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Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Estonian Epee Champion Erika Kirpu Teaches us About Flexibility and Coming Back from Disappointment

Erika Kirpu is a bright star in the world of fencing. Anyone can appreciate her indomitable spirit and deep level of growth. She is a fencer who molds her experiences into new skills, building on what she has come from while embracing the forward fight. 

Erika is a two-time team Gold medal winner at the European Championships for Estonia and a two time team World Champion, as both a Junior and a Senior. This small country has power-packed epee fencers, and she is notably among them. In 2014, she won individual Bronze at the World Championships. Over the course of a career that started when she was very young and under the tutelage of her fencing coach father, Erika Kirpu has changed and grown dramatically. It’s impressive to see, and it’s something all fencers can learn from. 

During this pandemic, I came upon this opportunity to interview prominent fencers from around the world. As I speak with these champions, I’ve come to realize how unknown fencers are to the public. Even Olympic champions are known only to a narrow circle of fencers. Millions of people know what Serena Williams ate for breakfast yesterday but cannot name a single Olympic fencing champion. I’m sure that if sports fans see the lively and interesting people behind the faceless messages like “Estonia won a Gold medal at the World Cup”, then there will be more interest in fencing. Erika’s story is one such story. 

Interview with Erika Kirpu

Erika Kirpu - Gold medal in Women's Epee World Cup, Legnano, Italy, 2016
Erika Kirpu – Gold medal in Women’s Epee World Cup, Legnano, Italy, 2016

Igor – Hello, Erika, I am glad to meet you personally! How are you doing, and where are you now? In Estonia?

Erika Kirpu – Yes, I’m now in Tallinn in Estonia. It’s actually a little more complicated than that because I in fact live in Milan. 

IG – The Olympics has been postponed to 2021. You are now number one in Estonia. Estonia as a team today is number five, and – touch wood – you have every chance to get to the Olympics.

EK – Yes, at the moment we are ready to go.

IG – I hope that nothing will change. Will you be on the team?

EK – Estonia decided that points for two seasons would be considered, an average of both. I can improve in this time, but someone else can also improve. I’m still confident in myself. Those points that I have already earned will be mine. 

Coronavirus created a huge pause in preparation. During my career, I have never had so much rest either from competitions or from fencing. In Italy, we didn’t fence for about four months because of it. Of course, I’m intrigued for the new season. It will all be new. Still, I’m confident in myself. I see how I have grown in recent years, and I have a lot to show to the world. I’m worthy of fencing on this team, and I want to go to the Olympics. 

In Estonia, everyone has almost forgotten about the coronavirus. We already have a fencing plan and competitions set. In early September we should have the Estonian Championship, a prestigious competition, which I will definitely be fencing at. It’s been so long since we had competitions! We must have fencing!

Learning from disappointment

Erika Kirpu - Prove Them Wrong

IG – In 2018, you weren’t selected for the Estonian team in the World Championship. Can we talk about that? 

EK – Of course. In 2018, the Estonian selection system chose the four members of the team this way – the first three were based on ranking and the fourth was chosen by the head coach. I was third on points. The coach chose Irina Embrich to be the fourth. However, it turned out that this decision should have been approved by the Federation Board, and that hadn’t happened. It was something we hadn’t encountered before. Up until that moment the Federation always automatically approved the fourth fencer suggested by the head coach. We were surprised. It had so much been established that it happened this way for the European/World Championship that we didn’t think of it as a possibility to be anything else. The team was already quietly preparing. And this change was a shock for Irina and for all of us.

The young fencer Katrina Lehis was taken to the European Championship, and it turned out like a movie. Katrina won the European Championship. She was in shape. And of course after she won European Championship she just couldn’t not go to the Worlds. She had to go to the World Championship. After the European Championship I was fourth on points, and this time they decided to skip me. Nonetheless, it was probably the right decision since the main thing is for our country to win. 

It’s unfortunate that everything was done in an ugly way. Our team is selected in May, prior to the European and the World Championships, and thus my third place could not be touched – I was guaranteed to be on the team. However, The Federation considered that it was possible. It was a shock for me, because I already had tickets and a visa to China for the World Championship. My coach and I had prepared and made plans. Two weeks before we were supposed to go, they called me and said: “You are not going.” And that’s it. Of course, I reacted very emotionally at first. Reporters immediately began to call me, and I began to answer everyone. It’s not something I do anymore, but at the time I poured it all out. That turned out to be a scandal because I was not silent with reporters or on social media. I thought that it was important to make it public. 

By Estonian standards, it was a big scandal. We are a very small country with only 1.3 million people. In principle, everyone knows each other. If something appears in the media, it spreads very quickly. Whatever has happened has happened now. I was very upset at the time, but I also behaved sincerely. I don’t regret it, though I learned a lot and wouldn’t go down that road again.

A year has passed now. In 2019, I was fourth on points at the end of the season. It was a very bad year, a bad season. I did not participate in competitions at the beginning of the season, because I was with my father in Tartu (he was ill). I did not go to tournaments. I didn’t have any points. By the end of the season I seemed to be coming to my senses. I got to the final at the last stage of the World Cup. They didn’t put me on the national team, but took the fifth number instead. Even though she didn’t have the same result as mine, despite all the competitions.

During that time, I got smarter. I didn’t talk to journalists. I didn’t say anything and didn’t want any scandals. It had all been done according to the rules. The coach could choose and he chose. That was his right. I WAS ready for this to happen. I am very proud of the way that I reacted. I don’t want to dramatize my life, to say that I walked through thorns. I just have to work on myself constantly. This situation was one where I had to look over it, grow, analyze and understand myself. I didn’t do the right thing. A year later, I had the opportunity to demonstrate that I learned and that I can react differently. I was very proud of myself that I came out of this with my dignity. 

IG – I have to say, I’m very impressed with your answer. The ability to admit mistakes and go further by correcting them is rare.

EK – Thank you. A person sometimes makes mistakes that life reminds them of later, down the line. I realized that it all came back to me, because I behaved this way. I have to study. Flexibility, which isn’t inherent in me, is something I work on because it is necessary in life. 

IG –  So you are not flexible?

EK – I am not not flexible. I am stubborn and straightforward. It’s hard to convince me if I’ve decided something. I can doubt for a long time. But if I already had a decision in my head, then I will convince everyone around that this is exactly what is needed.

Erika Kirpu: I fight with myself in every bout

Erika Kirpu with her Italian coach Angelo Mazzoni.
Erika Kirpu with her Italian coach Angelo Mazzoni.

IG – One of the qualities of a fencer is to be able to quickly assess the situation and change his line. How do you deal with this in your fencing?

EK – You want to know the truth? I fight with myself in every bout and in every touch! I fight in fencing, in my career. There are a lot of parallels with ordinary life. My dad always said that a person is the same in all areas of his life. I have to work hard on myself – this is not the only quality that I had to sweat over. Very often you have to stop your reflexes or urges, slow them down. This became even more relevant with my transition to the Italian training system. Angelo Mazzoni, my coach, has a completely different concept of combat. He wants more creativity from me, more decisions on the piste. For him, there is no “point, step, lunge, now I’ll go and I will stab 15 times like that.” Angelo wants creation. I have to build these creative moments, build on a logical chain. This is very interesting, and I just recently began to understand it. It is NECESSARY to be prepared for everything. So yes, flexibility is a quality that I definitely work on and should still work on. There are no limits to working towards perfection.

IG – What are other qualities that you should work on?

EK – Patience. Definitely. Whether it’s from a great desire or some emotional energy, sometimes I start to rush. I want a lot at once, quickly.  My mom always told me, “Work from your mind. What if this happens, or this.” The opponent might not have figured out anything yet. Somewhere, to the contrary, I react faster than needed, sort of ‘predict their moves’, which actually never happened. 

IG – This impulsivity in your matches is clearly visible. I was impressed by your recent bout entering the four in Qatar.

EK – For some reason, I thought you’d bring that up.

IG – When the score was 13-14 and you led. Then you made the most unexpected and impulsive move.

EK – What I did was absolutely programmed. I executed it wrong technically. But the coach wanted this, he was not angry. On the contrary, it seems that I really showed the confidence in what he instructed me to do. We have come to the conclusion that I understand him, that I trust him. I want to do that. I understand that I may need to tighten up my diligence and my technique, tactically it is very interesting for me. On the one hand, that gives adventure. On the other hand, it confuses the opponent. For myself, I have already made sure that this method works, and it is very interesting for me. I don’t stand around and wait in my defense like I used to. 

Since childhood, I have been good at counter attacking. In Juniors, I started going in for the foot or the thigh, those were my two main tricks. The whole match, I’d wait for those moments. Now that has become interesting for me. I enjoy it. I feel that I am creating something, that there is a strategy. It’s not that you started to lead 1-0, going back to your end of the strip and waiting for the opponent to come or make a mistake. You have to build the bout, think about creative tactics, versus working from the opponent’s mistakes. It’s not the easiest way, and it is probably not suitable for everyone. It is a risk method, but it makes it interesting and exciting. It adds life. When it works out, you feel that you have such courage. You feel that you are a master of fencing. 

IG – If you hadn’t moved to Italy, would your fencing have remained as it was?

EK – Yes, definitely. 

Willingness to change

Erika Kirpu with her father and first coach Victor Kirpu
Erika Kirpu with her father and first coach Victor Kirpu

IG – Your dad was a coach and your mom was also a coach. How did you, as a child, perceive your parents as trainers? Where did the line between family life and training life begin and end?

EK – My dad never left the role of a coach. It was impossible to pull him apart from this role in any way. Training didn’t end with when the day was over – EVERYTHING was an element of training. He always said, “You should have a sense of foresight.” If I put the glass on the edge of the table, he immediately said, “Do you understand that it might fall now or that it might fall and break later? Someone might pass by and wave their hand at it. Same can happen on a strip and you step out of it at the most dangerous moment”. There will be lots of moments like this connected with fencing. When I was little, I probably felt pressed by these things. I was offended, pushed back against things. I expressed my opinion against it. I didn’t immediately start winning in my youth fencing years, which left me with unfulfilled ambitions. I was nervous and impatient. I sometimes think back to what a golden man he was, how he endured me sometimes. Though my childhood was cool, I still remember myself as being nervous and always unsatisfied. I don’t even know why. Maybe it was because I didn’t win. 

All of my life, I focused on the result. When I didn’t win, everything seemed wrong to me. I drew my attention to all of the little things. Finally I started to show results In the Cadets and in the Juniors. My dad was the head coach of the Juniors and Cadets teams and it was a great time for me, I call it my Golden Era. We won many medals at the European Championships, and once we even won the Junior World Championship in a team in 2010. It was a great period when I looked up to him all the time. He was an authority for me. In our club, he was an authority for everyone. This continued until about 2012, when I tried to qualify for the London Olympics. I didn’t qualify, but moved to Seniors. In the first three tournaments, I was twice in the top four. Twice I took Bronze in Seniors! We had prepared so intensely for this. It was so cool. I believed in him and he believed in me. We worked and we saw the result from that work. Then I felt that I was missing something in terms of fencing. I was missing other potential solutions on the piste. I started to think that maybe everything that my dad was giving me isn’t enough for me at this point. 

IG – Had you outgrown your coach?

EK – Probably. We started to butt heads a little. When I told him that I probably needed something else, he understood and agreed with me. He said, “That’s all I can give you, and I don’t mind if you want more.”

In 2013, I started working with Igor Tšikinjov, who then worked in Tallinn. At that time, he was a coach of Nikolai Novosjolov. In 2013, Nikolai won the World Championship, and a year later I myself became the third at the World Championship. It was great, but I still worked with my dad – I had two coaches. This worked until 2015, when it felt different. I began to have trouble understanding what was going on. Dad demanded one thing, and Igor bent his line. Dad probably didn’t want to think or believe that they could change my fencing, but Igor started to change me. Not completely, but he changed some of the phrases. Dad didn’t agree with all of this, and he tugged back. My motto for these two years was “I don’t understand what to do.”

Then I left for Italy in 2016. The training was still a mystery. Little by little, I began to train there. It was difficult for me. I couldn’t adapt to the eminent italian coach Andrea Candiani, who I worked with in Italy. A year later, I started working with Mazzoni, who had just left Russia. I called him and asked to train with him. After that, I didn’t get any more lessons from my dad. I completely trusted the new coach. Angelo Mazzoni is a very positive person, but it was still difficult to understand him, and it was difficult to adjust to each other. It’s only been in the last year that we have begun to understand each other. We’ve had our ups and downs, but now we’re at a good place. We work well together. 

Erika Kirpu: I changed my fencing

Coach Angelo Mazzoni discusses a bout with Erika Kirpu

IG – You went through four coaches, and three of them in adulthood when it’s more difficult to change because an athlete already has an established worldview. How did you, as an athlete, handle this change?

EK – I was sure that I wanted something else. This is generally the engine in my life, I want to constantly develop. I’m not one of those people who stand still. I always look forward. As soon as growth stops, I feel it. I have no doubt that I have to find where to get it. 

I did have doubts initially. When I moved to Italy, I had no results. I felt the expectations from Estonia. It was as if they were hanging additional responsibility on me. Maybe I hung it on myself. The idea of “You moved for a better life, come on, then show the progress.” I had no results, and I couldn’t get to the table of the sixty-four five times in a row. I thought, “Well, that’s all. My ship has sailed.” But when you believe, work, and try, then you become interesting and diverse. Everything will work out. 

It was hard for me to readjust. It was difficult for me to move, to adapt to another coach. My example proves that it is possible to change and improve the fencing of an existing athlete. I changed my fencing. I’m glad about it. I can see more decisions for myself in a bout. It was not easy for me though. It could have been done more gradually, beginning with helping the athlete with what they already have. Then, they start to quietly accept your philosophy. Then you can do something more. 

Today with Angelo we have a great understanding! I do not get tired of what he brings to me. I like to study, I like that he gives me so many new things! In Italy, there is a completely different viewing angle of fencing and fencing traditions. They have a fencing training methodology. In Italy, when you are taught to train, it is a holistic and complex education. Everything is practically and scientifically explained there. It is very interesting.

IG – You had some failure for several years in the results, but the last season shows that you are moving in the right direction.

EK –  I am satisfied, yes. Nobody knows how everything will turn out, and I cannot promise that I will win. But it’s important to have a goal and it’s important to love the way you are going. I love this way. I had some moments when I didn’t want to go to the fencing club, when I didn’t have any energy. I went to the competitions and I wanted this to end, like it was squeezing out of me. Now I like it, I feel excited. It seems to me, this is the main thing – the excitement of doing the sport. Then the result is just a bonus. 

Of course I love to get a good result in competition! When I won Bronze in the last Grand Prix in  Doha in Qatar after I hadn’t medaled in such a long time, I had such euphoria. I thought I would explode with happiness. Nevertheless, throughout the season, even when I lost the matches I would use them as working matches, analyzing them with Angelo in quarantine. This will let me win all the bouts later. I have come to the conclusion that I love this path and regard these defeats as lessons, as experience, as an opportunity to learn something from this.

Fencing in Estonia

On top of the world – Estonia is Women’s Epee 2017 Team Champion

IG – How do athletes from Estonia live?

EK – In Estonia, if you are in the national team, this does not mean that you get paid. You’re just great, you’re in the team. To get money, you have to either medal at the World or European Championships, or make it to the top eight at the World Championships. In person or in a team. This gives you a salary and money for training for two years.

Theoretically, my salary should end in August, since two years have passed since my medal at the European Championship in Serbia. But since the Olympics were postponed, I hope that the salary will be extended. That is, the Olympic Committee helps, does not give up, and even if you do not have a salary, they find some money for training, for competitions, if you have established yourself. 

IG – Where do sponsors come from?

EK – Fencers have no sponsors. In Estonia, everything is usually done through acquaintances. Unfortunately, I don’t have such connections where I could receive financial sponsorship. Basically, we sponsor athletics, football, basketball, maybe a little skiers. Fencers aren’t on the list.

IG – Why is such a small country so successful in fencing? What is the secret of this country? 

EK – Estonia’s secret is that we have very strong traditions and trainers. Compared to Italy, we may not have as much knowledge, but we have very strong coaches from the former Soviet Union. It was a very strong school. Some coaches left, and many remained. They work with fencers from a young age. We are paid for the result, so we have to work for the result. The coaches are doing their best – this is their life. People are really enthusiasts in their field. They do a good job.

Generational continuity plays a big role. For example, we girls had someone to grow up with who was nearby in skill. Before us, Julia Beljajeva and me, there was, perhaps a small gap. Irina Embrich and Olga Alekseeva, who was the European Champion and World Champion in Juniors, they had the team. At the World Championships they took second place in Seniors. We had someone to look up to, and this also played a role. When I got onto the National Team, Embrich was and still is, and this is such an example! This is an important factor. Then, when we had money, we began to go to international camps. Now we are already on a different level, but it seems to me that we are even stronger than we were.

With men’s fencing, it’s not as good of a situation. We have the absolute champion Nikolai Novosjolov, a two-time World Champion, but this is a man who did not sleep and did not eat, dreamed about it. He did everything to get there, and he made it. This is such an incredible capacity for work, dedication, dedication to his work. I might not have even met it yet. It must be sought. 

Unfortunately, our sport is not massive. It is not so popular and accessible as football for example, which is available to every child. You correctly said that this is, if not the best, then one of the best sports in the world. I do not know a single person in the world who has explored fencing and has remained indifferent to it. In order for the fencers to have good sponsorship, it seems to me that we need to make it more accessible, more spectacular, more logical and more understandable to the ordinary person. 

IG – Erika, thank you so much for the interesting conversation! I enjoyed it a lot, I don’t even want to finish it.

EK – Thank you very much, good luck too! Have a nice day!

Erika Kirpu with her boyfriend Italian epee fencer Enrico Garozzo

This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Erika was wonderfully generous with her time. It is published with her approval on this blog. 

We at AFM extend our deepest gratitude to Erika Kirpu for her honesty and her openness. The lessons here are truly inspirational and important for fencers everywhere. Thank you Erika!

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1 Comment

  1. R

    You wrote “I’ve come to realize how unknown fencers are to the public. Even Olympic champions are known only to a narrow circle of fencers. Millions of people know what Serena Williams ate for breakfast yesterday but cannot name a single Olympic fencing champion.” How very, sadly true.

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