Question: You’ve competed for club and college, but what was it like to compete for country at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem?
Answer: Competing for Team USA was something I never could have imagined. Everyone tries to tell you what the opening ceremonies feel like, but it is a feeling you can only get when you walk out into a huge, open and packed arena. It was an honor to represent my country, and it was such a spiritual experience not only to compete in the sport I love but in a part of the world that means so much to me.
Q: How did you fare in that competition?
A: It was a really tough event. In the preliminary rounds I had one of the top French fencers and Israeli fencers in my pool, but I was able to make it out with a 6-0 record. I made it all the way to the semifinals, where I had to fence the No. 1-ranked Israeli fencer, Daniel Lis, who defeated me 15-10. I finished the competition with two bronze medals — one in the individual event and one in team.
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Q: What do you remember most about that experience, either about Jerusalem or the events themselves?
A: The bonds and friendships I made. I was able to meet some of my closest friends and we actually do reunions to stay in touch and see each other. Being in such an extraordinary event and being in such a spiritual place bonded our friendships because we got to experience things like climbing Mount Masada, going to the Western Wall, and many more amazing experiences.
Q: Jerusalem is one cool place that fencing has taken you; what are some others?
A: I am truly lucky to have been able to compete and travel as much as I have. Some of the places I have been to include Argentina, Cuba, Finland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Paris, Sweden and Switzerland.
Q: And where do you want fencing to take you someday? (Hint: It’s the capital of Japan.)
A: My dream and goal is to make the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. I graduate from Ohio State this year and then will take a year off to train full-time in pursuit of making the Olympics. Right now, though, my focus is on this season with Ohio State — not only bringing home an NCAA championship for the team but also winning the individual men’s epee, as well. Then hopefully in July 2020 you will see me on the big stage in Japan!
Q: Let’s talk about college fencing; you were recruited to Ohio State and coached for three years by Vladimir Nazlymov, who’s something of a legend. Has it been weird to start this season without him?
A: Getting a new coach is one thing but getting a new coach in your senior year is totally different. At first I was really distressed, because my whole career at Ohio State I had entrusted all of my fencing and motivation to one person and it was hard to accept the change.
Being coached by the legend Nazlymov was an honor and it definitely taught me tools that I will use for the rest of my life. Nazlymov was a crazy coach — he would have us do intense drills and footwork and he pushed us further than I thought I could be pushed, but I owe a lot of the fencer I am today to him.
Going into this season it was weird for me at first, but coach (Donald) Anthony is one of my new favorite people. He is the happiest, most positive and well-put-together guy I’ve ever met! He wants to win, and he is willing to do whatever is needed to get us that championship. He is a huge benefit for this program and I am really happy with how this year has been going!
Q: How much of what any good coach teaches his or her athletes is mental? In other words, what’s the ratio of technical and mental work a good coach provides?
A: I would say fencing is 50 percent mental and 50 percent technical. I can go up against the worst fencer in the world and lose because I was too cocky or I doubted myself. Or I can go up against the best fencer in the world and win because I was driven and had confidence in myself.
If a coach doesn’t teach you how to be just as mentally strong as you are technically strong, you will never be a good fencer. You need to be ready to control your thoughts, all those voices in your head saying you aren’t good enough or all the people around you who constantly want to make you feel like you will never be a champion. You need to be able to shut off all of those things and put blinders on.
My dad and I have this thing where at my competitions he will show me a picture of a racehorse because they wear blinders and focus only on what’s in front of them. If you can be mentally tough, you’re already halfway to being a great fencer.
Q: I saw you quoted once as equating fencing to mathematics; can you break a sport down into equations?
A: Yeah, so fencing is basically mental chess and when you are fencing, you need to calculate what your opponent is going to do or what you want to make your opponent do. I like to play with footwork when I’m fencing and see where I can mess my opponent up, because once I see a weak spot, the bout is mine. I use a lot of fakes and bluffs to draw my opponent out and when they think they are about to get a hit on me, I strike and get the point.
Q: When did you get started in fencing, and who introduced you to it?
A: I was 8 years old and playing basketball at a Boys & Girls Club in Chicago when I walked past a room and heard fencing blades being hit against one another. I looked into the room and knew I needed to try this sport. I asked my mom and dad if I could do it, and they signed me up. Once I held that epee for the first time that was it, I never wanted to let go and I never wanted to do another sport.
Q: Has epee always been your weapon?
A: Epee has always been my weapon, and I would never want to fence any other. I have a lot of friends who fence foil and sabre, but I think the best is epee. It is the only one where you can hit the whole body and where you have double touches.
Q: How do national rankings work in fencing? Based on one article I read, you just showed up among the top five juniors in 2017; can that be right?
A: Yeah, so I was top five in 2017 for ages 20 and under. National rankings work off of USA tournaments which are called NACs (North American Cups) and off of international tournaments around the world. Depending on how you place at each one of these tournaments gives you a certain amount of points. For example, if you win a NAC you get 1,000 points.
Q: Let’s talk about your family. I know that your father is an attorney in Chicago and you have two siblings, one of them a twin. Fill in the blanks, please.
A: My mom and dad (Andi and Rob) are criminal-defense attorneys in Chicago and they have a private law practice called Abogados America. I have a twin sister, Isabella, who goes to Tulane and a younger brother, Sage, who is a junior at Walter Payton College Prep.
Q: What was it like growing up with a twin sister? Did you guys get along all the time, or was it cats and dogs on occasion?
A: My sister and I are really close now, but it wasn’t always like that. Growing up it was a lot of ups and downs but now we are best friends, we talk every day and Facetime a couple times a week. I really couldn’t ask for a better twin. She comes to every fencing competition, books all of my flights and hotels and is probably my biggest fan!
Q: Your high school in Chicago was Walter Payton College Prep; do tell.
A: I had a really good high school experience. The school understood about how much I needed to travel for fencing and they allowed me to maneuver my schedule so I would be successful in the classroom and on the fencing strip.
Q: And do I even have to ask who your favorite Chicago sports team is, or does the Instagram photo of you wearing Cubs pajama bottoms give it away?
A: Actually, I’m not even that big of Cubs fan; I wore that outfit for Mardi Gras when I visited my sister at school. I am a diehard Blackhawks fan. I make sure I never miss a game no matter where I am.
Q: Back to your sport: Who is your favorite fencer?
A: I have two answers. My favorite epee fencer is (retired Olympic gold-medal winner) Fabrice Jeannet, who is so smooth, smart and a killer on the strip. My favorite overall fencer, though, is my best friend Eli Dershwitz, who went to the 2016 Olympics and fences for Harvard. Eli is the most motivated and dedicated fencer I know, and is always willing to talk to me about any fears or questions I have pursuing my Olympic dream. Watching Eli on the strip is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball or like watching Muhammad Ali box.
Q: Are you an aggressive fencer, or do you prefer to sit back and let your opponent make a mistake?
A: I would say I am a passively aggressive fencer. I like to bring my opponent on me and catch them on a mistake but I can also be really aggressive and push my opponent and make them open up with a mistake so that I can steal a touch.
Q: In general, who has better match-winning celebration moves, you or your opponent?
A: No doubt about it, I definitely have the winning celebration moves! I yell after every touch I get and when I win the bout I make sure my voice is heard and maybe follow up with an arm pump or me swinging my fencing blade around!
Q: All things being equal, how much does getting poked or smacked with a fencing sword hurt?
A: It depends on the fencer; some people hit really hard and others you can’t even feel the touch. I guess it just depends on the action and how fast and aggressive your opponent is, but when you get hit hard it hurts.
Q: Let’s dispel some myths about fencing: Do all fencers dress as Zorro at Halloween parties?
A: Absolutely not, ha-ha. I think that is probably the last costume any fencer would want to be just because of how often we have to hold a sword.
Q: And is it always a fencer’s job to carve the Thanksgiving turkey?
A: I have never thought about that but it probably should be!