But for sports like fencing which doesn’t rake in the same cash as basketball, athletes have to eek out living while pursuing their gold. This includes juggling full-time jobs and grueling training sessions. Hristina Tisheva reports.–
We don’t normally think of Olympic athletes training in an office building near Times Square. And yet, four of the fencers on the U.S. team and their coach — do that every day.
On a recent afternoon, two of the fencers warmed up at the gym on the second floor.
The fencers running on a strip in the gym
Dagmara Wozniak showed up just in time to start practice.
“Ready to go?”
They’re all specialists in the sabre, one of three Olympic fencing events, And three days a week, they practice twice a day. The four of them and their coach start with the run of entire gym.
There are 14 strips where fencers can face off and eight targets where they can practice solo. Yury Gelman, the coach of the Olympic men’s team, starts by giving the athletes their instructions.
“You have six minutes. Non-stop. Target work. Start now for like one minute and then using footwork, use lunges. Let’s go. Double-touches, triples touches, lunge…Non-stop, six minutes.”
Fencers hitting the targets.
Gelman owns this gym — the Manhattan Fencing Center. He’s also the personal coach of four of the fencers.
He gives them 20-minute one-on-one lessons every day. When other fencers show up for his regular class at 6:30, the Olympians usually join them.
Gelman, instructing the class to do certain moves, fencers move in unison, fading out.
The U.S. is producing more Olympic medalists in fencing than ever. Over a century, US fencers won only two medals. Then, in 2004 and 2008, they won a total of eight.
Keeth Smart is one of them. He won a silver medal four years ago as part of the Men’s saber team event.
In Bryant park on a break from his job in finance, Smart says the mentality of U.S. fencers has changed.
Prior to 1992, the expectation of Olympic fencers was to go to the Olympics and take a lot of pictures. Have a lot of fun at the Olympic games. Then after that, beginning in 1996, the goal was ‘We should be Olympics medals. Today, we expect to win medals.’”
Smart says the reason for the change is geo politics.
“Literally, one the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, we had this influx of coaches and that was the start of the great renaissance of American fencing. Because we have all these coaches coming from Ukraine, Russia, Poland.”
As a result, Smart says, U.S. fencers have been learning the same secrets and techniques as former Soviet Bloc athletes.
But even with that coaching, becoming a world-class fencer isn’t easy. The athletes spend amost all of their time preparing for the Games.
Coach Yury Gelman says sacrifices are part of the training for the fencers.
They basically don’t have time for friends. For girlfriend, boyfriends. Definitely no time for video games and stuff like this because it’s practice, practice, practice and a lot of traveling also.”
The athletes travel every other week to World Cup events in different countries. That leaves no time for regular jobs or school.
And there is little money in fencing. At most, the athletes get a stipend of 2,000 dollars a month. Some of them work part-time jobs.
Tim Morehouse was on the team that won the silver medal in Beijing and is on the team now. He says it’s difficult to find the balance between fencing and earning a living.
“Sometimes it gets a little but crazy and I have a lot going on like now but most of the time I find it very rewarding. I feel like I live my days with a sense of a good urgency that I’m doing things that I care about.”
Like any sport on the Olympic level, fencing puts a strain on athletes’ bodies.
In the gym, fencers practice hard despite injuries. Dagmara Wozniak has tendinitis in her left wrist. It’s normally taped in order to keep it from moving.
Not today. I didn’t make it to physical therapy.
She has microtears in her muscle tissue. It always hurts when she’s fencing.
“It could be better. Just trying to keep the pain level down. It’s been ok but I wish it could be better.”
The key to winning a medal in London, according to Coach Yury Gelman, will be dealing with the pressure.
So, for the next 90 days, Gelman and the Olympic team will be working on building their confidence.
Tim and Wozniak fencing and talking. (joking) You know it’s impossible to hit me know, my parry is so good. You can’t get me…You think you’re about to and then…(shouts when lost the point)
As Tim Morehouse gets ready for a practice bout, he says fencers are not motivated by the perks that high-profile Olympic athletes can get.
“I mean it’s a sport you do, because you love it. I’m not doing the sport because I was expecting to get media attention or have million dollar contracts.”
The opening day of the Olympics is July 27. The men’s individual fencing competition starts two days later – on Morehouse’s birthday.
Hristina Tisheva, Columbia Radio News.