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Art of Fencing, Art of Life

An Interview with Sofya Velikaya, translated from the Russian Fencing Federation website

Sofya Velikaya

Sofya Velikaya: “If I took gold at my first Olympic Games, I would have ended my career”

Fencing is a sport that crosses continents and languages. It is not always easy to connect with fencers who are titans in the sport when they don’t speak the same language that you do. That’s why we’ve translated an interview with one of the greats in the World Fencing, Sofya Velikaya from Russian into English, because it is worth it for fencers everywhere to read! 

Sofya Velikaya is truly a fencer to watch, if you are not already watching her. She is a champion that we can learn so much from! In this interview, she talks about everything from getting a Silver behind her teammate’s Gold in the Rio Olympics to the challenges that she faces as a parent. It’s a wide ranging and worthwhile read for fencers, fencing coaches, and fencing parents. 

You’ll find the original piece at this link. 

April 13, 2020 – Team Russia

Sofya Velikaya: “If I took gold at my first Games, I would have ended my career”

This interview with one of the leaders in Russian fencing covers everything from attitudes about Olympic medals, the importance of solidarity across sports, travel around the world, childhood adventures and the raising of her own children. 

Sofya Velikaya is a legendary athlete in every respect [NOTE: her name in Russian means Sofya The Great]. We are each the own master of our destiny, but sometimes a name can have a major influence as well and can direct life in a certain way. Sofya loves space – it is a desire and a need for her just as it was for Alexander the Great. She is out to discover “new lands”, always searching for something both inside and outside, always working to comprehend the true depth of both things and of events. 

Greatness is something that we come to not only through medals and titles, but also through the attitude that we have in victory and in defeat. It’s the ability to rejoice not only for oneself, but also for the team. The desire to bring morality, pureness of heart, and international solidarity to the sport are all essential to the pursuit of greatness. 

Sofya Velikaya is a Russian saber fencer who is simply remarkable in her accomplishments. She is the 2016 Olympic champion in the team competition, a silver medalist in both 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games in the individual competition, and eight-time world champion (twice individual), a 14-time European champion (five times in the individual championship), a many time champion in Russia, and an Honored Master of Sport.

TR – Sofya, you were born in Alma-Ata  in Kazakhstan]. Do you have any unusual childhood memories? Did your life differ greatly growing up there from the way that it is here in Moscow?

Sofya – I have the most vivid childhood memories connected with Alma-Ata – wonderful people, amazing nature, mountains, rich colors of greenery, fresh fruits, watermelons! And everything is so colorful! I grew up in an international society, among people who came from different cultures. I am still friends with classmates and even the people who I went to kindergarten with. Many have left for different countries – they live in the USA or in Great Britain, but that unity came with us over the many years we have been away.

Life growing up there was calm, carefree, and cloudless. We had a lot of free time, which we spent in a completely different way than children who are affected by screen time and the internet do now. We had a lot of interesting hobbies, spent a lot of time out in the neighborhood, in the company of friends. Many people learned music. They were doing a lot of activities and had a lot of hobbies. 

TR – So you were active children?

Sofya – Yes. We were busy with ourselves, with our friends, and with our common interests. Communication between us was totally different than it is now. At 15, when I moved to Moscow, I found that there were so many more people around. Here I was faced with constant competition. Everyone wanted to take their place under the sun. Another life began for me.

TR – While we’re on the subject of children and technology – you are the mother of two children. Do you think that children need to be limited in this or, on the contrary, are they better adapted to the modern environment?

Sofya – Once we had a regular doctor’s visit with the children, and the doctor told me: “Everything is great! Looks like you don’t allow them gadgets. ” And I answered: “Of course I do!” They looked at me with obvious disapproval. I do try to give everything in measured doses. At the same time, I see a lot of useful things in using technology. For example, we use educational programs: in mathematics and to study the alphabet since my son will soon go to first grade soon. They study well, playing while they do. Even my youngest daughter, now at two years old, is interested in learning letters.

In principle, if parents interact with their children all the time, they will guide and help in their activities. To exclude screen time totally, the internet and the socialization that goes with it, that’s no longer possible in our lives. You just need to learn to do it the right way, in a way that is adapted to guide children. Everything is good in moderation.

TR – So what you’re saying is that technology should not replace live communication, but also that without it things are also impossible. Has life changed so much that technology is simply necessary?

Sofya – The amount of information is much more now than it used to be. We must try to perceive it in the right way. The children, whose parents are constantly working and cannot be around all the time, simply are not able to independently process all of this wide flow of information. I know for sure that parents need to make time to spend time and to communicate with children as much as possible. If they are interested in technology, then let this be an encouragement. When I had to leave my children when they were small it was difficult.. You can’t forbid a child to stop crying or explain totally why you can’t stay. 

Yes, I used gadgets to distract them, and that helped. At the same time, I always try to be as close as possible to my children. Of course, there are situations when you have to forbid something, and with small kids the reaction to that is loud and unpleasant. I think all parents have come across this. But after a couple of days passed, the child will have forgotten everything.

TR – Your sports career is associated with a huge amount of flying and travel all over the world. Rio, London, Paris, Athens, Leipzig, Turin, Copenhagen, Kiev. Everywhere you go, you bring home medals. Did you ever have time to look around? To take a walk? Where did you like the most?

Sofya – I have not yet traveled around the whole world. I’ve not been to Australia or the North Pole, but I would like to go there too. All these distant flights and hopping around need to be planned out not for a day or two, but at least a month. Now that it has become more difficult for me to adapt, I try to stay for a longer period if it’s going to be a very far destination. 

Currently, I am working from a schedule that’s focused on the competitions calendar. For example, if we are competing in America and there is the opportunity to stay on vacation – I stay there. I can go down to Mexico or somewhere else. I like to spend time in different places. We spent this past New Year with family in Russia, outside of Moscow. I love the sea very much, and the mountains – especially the mountains. The main thing is that everyone who is with me, also enjoys this vacation and find things they like.

When I leave for competitions, the schedule allows me to select at least a day, and sometimes two, to visit the sights, see the city, and take a walk. Our competitions are held in beautiful countries: France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and the USA, where we saw both Las Vegas and New York. We were also in China, Korea and even made it to Japan. There is a lot to remember! This is how we are able to get an insight and can compare countries, people’s lives, culture, national cuisine. I think that after the end of my sports career I will happily recall this part of the process.

I have the most vivid impression of my first trip abroad, which was to France. I thought then: “How I would like to live here!” After 10 years, I think it’s completely different: “How small this place is! How do people live here?” Compare that with our metropolis – to go around the center of Moscow and see it, a week is not enough. Not to mention other cities in Russia and the significant cultural places in our country. I realized that I love the open space! I need space, somewhere big!

One heavy impression for me came from going to Notre Dame Cathedral, where I was after the fire. It was terrible to watch from the sidelines as such a magnificent and significant structure for the whole world was so destroyed. There are other places that I would like to visit, among them the ruins of the Mayan civilization in Latin America. I have heard a lot about them, but getting there is not easy. I also like Italy – for its southern sun, its culture, its warm atmosphere, its food. Of course, I love my city, Moscow. I love Red Square. We have a tradition: be sure to visit Red Square on New Year’s Eve and go ice-skating. Twice a year at least we definitely go there. And also after every Olympic Games, where we celebrate the victories of our athletes.

TR – Let’s talk about the Olympic Games in Rio.There was a dramatic fight with your teammates, with some off-the-scale emotions. Can you tell us how you felt then? How have you processed what happened over time?

Sofya – This was not my first Olympics, and I have already gotten into a certain way of doing things. My success in life is progressive, it happens in stages. I set goals, I work hard to get to them, and I do not dwell on the results that have happened in the past.  I draw conclusions and move on. Because right now it is already a different time, different people, and a different me. At first I was just an athlete, then I became a mother, then twice a mother. And each time a completely different world opened before me. I was changing. My attitude to what was happening was changing. While I enjoy my sport and can show results, my task is not only to satisfy my personal ambitions. My task is also to work for the team.

In this respect I bear a great responsibility and do not have the right to show weakness or anxiety. I must always show a face of confidence to those people who will be with me on the team. My journey to the top of the Olympics  was not easy. I didn’t go to the Games in Athens because I didn’t quite make it – literally one point kept me from it! Four years later, I took fourth place in Beijing. At the next Games in London, I landed at second, although I only had one chance there in the individual competition. Four years later, I brought home two medals from Rio – gold and silver. Yes, it was a success! Although in the first second after the silver there was a tragedy for me: “Well, now what?! What to do now?!” But at the same time, I was happy for my compatriot and teammate [NOTE: Yana Egorian won the Gold Medal in Rio, beating Sofya Velikaya 15:14 in a dramatic match]. The situation in the world was difficult, and each medal was very important for our team.

I also understood that there was still team competitions, and it is necessary to let go of those emotions and to finish this with a good result. This was important not only for athletes, but also for coaches, team specialists, and all the people who interact with our sport and sports in general. This is probably something that not everyone will understand. Many people think that the victory of an athlete is the satisfaction of his personal ambitions. In fact, this is the result of the work of a huge number of people. The highest achievements in sport are a complex mechanism where everyone should do their job as well as possible, one hundred percent.

After I gave birth to my second child, I decided to try again to return to the sport. I felt the support and help of relatives and my children, so I was able to combine everything and do it with pleasure and joy.

Therefore, there are no worries about Rio. As I said, my path in sports is stability and consistency. I think that if I took a gold medal at my first Olympic Games, I would probably have ended my career.

TR – You are a leading Russian athlete and at the same time you are the head of the Commission of Athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee. I cannot help but ask about your attitude to the situation in the international arena which Russian sport is now facing. What do you think about this?

Sofya – The Olympic Games are the most important point in the life of every athlete. I want sports to be out of politics, and I want all athletes to have the opportunity to perform in the international arena.

The Commission of Athletes of the ROC conducts activities in various areas. We work not only with active athletes, but also with those who have finished their careers. There are excellent educational programs that we work to adapt. For example, at the Russian International Olympic University, Moscow State University, and Synergy University.

We support all decisions against the use of doping. We have also implemented an anti-doping educational program for young people. We conduct forums and training seminars. We are for fair sport. We believe that “pure” athletes, including me, who pass all the doping tests and fulfill all the necessary requirements have the right to participate in the Olympic Games with the anthem and flag of their country. Why not? The most important thing is that we now have the opportunity to participate in the Games and show our results.

Sport is a competition of athletes, not countries. It should be an atmosphere of multinational unity. This is the reason that the Olympic Games are held. The destruction of the Olympic spirit in the sense of principles of honesty and justice must not be allowed. It is important that the inter-ethnic solidarity of the athletes is maintained, so that everyone supports each other. Where did all of these ideas go? Whatever the situation with anyone within the fencing community, everyone always supported each other. You know how it is — someone didn’t bring their equipment, someone doesn’t have a mask, sabers, jackets, sneakers, and even if this is my opponent, I will still help them so that we are on an equal footing. That is what real solidarity is, and it is needed all over the world.

The material was published in the second issue of the Russian Team magazine

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2 Comments

  1. Edward M Salkind

    I started fencing at my High School at age 15. I went to the U of P fencing club Salle Csiszar and took lessons from the old fencing Master Maestro Csiszar. It was a kind of microcosm of what made me what I am. I did fence all through college and at Temple University was 4th in the Middle Atlantic division. But I never made the Olympic team because my focus in life was my career in health care and I have a doctorate in nurse anesthesia. But I was in the Army in OEFand saved lives , and I believe that fencing made me what I am today. And yes , I still compete. I may never be an Olympian but I have a great coach Dr. Jan Littman , a former Olympian. Fencing besides doing and teaching anesthesia is my second greatest passion in life. Fencing is a way of life and I hope to do it until I can’t.

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