Americans crash European party among fencing elite

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:40 PM

Nancy Armour

Scroll through the list of medal contenders in fencing, and all the familiar names are there: Italy, France, Russia, Hungary, the United States.

Wait, the United States?

Yes, the country that won one measly Olympic medal from 1964 until Mariel Zagunis took gold at the Athens Games has quietly emerged as a team to be reckoned with in all disciplines of fencing. The U.S. has continued building on its six-medal performance at the Beijing Olympics over the last four years, with Zagunis winning world titles in 2009 and 2010 and Americans becoming an increasingly familiar site on the podium at World Cups.

Just last weekend, the U.S. won its first world title in men's team fencing when the epee squad beat France, the Olympic champions, to claim gold at the World Team Championships.

"I've been through the cycle where we would go to a world championships or a World Cup and be incredibly happy if someone made the top 32. Now we go and we're happy for people if they make the top eight, but we're expecting those results," said Greg Dilworth, executive director of USA Fencing. "We absolutely have medal opportunities across the board, in all weapons and all genders."

After winning 18 medals between 1896 and 1960, one of them gold, U.S. fencers made the podium just once over the next 44 years -- and that was a bronze at the boycotted 1984 Games. But when the Soviet Union broke up, it sparked a resurgence in American fencing as coaches from the Eastern bloc countries that had long dominated the sport began coming to the United States.

"That changed the game for us because those coaches brought a mindset we didn't have," Dilworth said. "We had a lot of talented coaches in the U.S., but since we hadn't won before, what made us think we could win now? The (European coaches) looked around, looked at our athletes and said, 'There are just as many talented athletes as anywhere else in world, there's no reason the United States couldn't be a power in fencing."'

The first signs of success came in the youth ranks, at the cadet and junior levels, as Americans began competing internationally at younger and younger ages. As those fencers got older, results at the senior level improved.

And when Zagunis won her gold in Athens, it started a hardware haul the likes of which the Americans have never seen.

This year alone, the women's epee team won its first World Cup medal, a silver, while the men made the podium at two of their three World Cups. The men's saber team won its first World Cup medal since 2005, a bronze, while the women finished third at the world championships.

And the United States -- not Italy, not France, not Russia -- is the only country that qualified the maximum 16 fencers for the London Olympics.

"I don't think there's necessarily direct competition, but there's a lot of inspiration and motivation seeing people you know, people who grew up fencing in the same tournaments you did suddenly breaking through. It gives you the confidence that you can do it, too," said Soren Thompson, a member of the world championship epee team.

The Americans aren't going away any time soon, either. At the junior and cadet world championships that ended earlier this month, the U.S. team won 12 medals, second only to Russia. The nine individual medals won by U.S. fencers was the best of any country.

USA Fencing's membership has quadrupled over the last 20 years, Dilworth said. Where fencing was once concentrated in New York and one or two other areas, clubs can now be found in almost every major city, and the London Olympic squad will include athletes from such fencing "hotspots" as Kentucky and Texas.

"It's thrilling to see how far we've come," said Thompson, who will compete in individual epee in London.

"There's tons of talent out there, and they're pushing us and eventually they'll come on and have the same results. Maybe even better results in the future."


SECOND CHANCE: With her ticket already booked for the London Olympics, shooter Jamie Gray is now helping another U.S. teammate get there.

Men's double trap gets to send a second athlete to London after USA Shooting was allowed to reallocate one of the two "quota spots" Gray earned by qualifying in both Olympic air and smallbore rifle. Though Gray will compete in the two events in London, she only counts as one person in shooting's allotment of 390 athletes.

Based on medal potential, USA Shooting decided the extra spot should go to men's double trap. Josh Richmond had earned the U.S. Olympic berth by winning the 2010 world championships, but the Americans also have the Beijing gold medalist, Glenn Eller, as well as reigning junior world champion Billy Crawford.

"We're hopeful that we will take advantage of this opportunity to not only bolster our team but to improve our medal chances in London," USA Shooting CEO Bob Mitchell said in a release.

The additional Olympic spot will be decided May 17-20. Eller goes into the competition with a five-point lead.


ON TARGET: The U.S. has the No. 1 archer in Brady Ellison. His teammates aren't too bad, either.

Ellison, Jacob Wukie and Joe Fanchin led the Americans to the team title at the year's first World Cup event, beating France in last weekend's final. But it was their semifinal victory that is sure to grab everyone's attention. The Americans beat South Korea, winner of the last three Olympic team titles, 29-26 in a tiebreak.

Once dominant in Olympic archery, the Americans have won only two medals since sweeping the golds in 1996. No American made it past the quarterfinals in Beijing.


FAMILY TIES: First comes taekwondo, then comes marriage.

Carmen Marton and her fiance, Safwan Khalil, will represent Australia in taekwondo at the London Olympics. The couple met 10 years ago at the Junior World Championships, and plan to marry after London.

"I feel very fortunate to be with someone who knows exactly what it is going to take to prepare and perform at the Olympic Games," Marton said. "We have both pushed the lengths of patience and understanding, especially since I am based in Melbourne, preparing with my coaches and club, and he is in Sydney preparing with his coach and club."

And Khalil's coach, who will join the couple in London? His brother, Ali.

This is the second Olympics for Marton, who reached the quarterfinals in Beijing. But it's the first for Khalil, who narrowly missed selection in 2008, and he said being able to share the experience with Marton and his brother "completes the puzzle."

"My ultimate goal is the gold medal," he said. "But I also just want to enjoy every step, have fun and do everything right in order to achieve that gold medal."


BONUS MONEY: Italian medal winners won't get raises this summer, another casualty of that country's ongoing financial crisis.

The Italian Olympic Committee has said bonuses for athletes who win medals at the London Olympics will remain what they were four years ago in Beijing. Gold medalists will get an additional $186,000, silver will bring $100,000 and a bronze medal will mean a $66,000 bonus. Paralympic athletes will get $100,000 for gold, $53,000 for silver and $33,000 for bronze.

Italy's financial woes have already forced Rome to abandon its bid for the 2020 Summer Games. Rome dropped out of the race in February after Premier Mario Monti said the government would not provide financial backing for an estimated $12.5-billion project, calling it irresponsible to put taxpayers' money at risk.


THANKS COACH: Adam Soldati, who coached the United States at last year's world diving championships, where David Boudia became the first U.S. man to medal on the 10-meter platform since 1986, is a finalist for the U.S. Olympic Committee's coach of the year award.

Marina Zoueva, the top U.S. ice dance coach with Igor Shpilband, and Rick Bower, who coaches the U.S. halfpipe team, are also up for the award.

Other coach of the year award finalists are:

-- Paralympic: Joaquim Cruz, track and field; Dave Denniston, swimming; and Matt Oberholtz, water skiing.

-- Developmental: Chris Haslock, skiing; James Hrbek, judo; and Jill Rankin Schneider, basketball.

-- Volunteer: Jimmy Cuevas, paralympic track and field; Chris Preble, bowling; and Tom Waqa, rugby.

-- Doc Counsilman Science: Nicholas Bohanan, bowling; Neal Henderson, cycling; and Christy Krall, figure skating.

The five award winners will be announced June 19 at the National Coaching Conference in Indianapolis.


FIVE RINGS: The U.S. women's field hockey team went 2-1 in a three-game series with Australia, the No. 7 team in the world, earlier this month. ... South Africa clinched a spot in men's beach volleyball by winning the African qualifier. ... After earning seven points each at stops in Hong Kong and Tokyo, the U.S. men's rugby sevens is ranked No. 10 in the world. ... American boxers won six gold medals at the Women's Continental Championships. Heavyweight Victoria Perez had the only loss in the championship bouts, dropping a 14-3 decision to Brazil's Erika Cabrera. ... Italy's Nicola Benedetti won his first title at a Modern Pentathlon World Cup last weekend, beating out reigning world and Olympic champion Andrei Moiseev. ... Bob Beamon, whose leap of 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches remains the Olympic record in long jump, has been named an ambassador for Beyond Sport, which promotes using sports to create positive social change around the world.

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