Rob Oller: May the foil be with you. Ohio State fencer joining Olympic stars in Tokyo

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

The foil, he grasped. Fun this, yes? Many years later and off to the Olympics, he is. 

Meet the Grand Master Yoda of Ohio State fencing: Diego Cervantes.

It started with Star Wars. I thought, ‘Hey, fencing is kind of like that, so I’ll try it,’ ” the 20-year-old Cervantes said of his initial interest in a sport — and organized sword play is a sport, not just recreational activity — that has led the OSU junior across Mexico and now to Tokyo, where he will compete for his native Mexico in the Olympics. He will be joined by three former Buckeyes competing for Canada: Marc-Antoine Blais Belanger, Alanna Goldie and Eleanor Harvey.

“I just jumped in, liked how the game works, how prepared you have to be to fence,” Cervantes said.

Ohio State junior Diego Cervantes was a multi-sport athlete who settled on fencing, and he will represent Mexico in the Tokyo Olympics.

Olympics Buckeyes:Ohio State Buckeyes Anavia Battle and Alec Yoder qualify for the Tokyo Olympics

Olympic Buckeyes:Former Ohio State hurdler Christina Clemons qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Olympic Buckeyes:Buckeye brothers Henry and Jackson Leverett earn shot at Olympic gold

That was 13 years ago, when as a 7-year-old growing up just south of the California/Mexico border near San Diego he watched two older brothers fence their way from one side of his nation to the other. Already immersed in sports — swimming, baseball, basketball, karate, taekwondo and track and field — Cervantes liked the idea of traveling coast to coast, and also found something in fencing that scratched an itch. Not only was the sport physically challenging but incredibly hard to master mentally.

A fencing primer may be in order. The sport includes three disciplines: foil, epee and sabre. Foil, which Cervantes concentrates on, is a light, thrusting weapon that targets the torso, but not the arms or legs. Touches are scored only with the tip of the foil. In epee, the entire body is a valid target. The weapon also is slightly heavier than the foil, but like foil all hits are scored with the tip of the blade. Sabre, which is the same weight as the foil, targets the entire body above the waist. Hits with the entire blade and point are valid.

Ohio State junior Diego Cervantes, right, practices with Buckeyes teammate James Flanagan. Fencing, Cervantes says, is “like chess, but with movement and speed and reflexes."

Some laugh off fencing as kid’s play, and Cervantes’ early interest in Star Wars lightsabers, as well as later getting into the Legend of Zelda video games, feeds the swashbuckling stereotype. But fencing is more chess than checkers.

“It’s like chess, but with movement and speed and reflexes,” Cervantes said. “You have to set things up, to get your opponent to do the things you want him to do.”

And if you fail? Well, a mistake won’t get you killed — unless you argue over 16th century Elizabethan theater, which is what led Brit playwright Ben Jonson to outduel to the death actor Gabriel Spenser in 1598 — but it can kill your chances at medaling.

“Fencing is a challenge, which is why I like it,” Cervantes said. “You have to really think about what you want to do.”

Cervantes’ thinking has improved under Ohio State assistant coach Elvis Gregory Gil, whose own story — he was an individual bronze medalist for Cuba at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, then defected in 2002 and spent 17 years in Italy before arriving at Ohio State — includes elements of thrust and parry. 

Cervantes was already accomplished at foil, having been a member of the Mexican National Team since 2015, but Gregory Gil has taught him how to maintain focus during every second of the three-minute match. 

“The mental part of this sport is very important,” Gregory Gil said. “You have to make the same movement at the same time; try the same thing every time. You can’t do just whatever you want.”

Gregory Gil insisted that fencers are exceptional athletes with elite hand-eye coordination, but there always is the debate over what constitutes a true athlete. John Elway obviously qualified. But did John Daly? This much we know: Elway could have practiced every day for a decade and still not have come close to making the PGA Tour, much less win two major championships. 

Cervantes gets the last word, considering he dabbled in multiple sports before landing on fencing. 

“I’m a really good athlete, and fencing has been a challenge,” he said. “It’s been a long path to get to where I am; ups and downs and hard training and sacrifices. I always have to keep a positive mind.”

That means trusting in his training, to make every foil lunge count. 

“I’ve prepared for this my whole career,” he said. “I’m ready.”

Ready to medal, not just show up. As a certain Jedi saber bearer once said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”