twenty years it brings a huge recognition, a huge honor to the United States. It’s one of the most medaling sports. You go to any world event, be it Pan American, be it World Cup, Grand Prix, World Championship, and Olympic Games. There is not an event when American fencers return empty handed.
NI – Definitely. The U.S. has definitely shown itself to be one of the powerhouses for sure.
Nick Itkin’s coaches
IG – Let’s talk about the role of the coach. What’s the role of the coach in your life? Igor Zapozdaev, your coach, is very young.
NI – Igor has definitely helped my fencing a lot. When I came and he first started coaching, he grew as a coach and I grew as a student together. That was really cool. He works on different timings and he knows Senior fencing because he was just fencing as a Senior very recently. He’s really good at seeing what other fencers are doing with timings and seeing what people work in.
I also keep working with my father [Misha Itkin] and training with him, so I have two coaches. I can listen to both sides and they work together. At school I work with Bucky Leach, when I’m at Notre Dame. He has another variety of training. But there’s no huge differences in training. They all talk to each other. They all know what each other are doing. There are no conflicts of interest or anything like that.
All my coaches are improving my fencing and I love talking about my fencing with my coaches. I think I’m really learning a lot from them and I’m still trying to learn more. I love working here with my dad and Igor, I think I’m learning a lot. Every time I take a lesson, I’m still studying and learning more.
I think training is better for me at school than at home in LA right now because a lot of the fencers in the club are much younger. I don’t have a lot of high level fencers to train with right now. There are good kids, they’re just younger right now. They’re going to become good soon. At school I have the opportunity to work with fencers my age already.
Fencing at Notre Dame
IG – Can you describe your routine at school?
NI – I normally take three to four lessons per week with Buckie. They’re usually in between my classes, so I’ll have classes in the morning and then I’ll have a break and I’ll go take a lesson. We have training from four to six-thirty and we have conditioning three times per week. Sometimes in the morning, normally before training there might be some other conditioning or training that might happen throughout the week, but that’s basically the schedule. Monday through Friday four to six-thirty is our training.
IG – Before you took a gap year, you did quite an intensive competitive schedule.
NI – That was difficult, yeah.
IG – How did you succeed to balance it?
NI – I’m not going to lie, it was very tough. Especially when I had to balance Junior, Senior, and College competitions. It was basically every weekend that I would have a competition. There were a couple of times when I felt like that had an affect on me. But if anything, it made me stronger and more experienced. Now, when I have the whole season with just Senior competitions where I only fence for the second day, it’s very nice competing. It’s an issue and I think that people competing that much is maybe a little bit too much, but I think if anything it makes you more experienced. It makes you more used to those circumstances, so I think it’s helpful.
IG – How do you handle it with school and all that that entails?
NI – I think that one reason that Notre Dame is so helpful is because they have many high level athletes and they know that athletes will be missing school. The professors and the administration are understanding. I just make sure that I’m in communication with my professors so that they know why I’m missing school and they’re clear that I’m an athlete. Then they’re going to make sure that I catch back up and I’m not losing track. I think I chose a university that’s really helpful with that for me.
IG – What do you do with the first day of competition when you’re not fencing. Are you studying? Are you reading up on your opponents?
NI – Studying up on my opponents. There are fencers who can study at competitions. I can’t do that. If I’m there for competition, I’m there for competition. I can’t be doing homework on the side.
IG – So when do you do homework?
NI – I try to do it before I leave, or sometimes I’ll do it on the plane. I just try to get everything done and prepared beforehand. If I can, I’ll talk to the professor and they’ll let me come in another time to turn it in. They have been pretty understanding with me training and traveling. They understand that I won’t have much time.
IG – I see. So when you are in competition, you’re fully immersed in competition.
NI – Yeah, I’ve never been able to be able to do work. That’s just me though. I know there are a lot of other fencers who can, but I just can’t.
IG – That’s probably how you can become a really successful fencer.
NI – I know that Lee and Gerek can do it. They’re studying a lot during competitions. Not a lot, but there have been situations where they have needed to do it. I don’t know, I can’t focus like that.
Nick Itkin: Looking forward
IG – Do you have any suggestions for kids that are starting their fencing career or are maybe in their first years of their fencing career?
NI – For me, I think what I learned is to try new actions and not be limited to just one action. Just because you’re young and one action works at a young level, you need to always try to adapt and learn more because when you get older you’re going to realize that you need to expand your fencing and you need to work with different actions and different timings. When you’re younger, even though a couple of actions might work, always be comfortable to try and learn new timings and to work with different fencers.
IG – Do you see that there are young fencers in the United States that you believe can breathe to the neck of the current team?
NI – Yeah, I definitely think so. Any fencer can make it. There are a lot of high level Junior and older athletes. It just takes a couple of results. I know they’re capable. A lot of them are going through difficult training with either moving to college or something. It all depends on how they adapt and how they perform. Like the team that I was on for Juniors, they were a lot of high level fencers and I know that they’re capable. You just never know who’s going to show up and who’s going to have results. I think no one expected me to have results like I did last year, so you never know who will come out.
IG – Of all the tournaments that you participated in, what’s the most remarkable for you?
NI – It’s definitely between Paris and the Junior World Championships. I think those were my two biggest tournaments for me.
IG – And the worst?
NI – The worst? I dunno. At Senior Worlds I didn’t do too well this year. That’s a tournament I really regretted.
IG – One thing that you definitely should promise me is that until the Olympic Games 2028 in your hometown of LA you will not give up.
NI – Definitely not. As long as I’m competing at a high level and still fencing for sure.
IG – Huge good luck and thank you for sitting down with me.
NI – Thanks for having me.
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Nick Itkin was so very generous with his time. It is published with his approval on this blog.
Thank you deeply to Nick for giving us a window into his impressive and non-stop world of fencing. His view of fencing and his passion for the sport are things that young fencers can be inspired by! Thank you Nick!