All fencers grow over the course of their career, but Italian epee powerhouse Mara Navarria has taken that growth to championship heights. She is a fencer with what might be called a simmering longevity in the sport, one who puts the time and hard work into her craft in order to build something that looks to be impossible to ignore in Tokyo next summer.
Though the Italian school of fencing is known for its tradition and rigidity, Mara has consistently broken with tradition in her training. This happened first with her formative coach Oleg Pouzanov, who incorporated Russian sensibilities into her fencing. After his tragic death in 2015, Mara refocused and rebuilt with French trained coach Roberto Cirillo. She currently trains away from the bustle of Rome in Rapallo, Italy, where she lived for 4 years. After the lockdown she moved to Carlino, her hometown in Friuli Venezia Giulia with her son Samuele and her physical trainer and husband Andrea Lo Coco.
What we learned from Mara Navarria through this interview is that innovation and creativity can meet with tradition and diligent work to create a new kind of champion. Her insight and her story is truly remarkable.
Interview with Mara Navarria
Igor: It’s nice to meet you Mara, thank you for doing this interview. How was your vacation?
Mara Navarria: Very, very good, but a little short.
IG: It’s always a little short.
MN: Yes, and it’s a pleasure to speak with you.
IG: I have a lot of things to talk to you about. I follow you as an athlete, and I think your fencing is always becoming more interesting. I think you’re one of today’s leading fencers and obviously you are a World Champion. I hope to see you in the Olympics Games.
MN: Thank you so much Igor. Don’t worry: I’ll be at the Olympics Games.
Training for the Olympics
IG: How are you preparing for the Olympic Games now?
MN: Yes, I do. I start every day with the gym and the piste. Now I thinking that I need to reorganize for the new season. Next week, I have a meeting with my team and I’ll organize all training sessions for the next months, I’m waiting for January and for the competitions.
IG: How many people are on your team?
MN: My team is my training coach, my team coach, my fencing coach, my husband for the physical. Another is like for physio, one doctor, so . . . six. Well, my son and my parents too. There are a lot of people in my team.
IG: It’s impressive that the Italian professional fencer has a personal team of six people that work only with them.
MN: Not only with me, but OK.
IG: How do you train?
MN: This is my training routine: gym, pool for arena training, mental training, video analysis and piste. Roberto, my fencing coach, just Monday he came. He lives usually in Genoa but he moved to Rapallo in 2016. Now in September he moved to my hometown, in Friuli Venezia Giulia: we worked together in ASU Udine and we train also a lot of young fencers, our future of sport.
IG: So from now until the Olympic Games in Tokyo is one year.
MN: Yes, one year to Olympic Games. I hope that everything will be alright and I hope to be in Tokyo next July to catch my dream.
IG: How do you find training partners?
MN: In Rapallo, there were strong people for training, now in Udine I train three times a week with several people. We have one national training camp in a month. I used to train with competition, and we used to have the national team for training camp. Before Covid-19 I used to go to train in different clubs around Italy, from Torino to Genoa to improve by fencing training.
IG: It’s always like this?
MN: Yes, for the first part. But now after lockdown I’m not able to train in other clubs so easily.
IG: It’s very unusual.
MN: We had a lot of time with the national team. Yes, we used to practice fencing morning and afternoon for all the training weeks. We used to do this. Then we came back home just for lessons, technique and for the private training with the team.
IG: How many hours a day do you work?
MN: Depends. Two, three, four, five, six, seven is depending how many trainings I have. Just matches are one or two hours, fencing lessons are one hour, physical is one hour and a half, and then if I’m also diving one hour more. I try to separate morning, afternoon, evening, so I have little time to spend with my family.
Balancing family and fencing
IG: Your husband is your personal trainer. How do you separate work and life together?
MN: We work a lot together but when happen it’s just work and not family time. For example today at half past eight in the morning, I had a session of physical therapy and then we moved to the gym for my physical session. Andrea in the gym is only my trainer, when we go out to the gym and we are at home, he’s my husband. We know we have this space.
I managed to get to the top and keep myself at the top thanks to a great methodical team. I prefer to give priority to quality work rather than quantity. These allow me to keep the rules. Mom, wife, and athlete, I try to keep them separate and create great concentration. Becoming a mother allowed me to greatly focus on this aspect. This for me is so important for the value of me as a woman. I work hard.
IG: No discussion.
MN: No discussion. We can’t speak about family’s issue during my physical session and we don’t talk about our work when we have family time. It’s a rule.
IG: Wow. That’s difficult.
MN: A little bit but If you’re used to doing it, like a routine, it’s not hard. It is important for me, routine is important.
IG: Do you want your son to be a fencer?
MN: If he wants to choose fencing like a sport, for me it’s ok: it’s important that he feels free to chose his favorite sport.
IG: Does he want to do fencing now?
MN: No, he plays tennis and he swims.
IG: Family has always been a part of your fencing. Why did you choose epee when your brother and sister did saber?
MN: I started with foil like all the people I think, then I placed up. I didn’t like the convention because a lot of times this is my attack, there is no change. This is my parry riposte, no change. I chose epee because it didn’t have convention just like that. I tried to do saber and epee, I did both, and then I chose epee because in one tournament I got bronze. The medal’s power. I like the fit.
IG: Athletically you’re very strong so you can be a very good saber fencer.
MN: Yes, I do but I don’t like the convention: I don’t like that other people can decide for me. I don’t like a lot of refereeing for me: I touch, I win. The saber is still very, very nice to see. So fast and technical, I like this especially in the masculine version.
IG: Yes. The Italian men’s saber team is also very strong. Italian men’s epee team is also very strong.
MN: Yes. They are so young but so good.
IG: Some of the young, some of them old masters.
Incorporating international fencing styles
IG: When you moved to Oleg, you moved to Oleg because your coach died.
MN: Yes, in 2005.
IG: In Italy there are many great coaches, and yet you chose a Russian coach, Oleg Pouzanov. Why Oleg?
MN: I don’t know. I followed my heart, my brain and my sword. I choose a different type of life and a new fencing coach: I was so far away from hometown and from my comfort zone.
IG: The Russian school of fencing is very different from Italian school.
MN: It’s very different, It’ s not only a question of technique but also a different way to feel the touches on the piste.
When I started, it was not easy for me because I tried to smile every time. I tried to stay in feeling with the people without speaking and explaining my problems or my goals. With Oleg I built a nice and wonderful feeling and a great relationship, but not from the start. I was so young and I needed time to understand him so we started to understand ourselves without speaking.
IG: You were not concerned that the style of Oleg was different from the style of Italian school?
MN: No, not at all. It is the opposite because the feeling on the blade and the engage was so different. You have a different timing for the engagement and different feeling on the blade. I also chose Oleg for this because he spoke with me about the contact of the blade. I understood when it was good or when it’s not correct, just the big feeling that I have inside of me.
IG: And now your feeling is like what?
MN: It depends on the opponent: if I have a Chinese style fencer against me it’s good, for the Russian fencing is perfect, but sometimes I have more challenges against Estonian opponents. Because of my training with different styles I can change a lot. I can choose to use an action, to use different style of engagement. I like to do this: I can choose and my opponent, she doesn’t understand what’s happened. One touch close, one touch, big distance, one touch two times engagement, one touch one time. Or change also the target, Russians use lots of types of target, not only the big target.
IG: Because you worked with Oleg, you are able to do this?
MN: Yes. This is Oleg’s legacy.
IG: What was so special about him? I know that when you won the gold medal in Doha, you wrote his name.
MN: He was like a second father. He was the partner that I saw every day of my life for 10 years, from Monday to Friday. We spent a lot of time together in the last two years, also our free time together in Rome: he didn’t like Rome because the big city was so different from a Russian city, but he spent I think eighteen years in Rome. Oleg during our collaboration explained to me, a lot of types of motivation in the piste: “never stop if you think you can win and never give up”. He’s a special person for me.
IG: Now you moved to Rapallo, so you spent the last four years with Roberto. Has he taken your fencing back to Italian?
MN: Yes but Roberto is from French school, but he worked with the Italian schools.
IG: So you got a mix?
IG: And from your perspective, that’s a good thing, right?
MN: I hope.
Transitioning from Junior to Senior fencing
IG: You were a very successful junior fencer. You had many junior medals and then you moved to senior. Was it a difficult transition?
MN: My transition from Junior to Senior was complex. I joined the army in my last year in the under 20 category. I lived in my hometown in the northeast of Italy. When my coach, my maestro died, I was alone. I didn’t know what to do. My future was uncertain because I was in such a fragile moment during the transition to the senior category. I moved from my very small village of Carlino in the countryside in the northeast to the Italian main city, Roma. I started to study at the university and fenced. From 2005, I was alone in a big city. I tried to balance my university life with my training. In the meantime, I was trying to survive in the Italian Senior competition for three years, from 2005 to 2008, with no medals or podium or achievement. In Italy the senior category is very hard. My first achievement was in only 2008 when finally, finally I finished in a national competition in the first sixteen. In 2010, I joined the Italian epee team and here I am. It was a big adventure for a young woman. I tried to give and get the best from these new opportunities, from the university life and from my coach.
IG: How did you take the challenge of constantly losing when you transitioned to Seniors? Did you doubt yourself? How did you overcome difficulty to reach greatness?
MN: Oleg believed in me and I knew I needed to push through to overcome this and I will eventually start getting the results. I had faith.
IG: Your example shows that if you work hard and you believe and you have patience, eventually it pays off and eventually you will have great success.
MN: The first thing is that destiny is strange. During the 2014 and 2015 season I expressed to Oleg what I wanted. Before I was always on the podium, I expected what happened in London 2012. Oleg and my family, especially my son Samuele, they gave me strength. After Oleg died in 2015 and I had to get my life back again, it was the three of us – me, my husband Andrea and our two year old son. Before leaving me, Oleg told me clearly that I had to train with Roberto in Genoa. In general, he had a clear vision of my future in fencing. So I started training for three days in Genoa with Roberto and three days in Rome with the basic physical training with Andrea my physical trainer, who also became my husband. In 2016, we moved to Rapallo to have a better work life balance and this year I moved back to my hometown, Carlino.I am a mother, an athlete and also a wife, so I felt the need to improve our quality of life and I did it. It was so important to me.
IG: So now this balance is good. Where do you live now?
MN: Now I live in Carlino, in my small village in the countryside in the northeast of Italy. I thought that this is my place and I needed to stay where I want to stay with my family, near to my parents, near, to my friends, my sisters, my brother, I need to stay here. And here I can do a lot of things. My balance is here, especially the nature that is my energy.
IG: You spend a lot of time in nature?
MN: Yes. There is only nature here. It’s close to the sea, but the mountains are one hour by car
IG: I know that you are a diver, do you do that now?
MN: Yes my training pool and my coaches, Alessandro Vergendo and Rosarita Gagliardi, are here in Friuli Venezia Giulia, near to me. So now it’s easier and every week I do my diving exercises with them.
IG: Diving, is it important for your training?
MN: Sure! Not only for the fencing, but diving helps me as a person. I feel the water and I understand deeper what I’m doing. In the water, I can also think a lot, and I like this.
Fencing with the Italian women’s epee team
IG: The Italian women’s epee team, they tend to have success individually, but as a team it’s sometimes mixed.
MN: The Italian fencing teams are very, very competitive, not only in epee but also in foil and in saber. I finally met my teammates in July and the first national team meeting since the covid emergency. I was very happy to see and meet them. We left each other in March after Budapest and the Olympic qualification. I think that we are growing together as a team. I’m very satisfied with the result we have achieved in the last six months before the covid, but the team is not easy like an individual, because we are a team. The team doesn’t work every time like the individual, there are a lot of things that can change the rules of the match.
I think the team can grow up a lot because we, Rossella and I, can support Federica Isola and Alice Clerici.
IG: What do you think about the Italian team in Tokyo? Do you think, as a team you have a good chance?
MN: Yes, I do: we fit it. We work and we are still working for days. I know that the Covid changed a lot of balance but I think and I saw in July when we met together, that we want to have a big chance. We wanna be ready to catch it.
IG: What do you think are the best teams in the world today and why?
MN: For the epee I think the Italian one. (laughing). We don’t have a problem to fence with China, Russia. There are teams that have a lot of balance like Poland and sometimes also Russia and China or Estonia. We can talk about this after the next July.
IG: And you think that the Italian team is the best?
MN: I think that we do have a good chance.
IG: What about the American team?
MN: The American team has a good balance: they are very strong.
IG: Well, the best match that you had was with Anna Branza at the World Championship.
MN: I agree with you, I grew a lot there. I expressed my fencing very well. I said: «Ok, I need to close the match because I spent a lot of time engaging». When we say to balance within this scored point, I saw that I needed to work with my special counterattack. Then I said: «I want to move to the game to defeat. I was in balance and I wanted to win». That’s it, I won!
IG: Did you know that you were going to win?
MN: When we started the third period I felt it.
IG: I see, and you won.
MN: I think this is what they call the flow, to be in the zone. I touched the flow. It was good timing for me to be in the zone because my fencing became so easy for me. There are some matches that are so hard with the head, with the physical, and then this time with three minutes, it was easy. It’s incredible.
IG: What happened? How did you get into the zone?
MN: I just got into this clear place, this easy place. I felt like I’m not heavy and instead I am fast. I’m doing what I do every day, not what I spent a lot of time preparing to perform. Simply do.
Like easy, but incredible, but it’s easy.
IG: It’s easy because of 20 years of hard work.
MN: Right! It looks easy, but yes, I lost a lot of matches before winning the World Championship.
A unique approach to bout analysis
IG: How do you take it when you lose?
MN: After the competition I do a lot of questions to myself. I look at it, like I lost it, why? Is it only my problem or was my opponent so strong? Why, when, and what can I do the next time? Is it just the technique, or is there something I can do in the next match? So I come back home and I start to work harder.
IG: So you always analyze the reason.
MN: Yes, I do. It’s important to analyze. Now I do this not just immediately but in a few steps. Immediately, then after two days, then after one week, because the emotional sensations change. When you have a strong emotion, you are feeling different at the time. If I have a video also I look at the video and then analyze again.
IG: Oh, that’s interesting, so you do a three-step analysis.
IG: And which one is usually the right one? The one week?
MN: No one. The last one is more technique. The first one is mental. It’s good for my mental coach to analyze the problem. Then the third one is important for the fencing aspect.
IG: What is the second?
MN: I use this for writing what happened.
IG: Well, that’s very interesting. So you analyze one day later, you analyze mostly the mental part. You still remember your feelings, right?
MN: Yes, because the feelings change. Last week something happened, but it changed. One the day there is one feeling, tomorrow another feeling. Because the brain is delayed in processing it.
IG: And you write.
IG: Do you share it with somebody, or it’s only for you?
MN: I sometimes share, sometimes not, with my coach or my mentor. During the lockdown, I wrote about the competitions in the last year, and I focused on analyzing them. Now am I like last year or I’m changing? It is important for me and for how I feel in the future. What can I do in the future?
IG: It’s a very professional approach. Is it something that you came to yourself or that your coaches told you to do?
MN: Both. I can change for the person and the techniques. Also like my husband says to me sometimes: look at the knee, look at the feet, the distance is not so fast, it’s better to take that parry or another. There are a lot of things we can change. A lot of things that it’s possible to analyze.
IG: So you spend a lot of time analyzing?
MN: It is important, analyzing, yes. It is a big part of training.
IG: Do you watch your opponents before you go to competitions?
MN: Yes, I do. I spent a training session during the lockdown with my coach doing this.
IG: It’s a really fascinating process, and the part about your preparation and your analysis is very important I think. What would you recommend for young fencers?
MN: Enjoy your time with sports, because sport is not only gym, but the time that is spent with other people. Work for something that is important for you. I think this is important for young people. Enjoy the time with other people and the feeling with yourself during fencing because with the mask you can do special things. Such different actions for the same opponent.
IG: Tokyo is next, what after Tokyo?
MN: Right now, my future is only Tokyo and I don’t want to look beyond Tokyo.
IG: A champion’s perspective. Thank you very much, I wish you a lot of success.
MN: I really enjoyed it. Grazie, ciao ciao.
This interview has been edited down for time and readability after our wonderful interview with Mara Navarria. It is published with her approval on this blog.
Thank you so much to the powerful fencing champion Mara Navarria, whose insight and innovation are a guide for champions of every weapon. Her insight gives powerful fuel for training and development for fencers!