Almost four years ago, we interviewed rising star in epee Yuval Freilich, who at the time had just won his first Gold medal at the European Championships. At the time, we wrote that it would not be the last time you would hear from him, and that we predicted he would be a force in the world of epee over the next several years.
Flash forward to Doha, Qatar, earlier this month and the 2024 Grand Prix and Yuval once again took the top of the podium. This Gold medal finish takes him one step closer to the Paris Olympics this summer, which are coming up faster than we can imagine.
We talked with him about his training regimen in this Olympic year, the challenges of preparing for high-level competitions given the pressures of everything pushing on athletes right now, and what he sees next for himself and for fencing in general.
Igor Chirashnya: This victory was played out in the news all over the world, for many reasons that have nothing to do with fencing. How did it feel when you returned home from Doha?
Yuval Freilich: The night after the competition, I was already on the plane back to Israel. The truth is, I’ve completely disconnected from the media, from the press, and from the news, so I don’t know what was written and what was said. For me, the competition was a regular competition. I’m not blind to reality, I understand perfectly the significance of this competition apart from the sporting aspect. We had security guards with us there, and we had our own little special room that they put us in during the competition, but I approached it as normal competition.
IC: You’re an interesting fencer, which is something that we discussed last time. You have a lot of ups, but also a lot of downs. One of the most important things for me to understand is the mental perspective. Your results since the last time we spoke have been in the Top 16 at one tournament, then in some tournaments you don’t make it to the second day of competitions. I’ve watched you do this over and over again. And yet here you are, you keep going, and now you’re set to be the first ever Israeli male epee fencer to qualify for the Olympics.
YF: Early on in Juniors, I think I was a bit more sophisticated relative to the other fencers. So it was easy for me to have more consistent results in the Cadet and Junior competitions. My problem was when I arrived to the senior level, as we spoke about in our interview after the European Championships, was to keep the consistency throughout all the competitions. I think that the biggest challenge over the past few years was to find the right balance. In practice, it’s easier to fence and it’s easier to take risks and it’s easier to lose. In competition you can’t have that mentality.
It’s been a work in progress for a very long time, but in Doha everything came together. It didn’t happen by accident, we worked very hard on the mental perspective and the physical perspective and the technical perspective and the tactical perspective. We did everything that was under our control as well as possible. Hopefully, it can be the beginning of something more consistent.
IC: And because it’s a Grand Prix, it gave you more points and it really propelled you forward versus a regular World Cup.
YF: The results couldn’t be better for Olympic qualification or for world ranking, of course, but we still have three competitions. The challenge for every athlete is to be present in the moment and not think about what the result might be.
IC: How do you cope with this challenge? In general. What is your blindfold to keep the extra thoughts out?
YF: I’ve got my routine. Again, we spoke about it also after the European Championships. The routine that I do also in the competition specifically, but also in general. I pay attention to my routine and training, physical preparation, fencing, individual lessons, footwork. I’m going to do the same things. I know that if it works for Doha, it can work for the next three competitions. Before Doha, my position for Olympic qualification was good. It wasn’t as it is now, but it was good. Before Doha, there was even more pressure.
It’s not always about blocking out the bad thoughts or the negative thoughts, because bad thoughts and negative thoughts will always appear. They will appear before a bout, during a bout, after a bout, during training, after training. The challenge is to know how to deal with it at the time. Okay, there is a negative thought, but I will continue to pay attention to the fencing. It could mean more footwork, opening the distance, taking a breath. It’s difficult to control what thoughts come, but it is easier to control how we react to them.
IC: Do you still have that crazy red ball you bounce before competitions?
YF: I still use that. I probably lost the old one, but it’s still red and I still use it.
IC: People know it, it’s so recognizable, you jumping around with this ball. Do you do it before every match or just in the beginning with the warm up?
YF: Before every match. It’s the routine. In Doha, I had my fitness coach Yoav Azerrad, who is absolutely fantastic with me and we did the same warmup with the ball before every bout. A bit of movement to make sure that I get to the piste as prepared as possible.
IC: In Doha, you said that it was a kind of luck. When I looked back at the bouts, at these guys like Cannone or Vismara, it’s anything but easy.
YF: It’s true that these guys are not easy. A similar thing happened in the European Championships, where I had a very difficult time with Nikishyn, Beran, Santarelli, and Stankevych. It’s difficult to be physical when a fencer is taller and stronger than I am, so I have to use my tactical advantage. During these bouts, the clock was winding down and I had to get the lead at the end. I built the bout so they would have to run towards me at the end of the time. That might be why the scores were the way they were. All the bouts were very close in the middle – five – five, six – six, seven – seven, something like that. Then I got a lead, and time was running out, and that gave me the ability to open towards the end because of my defensive fencing. The bouts weren’t easy, you know.
IC: Which one was the most difficult for you?
YF: They’re all extremely difficult. I think the most difficult one for me was Borel, for the same reason as I said before. He’s so strong, and the physical and mental pressure that he puts into every point makes it a real battle. He’ll punish any mistake. The focus and the movement have to be a lot more accurate. Also with other fencers, but Borel especially, he punishes.
IC: Oftentimes for fencers, when they start the competition, they often have this feeling of “It’s my day.” It all comes together to create a feeling that you are in the zone. Did you have this in Doha?
YF: I understood that I was fencing well already on the first day. Not in the pools, but in the first knockout. I was fencing consistently with not many mistakes, and I knew that if I continued, I could get far. Of course, when you meet a fencer like Cannone or Borel, you don’t go up and say, “Okay, this is my day, and I’m going to win.”
I have to be very, very attentive all the time. But I understood that if I kept it up and things went well, they could go well until the end. The important thing is to stay in the present, in the moment and not to think too far away and not to lose the focus.
IC: You come from a country with a relative lack of a support system – a lack of training, sparring opportunities, coaching during competitions. All this creates a huge problem for fencers at the senior level when it matters. When your opponent has funding from the military or the government versus you with private sponsors and enthusiasts or parents. How is the situation right now for you and in general?
YF: Personally, I am not missing anything. I have an incredible sponsor in PBT Fencing for the past 11 years. They’ve supported me for a very long time with equipment and weapons. I’ve never had a problem with missing equipment, which is huge in fencing. It’s great quality equipment and it allows me to fence with a freer mind, knowing that I have that backing and support.
Besides the equipment, there’s other support from other places. We fencers have all moved into the Olympic Center, the Wingate Institute. We have our own hall and our own pistes, it’s like our home for training. I have all the backing and all the encouragement and all the support I need in every aspect. It would always be nice to have a sponsor to have more money to be able to live more comfortably, but for the basic things I need I’m covered. I can’t speak for other fencers, but I can say that the system and the organization in Israel today is better than what it was when I won the European Championships. It doesn’t specifically mean moneywise, but organization-wise, fencing is in a better place.
IC: Could you expand on that?
YF: First of all, the national coach is Alexander Ivanov. He finalized the move to this Olympic center for everyone to fence at. Before the war, we had Japanese Olympic champions come. Kazakhstanians came, Ukrainians came, Polish came, Canadians came. We had elite-level sparring partners who all came to Israel. The Czech team came. That was all incredible. For senior fencers and junior fencers, men and women, fencing with these top international fencers came from an organizational level. Angelo Mazzoni has been working with us for the past couple of years. Of course, Angelo is a legend. You know, when Angelo Mazzoni comes to coach in your country, you know you are in good hands—a privilege to train with him.
You have to start from the base of the organization, and when the organization is good, the chances that results will come are higher. A couple of years ago, we had Junior World Champions in women’s epee, and we on the men’s team came second in the European Championships team event. We have had young fencers who have always done well, but something seems more consistent, and I think the organisation has something to do with that..
IC: You mentioned Mazzoni.
YF: Yes. Angelo is a phenomenal coach. One thing out of many I have learned from Angelo is that if we want to be high-performance athletes, the only thing that is important is the fencing. When we are in competition, that is what is important. Anything else around should be irrelevant. If you think about the referee, the hall, your opponent, or something that disturbs you and you pay too much attention to that, then you’re not focusing on the fencing. I’m very privileged to be able to train with him, and he’s currently the only coach I train with.
IC: Can you describe your professional routine as an athlete?
YF: Before the war, Angelo would come to training camps in Israel and sometimes also international fencers would join. We’d have a one week or week and a half training camp with all the seniors and all the juniors, and all the cadets would come to the training camp and train together for a week and a half or so. Then we’d have five or six days of rest and then another training camp. Now with the war, I’ve been traveling to Angelo in Italy. I’ve been training a bit in Giardino, which is a beautiful club, and in Treviso, a club near Udine which has been incredibly welcoming and hospitable to me.
IC: I was there in Giardino three months ago – what a small club can produce is amazing. Probably one of the best.
YF: Il Giardino, yes. It’s a beautiful club and a very special club. You see the names and you see the trophies, it’s inspiring. The building is special, 400 years old or something. I trained with Angelo, and now because I’m a bit older, I don’t need to fence as much as I did when I was younger. When you’re young, you have to do a lot of repetition and a lot of practice. Physically, you build the base of your physical and technical abilities. Now I fence less, but every training has to be of higher quality. Every bout has to be of a higher quality. If I have a lot of time to recover, then I fence a lot, for repetition and practice. If I learn something in the lesson, then I do it in the training. I probably have four or five individual lessons with a coach during the week, three fitness sessions and maybe three or four fencing training sessions, depending on the period of the season. Altogether, it would be maybe 11 or 12 units of training during a week.
IC: How many bouts would you say that is?
YF: It depends on the opponents. For example, in Giardino, if there are 20 people there, I will try to fence with 20 people, because every bout there is very high quality and very difficult. If I’m training at a club with younger fencers, or the opponents aren’t as high quality, then I will try to do less and try to win each bout at 5/0 or 10/0 or 15/0. I try to make as few mistakes as possible. It depends on the opponent. Usually, during fencing training during the competition periods, I won’t fence more than an hour and a half of fencing. I remember when I was young, I’d do two and a half hours of fencing, three hours easy, non-stop. I wouldn’t get off the piste. Now it’s 1.5 hours with long breaks just to keep sharp. At some stage, you can’t add to the arsenal. We have our tools and it’s always difficult to add new things. Now we just need to apply the right tools in the right time, make the right decisions with what we’ve got.
IC: So about, five or six bouts during one half hour, right?
YF: If it’s up to 15, maybe a bit less, sometimes it’s up to 5 then a bit more, but yes.
IC: In Giardino, you probably fenced a lot with Vismara, so when you went to finals in Doha, it was kind of a different feeling, right?
YF: I’ve fenced with Vismara in the last three months, of course. He’s also fenced with me. It’s funny because in the last training before we left for Doha, we didn’t fence. Maybe we both had a feeling that something would happen. We didn’t fence, but I did have some idea of how I wanted to approach the bout because we fenced in the past. But the fencing world is so small and everyone knows each other. With video, everyone already has an idea what everyone will do.
IC: But it’s different when you fence a person only in competitions. When you have the chance to fence him during training, it’s a different level of knowledge.
YF: It’s a different level of knowledge, a different level of focus. It’s easy for me as a fencer to understand the mistakes I do in training. The challenge is minimising them in competiton. If, for example, I fence with just Vismara in training, I make these mistakes against him. In the competition, I will know what mistakes to avoid and that makes things easier, of course, on the piste.
IC: Among styles of fencing, you mentioned Nikishin. He’s a strong, unforgiving athlete who will leverage every mistake you make. You also mentioned Borel, strong and also very aggressive.
YF: Interestingly enough, Borel wasn’t so aggressive. In the end he had to be because I was leading, but in the first two periods, he was relatively passive. I fenced with him before and it was similar, so I wasn’t so surprised. In other bouts maybe he’s a bit more aggressive.
IC: The two kind of stand out as massive men; just looking at them is scary. What is your most difficult type of opponent?
YF: I don’t want to give away too much information, but I was a bit relieved when I saw that Vismara won the semi-final. I think fencing with an opponent like Imrek is extremely difficult because he has a unique style and he doesn’t give you any rhythm – it’s very difficult to know what will happen. I find that more difficult to fence with that kind of fencer. If I can fence a more classic fencer who I can understand the rhythm, I can understand the movement, I can understand the idea, it’s easier for me. Opponents with strange rhythms are difficult for me. People can either be very fast or very slow or have both. But if I understand the rhythm, then I can cope. If the rhythm is always changing and very strange, then it’s difficult.
IC: Yes. Imrek is one of the most prominent rising stars in American fencing. He’s the reigning National champion right now. He’s very young, very unique for sure. I hope he will even get to the Olympics. So, it’s about the rhythm and the feeling of timing?
YF: But I think that’s true for everyone. Imrek, because he is so unique, would probably be difficult for every fencer. Maybe for Borel no, but yes, he is challenging. But everyone has their weaknesses of course. If you find the weaknesses, maybe you can take advantage of them. Now of course, everyone has seen him. People see the video and people will start analyzing. It will be his responsibility to improve if he doesn’t want people to take advantage.
IC: The win in Doha propels you to #8 World ranking, and you wouldn’t fence the first day until the end of the Olympic qualification. It’s a different preparation, right? Like, you don’t have a chance to get to the rhythm of the competition on the first day. You might be fresher, but you don’t feel the same. How will this be different for you?
YF: First of all, I don’t like fencing pools at all. Some people enjoy fencing pools. I don’t. So this is great. From what I see from the other fencers who have been in the top 16 for a long time now, they know how to prepare for the first knockout. They make a simulation of a competition the day before, they wake up early. They warm up at eight or nine with all the fencers and maybe fence five or six bouts, as if they are fencing a pool. Then they go an extra two long bouts to fifteen, maybe have a lesson, do footwork. That way they can maybe get an idea of how they feel. It’s impossible, of course, to simulate the mentality and pressure of a competition. The first bout will be the competition. It’s also not so important to think about, because it’s just another bout. It’s like starting the pools only I started in a bout up to 15. The approach is the same approach sometimes overthinking can be disruptive.
IC: Doha in a sense was a record-breaking tournament. First, you broke the record as the first Israeli to win a Grand Prix. You put yourself on a path to qualify for the Olympic Games. It was also record-breaking for American fencing, with Husisan in the women’s and Ramirez and Imrek in the men’s. In recent years, we’ve seen American men in the senior circuit in the top 16, then the top 4, and now with two medals. With women we already got used to our epee fencers to often get to top positions on the circuit. It’s coming to be the norm. What do you think about American fencing now, from the outside?
YF: We immediately noticed the incredible results in Doha. The three Americans, three medals. I think it’s the most medals for a country in this competition. I also saw the Junior competition in Basel immediately after Doha, three Americans in the top four in the Junior competition. In 2012, they were Senior World Champions, they do have their tradition. They know how to do it. I don’t exactly know how the organization is in the States, if the team fences together, if they train together, how it works. The American system with the clubs and college, it seems like athletes in the USA have a platform to succeed. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. Ramirez is 37 and Imrek is 18, half his age, so there’s a wide range. It seems like there is always some American. It shows the depth in American fencing.
IC: You are still young 29, which for epee is very young. So there is another cycle that you definitely can do in LA. What your plans, how long do you plan to compete?
YF: The truth is it’s impossible to know, but the plan is, if everything goes smoothly to finish fencing in Brisbane 2032.
IC: Oh, wow. That’s fantastic.
YF: Yes. Who knows? At the moment, I’m hungry and I want to fence. It’s very possible that in a few months time I wake up one day and say, “Why am I doing this to myself?” and throw everything away. But at the moment the plan is to fence for another long while.
IC: That’s excellent. I do hope to see you on the podium. I believe you have all the tools, all the skills, all the mental toughness. I would love to have you at our World Champions Camp, if not this year then for the next one.
YF: Yes, I will put it in my diary. And if and if not in the World Champions camp, then maybe just come to the club and train during the year.
IC: Anytime, you have an open invitation. Thank you very much, Yuval! You have your fans in California, and we are going to cheer you up all the way to the Olympics and there as well. You are our first second interview, and the first one since the pandemic.
YF: Thank you. It’s very important what you are doing for fencing. These interviews let people get to know the fencers from a more personal view. I don’t know who else you’ll interview and when and how often, but keep it up. It’s good work.
Academy of Fencing Masters is incredibly grateful to Yuval Freilich for sitting down to share his insight with our readers. This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Yuval was so generous with his time. It is published with his approval on this blog.