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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Eli Dershwitz

02/16/2021, 5:15pm CST
By Kristen Henneman

Rio Olympian Eli Dershwitz qualified for his second Olympic Games after a silver medal win in Warsaw in 2020. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam.

As the countdown continues to the Tokyo 2021 Games, USA Fencing is sitting down with members of Team USA to share the stories behind their Road to Tokyo.  

Eli Dershwitz (Sherborn, Mass.), who punched his ticket to Tokyo prior to the start to the COVID-19 pandemic, is a 2016 Olympian and a two-time individual NCAA Champion for Harvard. He first made history in 2015 when he became the first U.S. men’s saber fencer to win gold at the Cadet, Junior or Senior World Championships with his gold in the junior event. Three years later after clinching the silver at the 2018 Senior World Championships, Dershwitz became the first U.S. men’s saber fencer to earn the Overall World Cup Title.

 

1. What did it mean to you to qualify for your second Games?

The most important thing is knowing that I’ve been able to be consistent with my work ethic and my improvement over the years, whereas leading up to 2016, really my hope at the time was just to make the team. And then, as my results got better leading up to the Rio Games, then I started thinking about the possibility of medaling. But now, with the last two years and competing at a pretty high level, the meaning is a little different for me because now I feel like I’m ready and more qualified to [compete] at the highest level at the Olympics this summer. When it comes to thinking about the last few years of training and competitions and the meaning that this training has given me leading up to the second Games, the most important thing to me is knowing that I have such a great community of trainers and coaches and support around me. It would really be impossible without all the different people who have given me advice, who have helped me along the way, who have helped me physically, emotionally, psychologically training to be at a high level.

2. How is your mindset different going into Tokyo than it was in Rio?

The biggest change in my mindset is definitely my confidence level. I knew in 2016 that I had a chance to medal just because a few months before the Olympics, I had won the Grand Prix in Korea, my first international medal in seniors. But I don’t think I was considered one of the top dogs in the world at that point. There was really no consistency in my results, but I think the last three years, finishing the season one, two and three in the world has really given me the confidence inside to know if I train at my absolute best and I fight and I compete at the Olympics, I’ve got a good shot. There’s really nothing more than any athlete can ask for than a shot at the title, whether it’s a championship or an Olympic gold medal. So I think my confidence level is at a point where I do understand now that I have the ability to compete at the highest level and it’s really just trying to focus, stay organized and keep up my training as I continue forward to the next six months and try to come home from Tokyo with an Olympic medal.

3. Are you somebody who gets nervous before competing?

Yeah. Honestly, the way I’ve handled nerves and the way I’ve handled pre-competition rituals has definitely changed over the years. I’m definitely a little more relaxed now than what I used to be. I think that stems from a different philosophy around training. I think that focusing on my mental game and staying calm and disciplined and then finding the right moment to let all of that energy out during competition, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at that over the last few years with experience and more seasons under my belt. I think I’ve found better ways of conserving my energy when it's not needed and then really going all out when it is. So I think that’s definitely been key for me over the last few years.

4. What’s the key for you to staying calm?

While I’m training, making sure that I’m taking the time out of my training. A lot of my training is very strength oriented and speed oriented, and a lot of it is very fast and a lot of it’s pretty hectic and complicated, so just taking a few minutes out of my day whenever I need to catch a break to meditate to focus in on what I’m feeling and thinking. It’s been important for me to do that in order to make sure that I’m not rushing through my training or trying to get it done. It definitely keeps me more grounded.

The one thing that I will say that stinks the last few months with coronavirus affecting some aspects of my training is that I used to meditate at the gym when I was in the sauna every day. That would be my alone time to really come to terms with my thoughts and my training and everything, and with the gym and the sauna being closed for a few months, it was definitely a little bit of a change to try to figure out other ways where I could collect my thoughts and reevaluate how my training was going. But it has been important to me the last few years to make sure that that’s something that I’m doing on a consistent basis and then additionally adding in yoga workouts and sessions has also been very good for my mental state on top of the physical benefits of increased flexibility and mobility.

I definitely think that adding yoga into my training routine on a consistent basis has definitely helped me become a more well-rounded athlete. I think all these things come together to help leading up to competitions to really stay focused as the months turn into weeks and then days before the competition to really make sure I’m upping my game every day.

5. So how have you been handling the pandemic?

It’s definitely been different. There were aspects of my training that definitely suffered in the beginning and it just took a little while before I was able to come up with a good training regimen, that maybe wasn’t the exact same as I was used to in the past, but still was giving me the opportunity to improve physically and mentally on a weekly basis. It’s really just been paying attention to the small details – trying to figure out what things are working, what things are not working just by tweaking small little details in my lessons, my strength training, my conditioning, my bouting, my footwork … I think my training right now, especially in the four weeks leading up to the Budapest World Cup in March, I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made and I’m ready to get back out there and compete once again. I haven’t had even close to this much time off from competition in fencing since I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, so it’s really nothing that I’ve ever experienced before, this long a break.

6. Was there one piece about competition you missed most?

I would say the timelessness of being under the lights, on the podium or the finals strip if it’s the top four or the top eight – when there’s only one match going. The entire stadium is there. Everyone’s watching. There’s one referee. You have one opponent and really that centralized location of a big match with all the noise and the fans and the competitiveness, that type of grit. It’s possible to recreate some of those situations in practice with different types of drills and systems like that, but it is impossible to recreate fully that type of atmosphere.

That’s something that is one of the highlights of sport in my mind is that type of situation where you’re competing so hard and everything’s so loud that you lose track of time and you’re in the zone and then the next thing you know, the competition is over and you have no idea where the last eight hours went and you have trouble remembering certain things because it’s such an intense few hours. I definitely miss that type of atmosphere more than anything else.

7. Have you done anything fun during the COVID-19 break?

I still have a close group of friends that I train with from childhood, from college, as well as from high school and my hometown friends in the area. It hasn’t been easy to see everyone because of the restrictions, but it’s nice to be able to have people around you can see every once in a while as a way keep in touch with your community, your roots, your past and your friends … Also having my twin sister that lives in the Boston area and my girlfriend as well in the city, so having a community around me has definitely been one of the best ways at which I can stay focused on training without losing my mind doing the same things everyday, without the ability to travel around the world to competitions. And the on top of that, I was able to do some hikes in northern New England. I’ve been able to be pretty outdoorsy. I went ice fishing on a frozen lake with one of my college buddies recently. Just trying to find ways of staying focused on training while having time to myself has been super important.

8. You mentioned your twin sister. Are you guys more alike or different?

We’re best friends. We have similar senses of humor, but probably pretty different personality types I’ve been told by friends and family. We share a lot of the same friend groups from growing up, so it is nice to have family and friends in the area to be able to unwind with. She works at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. She’s a frontline worker during the pandemic, so she definitely has a pretty difficult workload, so we’re not able to see each other all the time, but on the weekends when I’ve got time off from practice or training and she has a day off, we take a walk or hang out with our friend or something. It’s definitely been nice.

9. You won silver at the 2018 World Championships and made history as the first U.S. men's saber fencer to earn the 2017-18 Overall World Cup title. What clicked for you that season?

With my training regimen that year in college, I think I became a much more mature athlete. I think that was the year where I figured out a better system of managing my expectations with how hard I could push myself in training – physically, psychologically, all those things – while also realizing recovery and time off is just as important. I think when I was a younger athlete, especially leading up to the 2016 Olympics, I was definitely much more extreme in my views of training. I definitely believed more back then in total amount of work, total amount of effort, total amount of pain you put yourself through in training as an absolute number and that being correlated to results.

But I think I realized with a few more years of experience under my belt that pushing myself mentally and physically consistently was very important for my training and my results, but it wasn’t the be all, end all. That it was possible to take a little step back and go a little down on the intensity if I was going through an injury or a tough week of training or I needed to alter things, I became more flexible with that in my training regimen, versus in the past where I was always trying to fight through everything, train harder, push myself harder.

I definitely also had a much bigger focus on the nutrition and sleep aspects of my game as I got later on in college, and I think these are all just things I realized with years of training and experience on the Senior World Cup circuit as well as listening to older athletes and mentors on the team and stuff that they experienced as they went through the years … I think that type of knowledge and experience mixed with the fact that I had such a great support system around me, and team and coach – there were a lot of people who were really invested in my success – I think all of those things came together to have, not perfect because I got second at World Championships, but pretty close to perfect ending the season No. 1 in the world, the first U.S. men’s saber fencer to do that, was something that’s definitely very meaningful to me.

10. Is there anyone you looked up to in the sport?

There were so many. When I was super young, watching Mariel win the gold medal at the 2004 and the 2008 Olympics, especially the first two times women’s saber had ever been in the Olympics. Especially with how rarely U.S. fencers win Olympic gold medals, that was just amazing.

And then I’d say my most clear memory from an earlier Olympics was definitely the 2012 Olympics. I got in so much trouble in my household because when Tim [Morehouse] and Daryl [Homer] won their initial matches in London, I was freaking out. I was screaming so loud. It was maybe noon in London, so it was like 6 a.m. or 5 a.m. in Boston. I was just freaking out. I can still very clearly if I close my eyes run through the touches that both Tim and Daryl had to win their matches.

11. I know at one point you had printed a list of the top 25 in the FIE Rankings and you were crossing off who you’d beat. Do you still look at that list or think about it?

It’s still on my wall in my kitchen. So I printed it out the first time I ended up on the first page of the FIE website on the rankings list, which is top 25. I think that happened in 2013 when I medaled at Pan American Championships, so for eight years, that list has been taped on my kitchen wall. I would say that it does stink that a few of the names on the list that they retired before I ever got a chance to compete against them, so that’s definitely something that I think about a lot. Especially at times when the host country hosts a World Cup and 32 people get to compete and sometimes the old retired people come out for one more tournament, so I’m definitely hoping that in the next few years I get at least one more shot at some of these people if they come back just for one tournament.

It’s definitely something that’s evolved over the years, from a ‘Oh my God, I made it onto this list. Oh my God, I might be able to beat one of these people!’ to like, ‘Okay, I deserve to be here. I’ve proven myself to be a high-level saber fencer for several years,’ and it’s definitely meaningful for me to know that my name is on that list and that maybe someday a younger kid that maybe I mentored, maybe I helped out in some way might do the same thing and print out a similar list. And maybe someday get a ‘W’ against me and provide that motivation for the future. I think that’s super cool.

12. As a two-time individual NCAA Champion, what was it like fencing at Harvard?

It was definitely one of the most fulfilling aspects of my entire athletic career. Even though we have team events at the World Cups and you’re members of the National Team, in the individual competition, your results do not directly influence that of your teammates. So it’s a little bit different, whereas in the college fencing atmosphere, every single thing that you do affects your team and their chances of winning. I really loved that aspect of having a whole team around me of people that were directly invested in my success and vice versa. I was always there to make sure my teammates were successful, were training hard. Being a captain for two years was super meaningful for me. Winning Ivy League titles … Some of my best friends from college were people that I spent countless hours on the team with training together, lifting together, studying together. Having that community of people around you where you’re all grinding academically, athletically and then also still trying to have a good time and be social, that was definitely huge for me.

13. You were a volunteer assistant coach for Harvard as well. So is coaching something you’re interested in moving forward?

Yeah. I would definitely in the future be super interested in at least part time coaching or training with the Harvard team while I continue to compete. And then also getting involved in some type of athletics or sports nonprofit work is also something I’m pretty passionate about and looking forward to figuring out and brainstorming ways in getting involved in that after the Olympics in Tokyo as I kind of look toward the next part of my life. I feel like my expertise is obviously within athletic training and the way that training can help other aspects of a college athlete or a younger athlete’s life. That’s definitely something I’d be super interested in finding out how to spread that knowledge or that experience to other people that it could make a big difference in their lives.

14: Outside of the results and the medals, what is your favorite fencing memory?

The Junior World Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 2015 were pretty important to me. The years before, I had medaled and blown some leads leading up the finals or in the finals, so it was definitely a tournament where I was expecting a lot of myself. But just to be able to get that goal of the first World title in American men’s saber history meant extra more considering it was in Uzbekistan.

I had relatives who fled Eastern Europe from Poland during World War II, some of whom actually settled in the Soviet Union and got moved to Uzbekistan, so knowing that country had as it was part of the Soviet Union, had taken in members of my family decades earlier and that I had blood relatives that had been buried in that country, it was a very surreal feeling to be able to compete there. It was definitely very emotional. Being able to compete and have a pretty historic result in a place that I felt I had a pretty close emotional connection to, and I had a picture from like 1970 or 1980 of the graveyard where my relatives had been buried in Uzbekistan in Samarkand in another city and the tour guide we were on with all my teammates actually got us to stop there and everyone on the bus tried to help me find where exactly it was in this huge place. We ended up not being able to find it, but just the fact that we were trying to, it was very meaningful.

15. So what was the second memory?

The second memory is from the Rio Olympics. I was obviously very disappointed with my result, losing in the first round, especially when I had pretty high expectations coming in. But I have one very clear memory of walking back from the dining hall one night towards the USA building and there was this little turf field in the middle of the village that was fenced around with two little soccer nets that people could use if they wanted to work out or stretch or have a pickup game after they were done competing. It was pretty open. And I remember watching this eight on eight pickup soccer game and there were like 16 people on the field, probably from 14 or 15 different countries. Everyone had a different shirt or flag on them. It was just a whole cohort of random athletes of different sports and different countries. And they were all just playing pickup soccer at the end of the Olympics. All of them were done competing. It was very clear that none of them could communicate with each other, just on the way they were high fiving and hugging and smiling. There was no talking because you had people from North America, South America, Africa, Northern Europe, Asia. There was literally people from all over, but everyone was just very happy. Everyone was smiling, having a good time … It’s definitely one of my happiest Olympic memories. It’s more of a metaphor for how globally sport has and should and can continue to be a recipe or force for good.

16. I know you’re a huge Patriots fan. Were you rooting for or against the Bucs since they have Tom Brady now?

Absolutely for [the Bucs]. I had so many friends from college that were from Cleveland [and rooted for] the Browns, or the Detroit Lions – just cursed franchises. So the fact that Brady brought me and my friends six Super Bowl Championship wins as well as like nine total Super Bowls and then like 14 AFC title games in my lifetime, by age 25, that is so much more out of the realm of expectation of what’s possible for athletes that there’s no way I could ever say thank you enough or support him enough for everything he did for this city, for this state.

So I feel like all the real Patriots fans, they were rooting for Brady and Gronk. Those two touchdowns in the Super Bowl were pretty cool. Anyone who’s upset that Brady left at age 42 after the amount of victories he gave us, I would say is highly questionable. I’ll always love Tom Brady, the Patriots. No question.

17. Any other sports teams you’re a diehard fan of?

I’d say Celtics basketball is something I’m huge for. I try to watch pretty much every Celtics game. I love the game of basketball. It’s something I enjoyed growing up as well. The Celtics have been struggling a little bit recently, but I think that’s probably because I haven’t been able to watch as many games as I used to. So I think once I get back into my system of consistently watching – Jason Tatum and Jalen Brown, which is objectively the best young duo in the NBA – I don’t care what anyone else from any other city says. They’re the best. I’m excited for what they’re going to do in the future.

18. Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t been to?

There’s a good amount of places. So my first World Championships for cadets and juniors were in Amman, Jordan in 2011, but regretfully when all of my friends and teammates went to see the ancient city of Petra, my mom made me go home and go back to school. So I never got to see those like 4,000 year old cities, so that’s definitely something that I would love to go back and see one day.

There are so many places that are on my list I want to see. I’ve always wanted to go to Australia too. Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, that area. I’ve always seen amazing pictures there. And then I definitely want to go see some of the really cool mountains and glaciers and hiking things in the Scandinavian countries. Some of the pretties landscape pictures, hikes, mountains I’ve ever seen definitely come from Finland, Norway, Sweden, so many someday getting out there would definitely also be very cool.

19. What’s your cheat day meal?

I would definitely have to go with a buffalo chicken pizza. If I’ve just finished a crazy week and I want a cheat meal, definitely a large buffalo chicken pizza from Papa Gino’s in Boston. It’s something that can’t compare to anything else.

20. What’s one thing you’ve never done that you’d like to try?

Definitely skydiving or bungee jumping. A lot of my friends and family have done one or the other and I’ve always wanted to try both those things. Obviously, it doesn’t really make sense right before the Olympics, so maybe afterwards. Definitely those two as well as getting back into snowboarding, which I did a little when I was a very young kid, but haven’t done in like a decade, is something I want to get back into once I retire from competitive athletics.

21. So you’re a little bit of an adrenaline junkie?

I don’t really know because I’ve never been skydiving or bungee jumping, so I don’t really know if I would love it or if I would need someone to push me off if I get to scared. I’m not really sure. But snowboarding is cool because a bunch of my friends and family, they go skiing on a regular basis, so just learning how to do that again would be pretty fun. I like the outdoors, being on mountains, being in snowy places.

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