How the Bay Area Turned Into an Olympic Fencing Powerhouse
San Franciscans Alexander Massialas and Gerek Meinhardt return to the fencing piste Friday for the Olympic men’s team foil competition.
The team is looking to podium after finishing fourth four years ago in London.
“In fourth place, you have a little thing in the back of your throat that makes you feel sour,” said Greg Massialas, the team coach and Alexander’s father.
In Rio, the team stands a good chance of medaling and possibly winning gold. The International Fencing Federation has ranked them among the top three in the world.
On Sunday, the two San Francisco fencers competed individually, and Massialas won the silver medal. It was the USA’s first individual Olympic medal in men’s fencing since 1984, and first silver since 1932.
The center has produced some good fencers over the years, but at the Olympics this year its growing presence as a foil powerhouse is remarkable.
But how did a world-class fencing club make its way here in the first place?
A Fencer Makes His Way to San Francisco
Massialas was born in Greece, but his family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he was 10 years old. His father suggested he try fencing.
Massialas took quickly to the new sport, and by the time he was in college, found himself fencing at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. In the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, he was a second alternate on the U.S. Olympic fencing team.
Four years later, at age 24, he made the U.S. Olympic team. It was his time to shine. But fate had other plans.
“Unfortunately, that was the [year of the U.S.] boycott of the Olympics,” Massialas said. “I was fortunate to stay on the team for '84 and '88, but my best opportunity for results was in 1980.”
Massialas settled in San Francisco, having trained in San Jose. He took a job in advertising and started a family. His wife prodded him to start teaching fencing.
By then, his son, Alexander, was entering preschool at the Chinese American International School, and the headmaster urged Massialas to start a fencing program there.
For a while, it was an after-work project for Massialas, who kept an early work schedule driven by clients on the East Coast. Again, his wife, Vivian, pushed him.
“She’s a piano teacher, so she appreciates the artistry and discipline of fencing,” Massialas, says. “She said, ‘You could make history, you should be doing this full time.’ ”
Eventually Massialas heeded her advice, opening up the Massialas Foundation Fencing Center in 1998.
Like Father, Like Son
It's now Alexander Massialas who could make history. He's the top-ranked individual foil fencer in the world.
Photos: Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED
When he was a child, Alexander recalls wanting to jump into training with his dad, but Massialas held off -- believing Alexander was too young to take up the sport. His age requirement: 7 years old.
“A lot of times, the kids aren’t physically and mentally ready to follow instructions,” Greg Massialas explains.
Alexander remembers having to wait more than a year to get on the piste.
“There would be days when I was ecstatic at the club, getting to watch a sport I knew I wanted to do, and then other days when I would be pouting in a corner because my dad wouldn’t let me start,” says Alexander, now 22 and a student at Stanford. “It was a funny dichotomy depending on the day."
Alexander had to watch as a slightly older family friend, Gerek Meinhardt, became one of his dad's star pupils. Meinhardt is currently ranked fourth in the world, and Rio will be his third Olympics.
Before he started fencing, Meinhardt met the Massialas family through a very different avenue -- piano lessons with Vivian.
"I would go over their house, take lessons from Greg’s wife, and then they’d drive me to [fencing] practice," Meinhardt says. "I’d be in the car with Alexander and his younger sister."
Going For Gold
Four years ago in London, Alexander Massialas was the youngest male athlete to compete on the entire U.S. Olympic team. He and Meinhardt were on a men’s foil team that finished fourth in team competition.
“We did better than anyone expected us to," said Alexander. "But we came home with no hardware.”
Fencing is a noble and artistic sport, but it can be tedious to stick with. The reality is, when you lose a point, you get stabbed or slashed. Despite these shots to the psyche, Alexander Massialas and Gerek Meinhardt said they never thought about quitting, and never felt pressure to continue from anyone but themselves.
For them, the hunger for a big win has only grown since London.
“Obviously, when you’re at the Olympics," says Alexander, "you can’t shoot for anything less than gold."
Men's Team Foil Fencing competition begins on Friday, Aug. 12. Full schedule.