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Legendary SF Fencing Family Goes for Gold in Tokyo Olympics

Fencing and the Olympics run in the Massialas family.

Family patriarch Greg competed in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and has passed on that experience to coach his two kids, Alexander and Sabrina. They’re all in Tokyo for this year’s Summer Games, with Alexander and Sabrina competing and Greg serving as coach of the U.S. men’s foil team.

“The biggest thing for me is just to go through the whole process along with my sister, because this will be her first time in the Olympic Village as an athlete,” said Alexander, a three-time Olympian who the International Fencing Federation currently ranks fifth in the world in the men’s individual foil. (The U.S. ranks first overall.)

(From left) Sabrina Massialas, Greg Massialas and Alexander Massialas pose for a portrait at the Massialas Foundation fencing studio in San Francisco on July 14, 2021, before leaving for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

KQED’s Brian Watt met up with Alexander and Greg before they left for Japan and spoke with them from their home in San Francisco. Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Competing During a Pandemic

Alexander, 27, was the youngest male athlete to compete in the London Games in 2012. In 2016, he earned a silver medal in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which was the U.S.’s first individual Olympic medal in men’s fencing since 1984 and first silver since 1932.

Despite these prior experiences, this year’s Games are different from the outset because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It drills into this idea that fencing is all about dealing with adversity,” Alexander said. “This [pandemic] is just another facet of adversity. We have to overcome fencing with a mask all year in training.”

Thousands of athletes who’ve arrived in Tokyo face many COVID restrictions over the next several weeks. They’re required to wear masks, undergo regular testing and remain inside the Olympic Village. In the months leading up to the Games, there’s been controversy given that vaccination rates are lagging as the delta variant continues to spread ahead of the opening ceremonies, which took place on Friday.

Two athletes had reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the opening ceremonies.

Still, athletes on Team U.S.A. are moving forward after a hiatus year in 2020 affected their Olympic goals. Alexander says he’s confident he’s got a good shot at a gold medal this time.

“I feel like I’m in a position now where I’m fencing stronger and better than I was at that point, too,” he said.

Sabrina Massialas practices with her father Greg in San Francisco on July 14, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Massialas family adapted their training over the past year and a half.

They practiced outdoors as COVID restrictions remained in place in the Bay Area. They eventually traveled to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where they got a feel for similar testing protocols athletes are experiencing in Tokyo.

“That we’ve been able to be away in Colorado where everything has been very antiseptic in that respect, it has helped us,” Greg said. “And I think when we go to Tokyo, that is actually going to be a positive thing because we’re gonna have the same stuff that we’ve been doing.”

Fencers practice during a fencing mini camp at the Massialas Foundation fencing studio in San Francisco on July 14, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Making the Bay Area a Fencing Hub

Since he focused full-time on coaching, Greg has been working to make San Francisco a fencing powerhouse.

“San Francisco was really not on the map either in the U.S. and certainly not in the world, because a lot of our strongest fencers and coaches were on the East Coast,” he said. “So out here, it was kind of open from the time that I competed. Then it sort of dropped off a little bit. There wasn’t much going on. And then… we’ve sort of had this renaissance.”

Greg runs the Massialas Foundation fencing studio in San Francisco, and there’s an El Cerrito-based branch of his program. Over the years, he’s produced several good fencers – namely his son and Gerek Meinhardt, who ranks second overall in the International Fencing Federation.

Alexander says he’s proud that he’s been able to represent his hometown on the world stage every four years.

“It is really great that my dad’s program has really elevated fencing in the Bay Area and in California as a whole,” he said. “It’s inspired other clubs in the Bay Area to kind of look up and start their own, not only start their own programs, but start successful programs in their own right. You have other programs in the Bay Area that are sending kids to the junior world championships, the world championships, you know, getting really high-level results as well.”

While this growth is happening, Stanford University students rallied against the school’s plan to cut several varsity programs – including fencing. Alexander, an alumnus, helped lead the push to save the teams. Stanford ultimately reversed its decision.

LISTEN: Olympic Fencer Decries Stanford Sports Cuts

“Once we got confirmation that the university was going to change its decision, it really felt like a massive load off my back,” he said. “But for me, it was never about myself because obviously my time at Stanford is over. it was really for the next generation of athletes and next generation of fencers.”

Fencing begins Saturday, July 24 with women’s individual épée. Find the full schedule here.

Copyright 2021 KQED