There is an old idea that some people are old souls trapped in young bodies. Gergely Siklosi definitely falls into that category.
At the mind blowing age of twenty-one, he won the World Championships in epee last year in Budapest. Senior Men’s Epee Fencing is not a sport of youth, not at this level, and Siklosi shows an understanding of the sport that is well beyond his years. His view of what it means to be an athlete, how fencers should train, and what it is important to focus on will take you by surprise. It definitely took us by surprise.
What you’ll find in this interview is a young man who has a firm handle on what it means to push yourself in a balanced way. He uses innovative training techniques that are accessible to every fencer, and his reasons for using them are sound. They obviously are effective!
We don’t know what the future holds for Siklosi, except to say that this is just the beginning for this bright and powerful fencer from the tiny town of Tapolca in Hungary. Whatever happens for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, we can assure you that you have only just begun to hear about this tremendous young fencer.
Gergely Siklosi Interview
IG – One of the things that I want to talk about is first of all the last championship. In the last fifty years or so, you are the youngest World Champion in men’s epee. I think this championship was unique. There were a lot of people that we thought would be World Champion. I don’t think that anybody thought that Gergo Siklosi would become World Champion.
GS – That was only me I think. (it’s too egoistic I think, so maybe only I thought that I’m capable of it)
IG – Did you think that you could win the championship?
SK – Yes of course. Before the world’s there was a World Cup in Paris, and for the first time I got on the podium. I found that I could have won that competition, and I was not happy enough. So I was like “I will keep going on at the European Championship.” I lost to Borel for the top 16 there and I felt like he was better that time, but I just didn’t care. I focused on my training and not on what my teammates do, I focused on myself and myself only. I just set goals for myself that I had to improve from the European Championship to the Worlds.
I took some breaks before the championship. I trained less to get some hunger for the competition. It worked. For two weeks before the World Championship, I didn’t train that much and that hard because I felt like I needed to rest a little bit. I followed the vegetarian diet right before Worlds for three months, and I stopped it one week before the individual competition. These things boosted me that day.
I gave myself my best form for that day, but it wasn’t as conscious as I wanted it to be.
IG – Did you use this technique before, or it was the first time that you decided to do this?
SK – I have experienced the training less before a competition. It makes me better because I have a little bit more competitiveness and strength. When people train a lot right before a competition, they go into the competition and they are tired and they don’t want to fence that much. I always like to boost myself before the competition week. I did it before but it was a longer one, it was two weeks. I did not stop training, I just trained differently. I did a lot of regeneration trainings and regenerating with this diet. I haven’t done this before. Three months being a vegetarian and then one week before the competition I changed it back to eating meat. It certainly gave me a boost that day. I was faster. I was stronger. I practiced self discipline for three months before competition and it was like a transformation that day.
IG – What transformed you?
SK – When you don’t do something for a long time, like when you don’t drink coffee for three months. You get used to not drinking it. When you start doing it again, it gives you a bigger boost than before when you are used to it. That’s what I have done with meat. Before, I didn’t have this kind of boost. That was not my key, it was just one thing in my preparation. It did not make me win that World Championship. I just believed that anything can happen and I did a huge preparation. This is one of them. My mentality. My training. Practice modes were also in it. A lot of things made this a success.
Winning the Gold
IG – Silver medal in the World Championship and age twenty-one is a huge achievement by itself. Especially from a person that never up until this point did so well on senior cycle. My feeling basically was that most of the touches that you scored against Bida mostly were like his mistakes than your tactics.
SK – At first I started with dominance. Then he changed tactics and he did that very well so he surprised me. He went to thirteen-ten and up until that point, he was dominant through the game from five-two. That was the score in the beginning for me. Then he changed tactics, he knew what to do, he set me up many times. But he made mistakes that I scored from. That’s a true settlement.
IG – What changed from your perspective?
SK – Do you remember the Hungarian Géza Imre from Rio?
IG – In fourteen-ten? I do remember very well, yes.
SK – When a fencer is leading at the end by enough points that he thinks and everyone thinks that he’s going to win by performance – usually people think about “I’m going to win” and they get calm – they don’t focus that much, and then the other one can change the whole thing. That’s what happens. Both fencers are needed for this. He needed to get calm in order that I don’t start making points, and I needed to feel and embrace the opportunity, meanwhile I do it.. So maybe it is correct that it is he who lost the final, more than I won it. It’s an usually thing in epee fencing I think.
IG – Did the fact that it was in Budapest and your home crowd affect you?
SK – It was a boost. They say that it can affect you two ways – boosting a person or making it a burden. It just always boosts me when I have someone behind me like a crowd or like my loved ones or anything. I just like to show them what I know and what I’ve got. So it was certainly a boost from the day before, the qualifications, to the main day.
IG – Is there one kind of fencer that you don’t like to fence?
SK – I don’t think you can make it a certain country because the statistics say that most of the time I lose to Russians, but I have been improving. I have been getting better. Now it just doesn’t matter who comes. I have to solve a problem on the piste. I just look at my opponent’s weaknesses and strengths and I analyze the bout. Then I don’t care who’s the person coming against me. I’m like a machine in this way
IG – That’s an interesting definition that you are like a machine. A lot of people say that you are very physical and your fencing has a lot of athleticism, that you have a perfect sense of timing for counterattack. You do less parries in your defence, but do you also have a fast attack when you see the opening right?
SK – Yes, I think that was the style which described my fencing in that championship, but this mainly the last half year. I can really parry and I use it a lot, but I like to attack. I like to make a piste look good, and I usually hate boring bouts. That’s why I usually attack.
IG – You are very young so you have many many years. I think that you have at least four Olympic Games that you can go to at your age. Right now you are ranked number three in the world, so you definitely qualify for the Olympic Games no matter what, right?
SK – There’s a slight chance that I don’t, but I don’t imagine it. A lot of things have to happen at the last World Cup, but yes it’s like 95% that I will qualify.
Training in pandemic
IG – How do you train now? Is Hungary open or is it closed?
SK – Now it’s like we had the quarantine for like ten weeks, and I took forty days off and then I had two surgeries. After I started training again, it was going very well. Now I’m doing military basic, they make me a soldier for five weeks. I have to do it. Every morning I’m a soldier and I have to get up and at five in the afternoon I get home.
IG – This military service, is it because you’re an athlete and you belong to the army?
SK – Yes.
IG – Do you train in addition to service or not?
SK – Yes, I do, but mostly now it’s just running. We don’t fence because we don’t know the next world cup date. Three months before the world cup they will tell us but we have a plan how we will prepare ourselves. Till then, I have to do a lot of running. On the weekends I run longer distances. Today I will run after this interview for ten or twelve kilometers. It’s not that fast and hard training. It’s just to keep me on a level. In addition to this I do physiotherapy. It’s just core training and special training with each of the muscles in the body. I do that three times a week. Then the running and the physical training like in the army, we do a lot.
From the underdog to the world’s top
IG – When you became champion, what was people’s reaction?
SK – I think not many people thought that I’m capable of this. A lot of people were surprised. It was too early. They expected that I would go slow. For a few years that I would be a Senior getting to it and then I might get a chance to win something. I changed after the World Championships. A fencer does change after a big win, becomes more and more serious. I was serious enough before, but it gave me confidence that I know what I’m doing and I know how to do it. I talk to my coach and I talk to my two mentors, Géza and Boczkó. These three people kind of help me know how and when to do stuff. I do listen to myself.
IG – You mentioned Gábor Boczkó. I believe he’s the only Hungarian who won the Junior World Championship. Usually Hungarian fencers, it’s like a good wine. They come with age.
SK – Yes. I think because I have always been with them. I was fourteen or fifteen years old when I started to train with them. I always looked up to them and they told me a lot of stuff and I watched them. Like this, I became more mature even at eighteen because I always listened and I always asked them. So I think I might have, not overgrown, but came to the same level as their mentality. I saw their problems. I’ve been working with a psychologist for the last two years and it changed me a lot.
For example, one of the things I learned from Géza whas when I watched his Olympics, it’s my biggest lesson. At fourteen, the bout is never over. That is one thing. Géza told me that not training is what makes me a top athlete. Ok, you have to train, but you have to train smart and you have to let yourself rest and you have to think about other stuff, other than fencing. Do not take it that seriously. Because I took it that seriously and I thought that the more that I train, the better I become. That’s the biggest mistake in an athlete’s life that the more you train, the better you become. It may seem that it’s true, but it’s certainly not.
What makes you a better athlete
IG – What is the secret then? What makes you a better athlete?
SK – There is not a thing like I tell you how to do this and that. Everyone has to do their own thing. I have to train less than the others because I get tired and have to rest. I have to be really physical on the piste. The secret is that I think the fencer or any athlete has to listen to himself. The burden is what fencers or athletes put on themselves. What happens if I win? What happens if I lose? They do these statistics that he’s better so I might not beat him. He beat me five times, like Russian’s Nikita Glazkov beat me. I would say, sixth time is going to be the same. But no, I think that if we meet again I have the chance to beat him. So no, it’s a game. You can’t take it that seriously because if someone is cool and relaxed, those are the people usually who win. It’s very complex.
IG – Yes, it’s very complex. The question is, how do you reach this?
SK – It’s a long journey. You have to know yourself. You have to be mentally healthy. At home, everything must be in order. I’m usually honest with my family that I don’t want them to talk about fencing because I don’t think they know that much about it. We just talk about easier things. It’s hard to explain how to reach a certain point in your life when you can take off this burden, because a lot of people are performance minded or focused. They can’t perform well because they have that spasm in there. When you let go, you can lose. I can lose, but when you leave it, you also become capable of winning.
You also go to a psychologist and talk about your problems in your life. That’s the first thing you can do. Then always communicate with your coach. Think about how you can be a better fencer and be your own critic. I see my strengths and my weaknesses too. I accept them and I try to work on my weaknesses and delete all of them. For example, my upper body right now is not as strong as other people’s. I work on that now so that when I get back on the piste it will be the same like others, or better. My core stabilization is not enough in my opinion, so I do that too. Then when I get back on the piste, I’ve always improved.
Mentors – Gábor Boczkó and Geza Imre
IG – What is the role of your mentors in helping you?
GS – Géza I meet him more, but I have a deeper connection with Gábor because we are from the same city, Tapolca. It’s next to Lake Balaton. It’s a small town.
I did not cry until that moment when Boczkó hugged me and we started crying. That’s when I felt he wanted this title for me just as bad as I wanted it. We talk less, but it’s just this connection. He comes to the competitions. He’s there. He watches us. He gives me a lot of tactical and fencing advice. Géza is helping with the training mindset and how to think about stuff and not to overreact. He became World Champion in 2015 and Olympic Silver medalist in Rio 2016. His biggest success was in his late career.
IG – When he was forty and forty-one, forty-two.
GS – Yes, and he knows how to get to this point. Like this mindset. We talk about it. I think, and it’s not ego, I always think about how to get better. Everything I do in my life is in connection with how I want to be better in my fencing. If I go to a party with my friends, I do it because I say it’s regeneration and I’m getting out of fencing training. That’s why I do that.
IG- You need to recharge all of the time.
Family, friends and recharging
GS – Everything that I do – eating, running, playing cards with my family. I do it in order to get better in fencing. I always connect these two.
IG – Wow, that’s deeper than I thought.
GS – I feel like I’m a really deep thinker about fencing in my life as usual, so I can talk a lot about it.
IG – You friends, they’re fencers?
GS – I have fencing friends from the beginning. I started fencing at seven and up until one year before Worlds, I felt like that I didn’t have real, real friends. I started to be in a group from my university and we became real friends, and they were at the World Championship. These four people, they were with me. I have a picture of it. That was the point where I felt like I have these people and they’ve got my back no matter what. From that point on, I think that I had friends. Before, I felt like I had only fencing friends.
IG – Do you mean they were not your real friends?
GS – Fencing friends are with you because you are in fencing and they spend time with you. But maybe if you weren’t fencing and you just met in real life, you wouldn’t become so close friends. We may not be the same type, have the same interests. But with these people, I feel like if anything happens in my life I can count on them.
IG – Wow, that’s very cool. They watched your World Championship. How did you celebrate after that?
GS – I did not party because there was the team event. I did not sleep, like five hours only and the next day in the morning I had an interview at like seven o’clock and then we went to training. There was like no celebration at all right after the competition. The team event didn’t succeed, because we finished eleventh and I was sad, I was very sad. I had met my friends and a couple of others, we went out and they wanted me to be happy, but I was like half happy and half sad. I didn’t stop training after the World Championship. I had training through August and September and that resulted in injuries. From that point on I had injuries until the end of the qualification. I overused myself, I did not stop at all.
IG – Are you generally more individual competitor or team competitor as you consider yourself?
GS – I consider myself more like a team competitor. Recently my success came from individual competitions. I think it’s because I’m getting more mature and so my individual skills are getting better unlike the team only. My goal always was team because you have a bigger chance in teams to win in the Olympics than in individual. In the Hungarian team we focus on that, but also on individual so it’s a hard situation focusing on both. I can manage though.
IG – What is your favorite time to spend. How do you spend your free time?
GS – I like to sail. That cools me off, it’s my booster. I like to be with my friends. We go eating out, we go hiking, they come to me and we make some food. This is what recharges me a lot.
IG – Thank you very much for your honest discussion. It’s very important. From my perspective the success doesn’t come easily for anyone. You need to work and you need to understand how important it is to work. Especially to young people that do want to succeed in fencing or even in other things. I think that the key that I take is that you need to enjoy the process and the game and not chase results.
GS – Yes, yes, that’s very right.
IG – That’s a very good point that’s easy to say and difficult to implement.
GS – Yes! You understand it a lot.
IG – You are very young and you had a very meteoric rise, especially for an epee fencer. I hope for the next twenty years, until you reach Geza’s age,we will see you win a lot of medals and break a lot of records, but also to bring a lot of joy to people who do love fencing and they do look at this from the perspective of strategy and technique and pure joy of the game.
GS – Thank you so much and thank you for thinking about me for this interview.
IG – See you in Tokyo!
GS – I hope so.
IG – I’m sure you will be there.
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Gergely was gracious enough to give a great deal of insight. It is published with his approval on this blog.
AFM is incredibly thankful to Gergely Siklosi for his keen awareness and remarkable understanding of fencing, and for sharing it with us. Thank you Gergely!