The importance of taking the Long View
by Jason Rogers
CAN YOU SIGN ME UP FOR THE OLYMPICS?
By the time the Sydney Games in 2000 arrived, Gerek Meinhardt had already been competing nationally even though he was just 10 years old. Naturally, his coach, Greg Massialas, took him aside and explained the Olympics and the importance they hold in the sport of fencing. Most 10-year olds might shrug and say something like “Oh that’s cool” and then go back to their video games, but not young Gerek.
“Can you sign me up?” Gerek asked.
“Well…It’s a little more complicated than that” Greg responded.
Of course, we all know how that story ends, as Gerek is now a Team Olympic Bronze Medalist from the Rio Games.
THE POWER OF PERSPECTIVE - TAKING THE LONG VIEW
This story not only gives a retrospective view into Gerek’s mind, but also an important glimpse into Greg’s coaching philosophy. Greg has always strived to give his students a sense of the bigger picture because he, himself, didn’t have that early on. Greg would go on to become a 3-time Olympian. However, it wasn’t until the 1976 Olympics in Montreal when he was on the cusp of qualifying for the team, that it even struck him that being an Olympian was possible.
Having this exposure and perspective is critically important to shaping how you think about the sport (and many other aspects of your life). It ingrains a sense of knowing what’s possible in the distance, even if it’s miles away. Seeing the summit of a mountain from afar forms the beginning of a journey ahead.
Greg tries to form this mental picture early on with his students. He brought his own son, Alex Massialas, to the Athens Olympics in 2004 to watch at age 10. He recalls a photo he took of Alex and Mariel Zagunis right after she won a gold medal in the women’s saber event. Fast forward to the Rio Olympics where Alex, ranked number 1 in the world, had the chance to compete side-by-side with Mariel. Alex came home from those Games with two shining medals (silver and bronze).
However, those medals began as a glimmer in his eye in that photo from Athens. We saw a similar story in Rio with the young Singaporean swimmer, Joseph Schooling, who beat Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly. He too had a glimmer is his eye in a similar photo from 2008 when Phelps trained in Singapore when Schooling was just 13. This is the power of perspective.
While I didn’t watch the Olympics at age 10, my coach Daniel Costin always encouraged me to get the exposure I needed to see the next level clearly. At 13, he sent me off to Kansas City, Missouri for the summer. Why was I shipped off to the land of fantastic barbeque, you might ask? This was the place where Vladimir Nazlymov, 6-time Olympic Medalist, held summer camps each year. These camps were critically important in my development because I was able to watch and even fence with some of the best in men’s saber athletes at the time, such as Terrence Lasker and Jeremy Summers & Tim Summers.
On the weekends, we would all gather around the TV at Vladimir’s house and watch old videos of him from Olympics past. I remember being enraptured by his fluid and technically flawless style. These experiences formed the basis of my relationship with Vladimir and helped me understand what was possible if I put my mind (and sweat) into my passion. I would also later attend The Ohio State University – where Vladimir subsequently took over the program – to work with him because I understood the type great training environment he could create for me.
SETTING YOUR SIGHTS – WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW
I want to be clear that you don’t need to set your sights on the Olympics, specifically. But think about what you want from the sport and seek as much exposure as you can to the levels above you.
Here are some things that I did when I was competing that I highly recommend:
1. Always watch the finals of your event.
Assuming you aren’t fencing in them yourself!
2. Arrive one day before or stay an extra day at a competition to watch other top athletes compete.
For example, if you are competing in a youth event, stay and watch the senior event even if you aren’t competing.
3. Consider travelling to an event (such as a World Cup) just to watch.
This may seem unnecessary (and expensive) but I will never forget the first time I watched Stanislav Podzniakov, 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist, fence at a world cup in Boston when I was only a teenager.
4. Watch old events online.
Fencing has changed a lot over the years, but the competitive spirit and the poise of great athletes remain the same, now and 40 years ago.
It’s time very well invested, I promise you.
*Header Image Photo courtesy of Serge Timacheff / FIE
**Athens Olympics Photo courtesy or Greg Massialas