For Alexander Massialas, the Olympics have flowed through his blood since an early age. Considering his father, Greg, was a three-time Olympic fencer for the United States, it's easy to see.
It's a little ironic, then, that he had to wait seven years before even beginning the sport.
Alexander Massialas/USA fencing
But being held back didn’t stop Massialas’ ascent to the world’s number one ranking in men’s foil, one of three Olympic fencing events along with the épée and the sabre. The 22-year-old played other sports as a kid, from basketball to soccer, but despite his father’s hands-off approach, Massialas could not shake fencing loose from the family tree.
“I was able to develop a love for the sport on my own,” he said. “I didn’t have anyone forcing me to do anything. It came organically.”
The result: two appearances representing the United States in the Olympics — Massialas made the team in 2012 as an 18-year-old (the youngest male member of the U.S. team from any sport) and will head to Rio as the top-ranked foil fencer in the world.
Massialas’ road to the world stage began in 2009 at the Senior World Championships in Paris, where, as a 15-year-old, he made it into the second round and onto the senior U.S. team for the first time. Gold medals at the Cadet World Championships in 2010 and 2011 — along with a slew of other top finishes — helped him land on the Olympic team just months after reaching adulthood.
He placed 13th in London, an experience he described as “overwhelming” as he ate and slept in the Olympic village, meeting celebrities from NBA athletes to Michael Phelps.
“This was the one thing I’ve always dreamed about doing,” Massialas said. “I always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and make an Olympic team. It was nothing like I experienced before. I was younger and a little bit less experienced so maybe that got in my head. Going forward, I know what to expect and what I want.”
According to Massialas — who is participating in both the individual and team events — the goal in Rio will be to tune out the extra-curricular noise and focus on the competition.
“This time around, I’m just going to be a little bit more smarter about it,” he said. “Really just hunker down and train until competition time, don’t spend too much time outside village and training facility. Being more focused, watching more video on opponents, honing in the small things and fine tuning actions.”
Those are the skills that Massialas credits for his climb to the top — a slow but steady approach. He has never made one big jump in the world rankings; rather, it has been a slight jump each year, which he attributes to improving on the basics instead of trying to redefine his approach.
“Once people figure out (your new move), they counter it,” he said. “You don’t want those swings where you go up and down. You want to work slowly, tweak things. Make sure your footwork and handwork are tight and your fundamentals are sound. Those are the ways you can really develop slowly over the course of time.”
It doesn’t hurt to be the son of a three-time Olympic fencer. Greg, who competed for the U.S. in the 1976, 1984 and 1988 Olympics, is one of Massialas’ coaches at the Massialas Foundation in San Francisco. Alex cites his father’s ability to adapt to the modern game and synthesize different techniques and strategies.
“A lot of coaches teach in a way that is more directed toward old times when they were fencing,” Massialas said. “He’s always on the forefront of trying to develop a style that’s relevant to this day and age, not just one style. He takes the best parts of each style and puts it together into one fencer.”
For the novice fan, Massialas noted that being athletic is not an automatic ticket to success in fencing, which he described as “physical chess.”
“It’s a mix of being cerebral and athletic,” he said. “You need to be able to be one step ahead of your opponent, like in chess. Plan out what you’re going to do in accordance to what (your opponent is) going to do and physically carry it out as well. You need hand-eye coordination, mental focus and athleticism to keep up and make it through a whole bout.”
A junior at Stanford majoring in mechanical engineering, Massialas is taking a year off to focus on training, but recognizes the importance of school and is surviving the rigors of attending a top-flight university with being a world-class athlete. Massialas trains five to six days a week, with three of those days spent lifting weights.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been traveling and fencing at the same time,” he said. “My parents put emphasis on doing schoolwork first and being an athlete afterwards. (They) pushed me to try to be the best student I can be. You sacrifice some of the other things – hanging out with friends, goofing around, more time spent working on homework and fencing.”
Massialas will be back in school this fall, but for now, the focus is on defending his top ranking on the world’s biggest stage. It’s a stark contrast to four years ago in London, when he was an 18-year-old with far lesser expectations.
“Coming in as the number one ranking, everyone’s going to be gunning for me,” he said. “The ranking is just a number. In the Olympics, anyone can have a hot day. People will want to gun for me, and I like that because it pushes me to add more things to my game. People are studying me, and it pushes me to get to another level.”
To add to the pressure, Massialas presents perhaps the best chance the U.S. has had to win a gold medal in individual foil fencing — something it has never done — along with an opportunity to win a medal that eluded his father in three tries.
“It would be amazing,” he said. “It’s been a dream since I was a kid. I always wanted a gold medal hanging in my house. Being able to bring that home not only for myself but for family and friends – for my dad who’s had an idea of creating champions at his fencing club. To win event that’s never been done by the U.S. would be an amazing treat.”