The first half of this Olympics, which showcased the individual events in fencing, was full of surprises, great stories, and the birth of new stars in fencing who brought a great deal of pride to their nations. The surprises went in both directions – frustrating, unpleasant, and disappointing, as well as inspiring, motivating, and uplifting
This is what we come to the Olympics for, this huge spectrum of emotion and inspiration. It’s the depth of the experience that is so incredibly satisfying.
The uniqueness of the Olympics
One of the most beautiful things about the Olympics is that it offers us the biggest sports drama on the biggest stage. The stakes are highest in the lives of the athletes because for many niche sports, this is the only time that the world is watching. The international news only covers rowing, gymnastics, swimming, and fencing once every four years! Even for mainstream sports like basketball, the Olympics offer a rare opportunity to represent a country with pride. It is a moment that is unlike any other, given the worldwide attention and the patriotism.
The Olympics are arguably the most nerve-wracking experience for athletes. That pressure usually falls hardest onto the favorites of a sport, the strongest in the field of contenders. They have to prove to the whole world that they are indeed the best. In a sport like fencing, it is extremely difficult for the leaders to perform at the Olympics at the level that is expected from them. Those athletes who are not quite so far at the front, the underdogs of the sport, they have nothing to lose. That makes the race fundamentally different for them.
The newly crowned Olympic Champion in men’s individual foil, Edgar Ka-Long Cheung, said in this interview after winning the Gold today, “I thought to myself – everyone was either an Olympic champion or a world champion, and I was nobody. That helped me relax a bit”
Predicting is unpredictable
When anyone tries to make predictions about the outcome prior to the start of the Olympic Games, they always base their conjecture about the top athletes on what they have seen before. They couldn’t even remotely factor in the unpredictable nature of nerves and the tremendous pressure the leaders in fencing have on their shoulders.
I made my own predictions in a recent post, and I was quietly confident in my ability to have some idea about what would be coming. Sure, no one can know everything, but how wrong could I have been? Let’s just say this – it looks like I shouldn’t play in Vegas 🙂
Let’s get into what really happened in the individual competition.
My prediction – “France’s Borrel, Russian’s Bida, Hungary’s Siklosi, Venezuela’s Limardo, Swiss Heinzer, and any Italian can claim the title.”
The results – France’s Romain Cannone, a complete underdog who was ranked 47th at the Senior level and had maybe one or two top 8 finishes in the World Cup, became an Olympic Champion. This was the first time in the last almost thirty years that an Individual Epee Champion came from France. Siklosi won Silver, and Igor Reizlin from Ukraine won Bronze, beating Italian Santarelli.
Watching Cannone was especially thrilling for us since he was a long-time student of our coach Dima Chumak, back before Romain left for France a few years ago. In his unstoppable climb to the world highest podium, he beat 2012 Olympic Champion Ruben Limardo, powerful Russian Sergey Bida in quarterfinals, Ukrainian Reizlin in semis and Siklosi in the final. All of these are titled athletes with much more success under their belts than Cannone. This was the first beautiful story of the Games, but only the first!
My prediction: I think the medals will be divided between Popescu, Moellhausen, Lin Shen, and one of the Italians.
The result: Incredibly surprising! Yiwen Sun from China took Gold in a nail-biting bout against Ana Maria Popescu. It went all the way till the end of the regulation bout, with each fencer taking a lead of one point and then giving it back, until 10-10. In the priority minute, Sun won a touch.
My favorite discovery in the women’s epee was Aizanat Murtazaeva from Russia, who is still a junior fencer. She went all the way to the semi finals unbeaten with beautiful fencing. I think that if there weren’t a two hour break between quarterfinals and semifinals, she’d still be in the zone. She lost a semifinal and then a Bronze medal to Katharine Lehis from Estonia. Lehis, a 2018 European Champion, won a first-ever Olympic fencing medal for Estonia, which is a huge thing for such a tiny country. It’ll be exciting to see where she goes next!
My prediction: Szilagyi, Oh, and Derswitz will be on the podium. Aron Szilagyi made history becoming the first male fencer to win individual Gold three times. It’s not without reason that it took 125 years to reach this milestone (read above), so I predict that it will stay for many generations.
The result: Aron Szilagyi, Italian Luigi Samele and Korean Junghwan Kim.
There was an unprecedented mistake in the quarterfinals in Georgian Baladze and Korean Oh bout, which awarded an extra point to Baladze, and potentially changed the course of the bout, depriving Oh of a chance for a medal (thanks to CyrusofChaos for catching and sharing this!). Unfortunately, none of the American sabre fencers made it, with Dershwitz falling in the round of 16, and Homer and Mackiewitz in the round of 32. It’s the way of the competition, and though we’d hoped to see some American men in the semi-finals at least, we’re still super proud of Team USA. We will be rooting for their comeback as a team.
My prediction: Russian-USA-Kharlan podium.
The result: There was a huge surprise in this event! Olga Kharlan, World #1, the Ukrainian super powerful 4 times World Champion, lost to Chinese Henguy Yang, ranked 45, in the first bout in the table of 32. The reason, I guess, nerves! Unfortunately, Zagunis also lost in the quarterfinal to Sofya Velikaya, who eventually took Silver.
For Velikaya, the Olympic Games represent a neverending Silver medal. In the last 3 Olympic Games, she took the individual Silver medal. Twice, in Rio and Tokyo, she lost to her much younger teammates. In Rio she fell to Egorian and in Tokyo to Sofia Pozdnyakova. But what great sportsmanship Velikaya shows in her defeat! Her character so matches her surname! Pozdnyakova is the daughter of legendary Russian sabre fencer Stanislav Pozdnyakov, and she now adds to the family heritage her own Olympic title. French Manon Brunet took Bronze.
While it was disappointing to see Zagunis out in the quarterfinal as we were hoping for a medal, the whole series was incredibly powerful to watch. These are some of the greatest legends in fencing, all going after the podium in Tokyo. It was thrilling to watch!
My prediction: It will go down to anyone from the American Team (Massialas, Meinhardt, Itkin), anyone from Italian team (Garozzo, Foconi, Cassara) and the French Lefort. Narrowing it down, I would put my bets on Meinhardt, Focony, and Lefort.
The result: In the men’s event, Edgar Ka-Long Cheung from Hong Kong, winning unthinkable bouts became an Olympic Champion, became the first fencer in Hong Kong history and only second in any sport for the city to win Gold.
How far I was from reality! Unfortunately none of the Americans, clearly the favorites, succeeded in moving past first or second bouts. Foconi, a world #1, had an unbelievable defeat at the hands of the Cheung, who was clearly on fire that day – 3:15.
The final podium was Cheung (Gold), Garozzo (Silver), who was trying to defend his Rio title but fell short to Cheung, and Czech Alexander Choupenitch seized Bronze.
We always say “one touch at a time”. This was clearly visible in the quarterfinal bout of Cheung with Kirill Borodachev from Russia, who was leading 14:9 over Cheung. One touch at the time, Cheung closed the gap: 10:14, 11:14, 12:13, 13:14, 14:14, and then he put a decisive touch, winning 15:14 and putting himself on the path to the Olympic Gold.
The whole series reminds me of the story of Sungyoung Park and Imre Geza in Rio’s epee final, when Geza was leading 14:10 and eventually lost 15:14 to Park, losing with it the Olympic Gold. Such victories show that no matter the score, you should fight one touch at the time until the final halt.
Women’s Foil – my closest prediction!
My prediction: I think the usual suspects will make it to the podium: Deriglazova, Volpi, Errigo, Thibus, and, hopefully (fingers crossed!), Kiefer. Each one is capable of reaching any individual title, with Deriglazova leading the pack.
The result: History was made – Lee Kiefer became the first US foil fencer to win the title, the first woman foilist to win a US individual Olympic medal, and what a treat – Olympic Gold!!! The podium was: Lee Kiefer (Gold), Inna Deriglazova (Silver) and Larisa Korobeynikova (Bronze) who beat Italian Alice Volpi for the Bronze medal.
During the pandemic, I interviewed legendary Valentina Vezzali, 6-time Olympic Champion. She praised Lee and said “I have to say that Lee Kiefer is very good too, even though she did not get good results in the Olympic Games or in the World Championships. I think that she just needs to believe more that she can do it and she will be able to do it.”
That resonated well with the interview that Kiefer gave after earning the Gold. She said that the family and her coach gave her a lot of confidence boost and finally it played well. In the final, she beat Russian Foil Empress, 3 times World Champion, and the reigning Olympic Champion, Inna Deriglazova. What a history!
Reflecting on the individual fencing events in Tokyo 2020
The individual events brought with them a lot of joy, surprises, new discoveries, and pride for the winners. There were also of course a lot of disappointments and tears for those who wanted (and needed) to show better results, but that’s the Games and that’s the beauty of it. The heart of the Games is not about winning, it’s about getting stronger and growing. We learn every four years (or five in this case) to find as much meaning in loss as we do in victory. It’s one of the best parts of this process, the most important surely.
Now there are team events, which will have a totally different dynamic. I am sure we will have fewer surprises than in individual events. What might, and probably, will happen in the team events, is that those teams in which fencers had high aspirations for the individual medals will now make their play for a coveted medal. It’s the last chance to get to the top of that podium and the athletes will be fighting hard to get there. The heat of this fight will be intense.
One thing that differentiates team qualification and individual is that teams are very close to each other in the international ranking. Each one qualified based on their merit of being in the top 16. Whatever it will be in teams, I expect every match to be very close and that the final scores will be within the range of 5 points between two teams. There would be a lot of great sports drama!
We are so looking forward to the teams! The Olympics keep on pushing us to challenge ourselves and to grow. What an astonishing finish for the first round with the individual events, but now we get to move on to the excitement of the team rounds!