“I have a demon inside of myself and when I fence, he comes out and he blocks me completely from expressing what I can do. So I came here to remove this demon.” – Nathalie Moellhausen
Who are you watching in fencing? If you are not following Nathalie Moellhausen, you are missing one of the brightest points of our sport.
This woman is an innovator in fencing. Not only on the piste, but in the world. Her social media will make you smile and challenge you to get better. We’re serious about this one – you should follow her on Instagram just as soon as you’ve read her mesmerizing interview – @nathaliemoellhausen. She is a positively captivating figure in fencing. Besides having a personality that makes you stop in your tracks, she has the championship athleticism and prowess to back it up. World Champion level prowess.
She started her epee career representing Italy, but now represents her mother’s native Brazil. Her fencing career began thirty years ago at the age of five, and to say that she breathes the sport is an understatement. She won her first World Cup medal in 2009 with a bronze, then went on to compete at the highest level through the 2012 Olympics, where she was an alternate. After a break from competition in 2013, during which time she worked with FIE as an artistic director, she roared back into the sport in 2014 under the Brazilian flag and made it all the way to the quarter finals at the Rio Olympics.
Nathalie Moellhausen is the current World Champion in women’s individual epee, and she has already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. In this meaningful and delightful interview, she talks about the mindset of a champion, the importance of losing, and how she is working to keep the sport alive and growing. She is a global citizen, a person who is an ambassador for fencing across the world. The real deal.
Interview with World Champion Nathalie Moellhausen
Irina: It is so good to talk to you! How is it going after reopening in Paris?
Nathalie Moellhausen: It’s still getting back to normality, but there are things that we cannot do. I cannot go back to training for the moment.
I’m going to start some private lessons with my coach Daniel Levavasseur. But we cannot train for fencing in a group, this is not allowed yet. Fencing in a fencing club is not allowed yet. Apparently it won’t be until September, but I hope it’s going to change. Maybe following the evolution of the situation maybe it’s going to be better. I hope, I really hope. Two months of training at home.
Igor: How do you train at home?
Training at home
NM: This period has been very evolving. As you know, we started out not knowing whether the Olympic Games would take place or not. So I was still with that intensity of training at the beginning, trying to maintain at home while waiting to know if the Olympics would take place at the end. Then, once we knew that the Olympics were postponed we did not know about competitions because until January probably we’re not going to compete. Maybe November but for sure not before. This means for a long period, we are not going to compete.
What I’ve done is to take advantage of this situation. It’s not the period where we need to charge the way that we do for a normal competition. I train every day a little bit, maybe in total I missed not more than five days of not training. If it’s only thirty minutes I think it’s important for maintaining. Just before speaking with you, I trained with my physical trainer. We did our second training out of quarantine together and I was impressed to see that the work that I’ve done at home with the teleconferences and everything worked. I feel quite good. I work flexibility. I work dance. I work a lot of stretching. Cardio, going for a run when I could. Trying to vary it a lot. I think this is very important, otherwise you get bored. I don’t do too much. I think since quarantine started I’ve taken two, sometimes three hours per day for training. Not more.
IR: Not too much! (laughing). It takes self discipline to stay home and continue to train. I think it would be a very good message to all the kids out there not to be lazy. Continue and be strong.
NM: I do a lot of live on my Instagram, so all of your members if they want to take part they’re welcome. On Saturdays and Sundays I do live training with Brazilian kids. Even if this is difficult for them, they’re so motivated and they love it. They keep fencing, they keep sending messages, they tell me how much they are improving. I think it’s important to share this moment and to give this example to others.
Before the pandemic I did a lot of social work in the schools and in the clubs, to develop fencing in Brazil because it’s not very known. Because of the moment, I said that I’m going to share my training online and continue with that work via Instagram.
IR: You invite kids to join your training.
NM: Exactly. Online. Not through Zoom but through Instagram live, but soon I’m also going to use Zoom through my website so they can also follow the training there.
IG: So in Brazil as the only fencing World Champion, you are a celebrity..
NM: Being a celebrity in fencing, it’s a big challenge. It’s not so known a sport, as you know. In Brazil it was not known at all. I’m not a big star, but it’s a long work. It’s not enough to be a World Champion. You need to work in another direction so it’s about the community, the communication through your experience and the work and socialize and do the work for the people.
IG: Maybe not enough to be World Champion, but maybe enough to be Olympic Champion.
NM: I think Olympic Champion would help a lot to clothe the package you know? (laughing)
IR: Let’s hope for that.
How to win at the Olympics
IG: You qualified individually for the Olympics, so there is no pressure to qualify. You are going to the Olympics as the World Champion and on your side you will have Daniel Levavasseur as your coach, who is arguably one of the most experienced coaches in the world. Where is your mind regarding the Olympics?
NM: Yes, I individually qualified for the Olympics. Now we are just waiting to know one hundred percent that the Olympics will take place.
I had dinner before, in February with Philippe Riboud, he was one of the world best fencers at his time, Individual Olympics Silver medalist, and he was a huge star in France at that time. During that dinner I asked him “What do you think you need to win the Olympics?” and he said “The Olympics are only in your mind. It’s something else. The one that will want it more will get it, with no pity for anyone.”
I really think that the Olympics are the most mental competition. The World Championship in terms of participants and difficulty, technical difficulty, I think it’s more intense. But the Olympics have fewer people. The pressure, the media, the my arriving as a World Champion, all this plays a lot. The work you need to do mentally is very, very important. That work mentally you need to start now, it’s a long journey. You don’t work mentally two days before the Olympics. That’s for sure. You need to work day by day on that part. It’s like a muscle. You need to train it.
Squeezing the opportunity
IG: I watched all your bouts in the last championships. When I looked at you, you were like a bowl of focus. I watched your fencing with Vivian Kong, the first 2 periods finished 8-8, and going to the third period it was unclear how the bout would finish. Then the beautiful, fantastically unexpected hand touch arrived. Was it prepared that you draw her arm at that touch, or did you see the opportunity and then execute the opportunity?
NM: It was an opportunity. I felt it. It is difficult sometimes to describe this feeling. The hit you are talking about was my favorite of the entire competition. It was so well executed and I think it was the first time in my career during competition. The reason was, well I train here with my coach a lot, but I was training a lot alone. Alone, alone, alone the speediness of my hand and the precision at home with a fencing arm target. What happened there at that point was that I didn’t think, but I felt it and my thought is that I’m going to relax to make her think that she can enter, and then I’m going to do the touch. She came, I did it like I was not prepared, and then when she came I did that. In that way I had a very fast reflex. I think in fencing it’s about feeling.
IG: I didn’t know it was your favorite touch! For me it showed that no matter how difficult the situation is, you know how to create the momentum that changes this. I saw it later on with Lin Sheng, a similar situation.
Finding the bravery
NM: There was a sentence that my coach was telling me since the beginning of that World Championship. He told me that you always have to take the risk. Take the risk, take the risk, take the risk. But sometimes you just cannot bring yourself to take that risk. It’s not enough to tell that to yourself, you need to feel it. You need to be convinced that it’s time to risk. Because sometimes you say it, but you don’t do it.
That day, it was the result of a long work. It’s not a condition you can get if you don’t work during many years, day by day. And then sometimes you arrive at the piste and you find that bravery, that courage to risk. This what happened at the last touch in the final bout. I said to myself “Ok, I have the priority, but I want that touch! I am not gonna wait. I’m not going to let this happen like that. If I lose, I lose, but at least I will not feel that I let it slip.”
Many times in the past I lost because I did not have that courage and I was so angry with myself because I could do it and I didn’t. It’s better to say that “I’ve done it and I lost” than to say “I didn’t do it and I lost.”
IG: So when you went to the en guarde line, you knew you were going to attack?
NM: The last touch, yes. Again, I would say in my mind when there was a priority, because priority for me as you said I was a little bit like in a bowl. I didn’t think about winning or losing. My attitude that day was touch by touch. I couldn’t lose that focus. That was my strength. Then I was not afraid. I waited for the moment. I felt it, and then I did it. But it was so fast.
IG: It was beautiful. I remember the look in your eyes, and then you went to pray. Daniel had trained the Chinese fencers previously. Did it help you that he trained Lin Sheng, the same person that you were going to fence in the finals?
NM: Actually, do you want to know the truth?
IG: Of course.
The mental game
NM: Against her, I lost my entire career. I could never score more than seven touches against Lin Sheng. It was a nightmare for me. In November of 2018, I went for a competition, a World Cup in Tallinn. At that time I was not training, I was working for the FIE as a director for the event. I went to the competition without training and I fenced her and I lost the competition fifteen to fourteen, and it was the best match forever in my life. I said to Daniel “I found something. I found a way that I think I could have won.” He knew that for me she was very tough and I’d never won against her.
But fencing is always about perception. When you change your perception about your opponent, you can win. Many times you block because you say, that person you cannot win against. You don’t like it, you don’t feel it. Honestly that day I thought I could. That day I was not afraid. I was very confident even if she was someone I always lost to. Daniel, of course, he gave me the strategy. Of course I adapted what he said. But I was very much on that feeling of Tallinn and how I adapted this with fencing against Lin Sheng.
IR: How do you train yourself on mental preparation?
NM: I’ve always been very interested in the mental part, which is quite difficult to define. It’s very difficult to say what works in fencing. About eight years ago I started working with some person on my path that have been giving me some sort of tips and tricks that worked for me. I think that every person needs to find their own way. I don’t say that my way is the right one, because I think it goes with your personality.
A common point is that we need to work with the breathing and learn to be in the moment. Fencing is a sport where if you lose the concentration for less than one second you lose a touch, because you are thinking of what your mother is thinking or what your coach is thinking, or if you would take that place or you are in the team. This is part of what happens with all fencers. With the time, the best is to learn to remove those thoughts. There are techniques to help you remove those thoughts and arrive at that day to live better with the pressure.
Training is the place where you can set up that state of mind. Many times when you do the training, you just train your body and you don’t pay enough attention to how much your mind is getting what you need to have. Sometimes when you are training and it’s not a good day, you give up. You say, no, today is not good. You get angry. Anger is something that happens a lot. It’s happened to me at times. Maybe you leave. Then I learned that when I was not good, I needed to stay with the training. I needed to do it well and do it there with a smile. Work and accept that it couldn’t be perfect. Because it was not perfect and I had to work on that.
I think you work and you train your mind as much as you train your body. In the same place, you have to be in your body in the moment. When you are in the piste, you need to be there. You cannot be anywhere else. Imagine, I won for one touch. If I was not one hundred percent there, I would have lost. I think this ability to constantly keep focus is the difference between a champion and a very good athlete. My recommendation is every fencer should try their right way to work the mind. There are many different techniques. Mindfulness. Visualization. Meditation. It’s very, very important.
IR: The same as physical training.
Fighting the demons
IG: Obviously you are a very successful athlete. Technically, you know everything. There are very few things that you don’t know from a technical perspective. Strategically, I think with your experience you also know a lot of things. Now it’s a mind game. When did you reach this level of understanding and maturity?
NM: I think losing is the key. As you said, technically I had everything. My anger was, “Wow, I can do everything. I don’t have a problem. I have such a variety of touches. I arrive at a competition and then I express myself at thirty percent. Why?” That was my question, because many times I lost without giving the minimum of what I could.
Then when I was growing up, I said that I cannot blame my mistakes on the coach, on everybody, on Italy, on the system.. It’s not the mistake of anyone if you don’t get what you want. It’s your problem. I arrived at that because I remember the first time I saw somebody for mental training, I told him that I have a demon inside of myself and when I fence, he comes out and he blocks me completely from expressing what I can do. So I came here to remove this demon.
This came because of losing. I think losing is a very precious experience to understand your emotions. To understand what happened. I think fencers should spend less time in giving the mistake to the sword, to the referee, to the coach, to the opponent, and to all these people. They should put their eyes inside of themselves and understand that it’s about something that happens inside. It’s like that, because I’ve been exchanging with other fencers.
When you go deeply at this point, you understand that all fencers, we have this. At one point, it’s the mind. It’s the emotion. It’s the panic. That’s why you need to learn to breathe. That’s why you need when you’re in a situation in life where you’re under pressure, to understand and learn to be calm. This is years of work. Years of work. Imagine, I won the World Championship twenty-five years after I started fencing. It’s a long process. I think passion is the secret in fencing. It’s a long term investment, you cannot learn it like that.
IR: So clear and inspiring. Only a strong person will take lessons from losing. The weak one will go with the flow. I feel it in my heart it’s so beautifully said.
NM: It’s important to live that experience because when you live that experience, people can feel it and identify somehow.
IG: Unfortunately it’s very difficult to apply to yourself. You seem to be a person of the world. You started in Italy, you live in France, you represent Brazil and you speak five languages. You had two coaches recently, you had Daniel and you had Laura Flessel.
Collaboration with Laura Flessel
NM: Laura jumped onboard in that phase, when Daniel was still coaching China until Rio 2016. He couldn’t be my official coach. He was still giving lessons because he was still in France. I didn’t have to go to China. When it was time to go on the piste, he couldn’t. So we started this collaboration where he was my fencing master, and Laura was like my manager and she was my coach and she was taking care of my training.
IG: How was this collaboration? She’s a fencing legend.
NM: Basically what happened is that we were friends since always. When I arrived in Paris, I was very little. She always took me like I was her younger fencer. We always had a good relationship. I was in admiration for her, she’s amazing you know. In 2013 I stopped one year fencing because again, I was working for the FIE. When I saw her she said “Look, I finished my career and I think you should go back to fencing. You cannot leave your career at twenty-eight years old. You are too young.”
Then I said I’m going to start this new project and I’m going to start for Brazil, and so I spoke with her. Daniel cannot be my coach officially. It was an amazing collaboration with Laura because we were having so much fun, she was like my mother you know. She knew so well the fencing circuit, she knows all the girls because she just stopped her career. She brought me so much in terms of attitude. I admire her as a fencer but also as a woman. She’s a three hundred and sixty-degree person. When you talk with her she brings you all of her experience. That was very cool.
We had a lot of eyes on us, a lot of eyes like what’s going on there. So we needed to get comfortable. I as a Brazilian and she as my coach in such a strange situation that I am Italian fencing for Brazil, trained by French coach. I think that then people loved the experience and even if they don’t say that, I know that they were admiring what we were doing because we were having fun.
IG: Tokyo is going to be your last competition or you think fencing beyond that? Maybe Paris, which is close to where you live.
NM: You know my problem is that until I get what I want, I don’t stop. So if I win the gold medal, I’m going to stop. If not, we will see. Depending on conditions for me, depending on many things.
Touching the world with a sword
IR: In one of your interviews you said a beautiful sentence, “I use my sword to touch this world.” What did you mean?
NM: Since I was twenty-two years old, parallel to my fencing career, I’ve been working to develop fencing in an artistic way. In the beginning, there were just some shows and it didn’t have a clear idea. I thought that fencing is a very mysterious sport and people don’t know the sport. They don’t know necessarily the beauty that is behind the sport. I think that art is the best way to talk about that because it’s an expression that gives a wider opportunity to share this experience.
So I started doing the shows, I started doing the performances, then I became art director in 2010 of the World Championships in Paris. Then I worked for the FIE twice as art director. Through all this expression, my idea is to touch the world through my experience and help people to love the sport. To touch the hearts of people with my sport. Through activities that are social, that are artistic, that are stylish as well. That’s why Five Touches is here under development. The idea is to share my experience of life with others. This is my intention.
IR: Let the world know that you love this beautiful sport. I want to tell you that you are a mesmerising person. You have this positive energy and this beauty.
IG: Thank you so much. We wish you all the success in the world.
NM: Thank you! Ciao.
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Nathalie was gracious enough to give us so much time and insight. It is published with her approval on this blog.
AFM is so very thankful to Nathalie Moellhausen for her tremendous spirit, her powerful information, and her precious time! The fencing community has a true leader and inspiration in this woman. Thank you Nathalie!