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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Alex Massialas

02/23/2021, 6:00pm CST
By Kristen Henneman

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.  

The most decorated U.S. fencer of the 2016 Olympic Games, Alex Massialas (San Francisco, Calif.) won individual silver and team bronze as a member of the men’s foil team. With his spot locked for Tokyo, Massialas is now gunning for a pair of golds at his third Olympic Games. Part of a family of successful fencers, Massialas hopes to realize his dream with his coach and dad, Greg Massialas (San Francisco, Calif.), and sister, 2021 Olympic hopeful in women’s foil Sabrina Massialas (San Francisco, Calif.), by his side. A member of the 2019 team that won the U.S. men’s foil team’s first World Championship gold, Massialas is also a two-time individual NCAA champion for Stanford, where he earned his mechanical engineering degree.

1. You’ve used the words ‘unfinished business’ when it comes to Tokyo and your goals. Has it been that chase for gold that drives you?

Yeah, absolutely. Ever since I was a kid, the goal was to become an Olympic Champion. Obviously, in Rio I had some historic results, but didn’t quite finish the job, and I think even in the midst of a pandemic and the Olympics getting delayed or postponed, the goal was always to get gold in Tokyo and not only in the individual, but I think in the team event, we have a really good shot. We have a really great team and we’ve proven that on the senior circuit over and over again. I’m just excited to go out there and compete with my teammates and hopefully bring back that gold, especially in that team event.

2. What did you learn from winning those two medals in Rio?

You can learn from every experience on the fencing strip. I think the bronze really taught me to be able to keep my head up even when times were tough. In that semifinal medal match against Russia, I had one of the worst team events I’ve ever fenced in my whole career, and a lot of people could take that keep their head down, get really frustrated with themselves and not be able to perform in the bronze medal match. But I give a lot of credit to my teammates and all the staff that surrounded me because they were the ones who really pulled my head up, kept my eye on the prize and really forced me to get back in the right headspace and to be able to compete with and for my teammates moving forward.

Obviously, coming so close in the individual event to a gold medal, it’s very heartbreaking, but you learn that you have to find learning opportunities in your failures and I think I was able to learn a lot. Even though I lost that last match, I think I was able to learn how to adapt – not just in that match, but in the quarterfinal match when I had to come back from the 14-8 deficit, so I think those are some of the things I learned most from Rio.

3. After learning guitar in 2016 as a hobby and way to keep your mind off of fencing, is there any hobby you’ve picked up this year?

I still practice a little bit of guitar, but the thing that’s been occupying my time most during this year has been trying to save the Stanford fencing team from being discontinued. That’s where I’ve been spending most of my energy outside of training because it’s something that is really important to me and I really see the value of these Olympic sports – not just fencing, but all the 11 teams that Stanford wants to cut. I see the value in them and I see what I learned from being a part of that ecosystem myself and this isn’t really about me. This is about the next generation of Stanford athletes and Olympic athletes in general, trying to make sure they have a pathway for success, not just at Stanford, but at all schools around the country that look up to Stanford in their decision making to support Olympic sports as well.

4. What else have you been up to in quarantine?

Not much. Quarantine has been pretty standard in San Francisco. Other than working out and going back to fencing when we were allowed to go back, it’s really been filled with learning to cook new things, hanging out with the family and trying to build new relationships and save Stanford fencing basically. If any positive has come out of this whole experience, it’s that I’ve been able to connect with so many different alumni from so many different sports and backgrounds and generations. It’s been really rewarding and really amazing to meet all these people that otherwise I may not have met during normal circumstances. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to meet all these amazing alumni and hopefully keep our relationship great moving forward into the future as well.

5. You’re coming to the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center this month. Is it your first trip since the pandemic started?

Yes, it’s the first time I’ve left the state since last March. So that’s definitely exciting, a little bit nerve-racking given the state of everything, but I have full confidence in the USOPC and the OPTC staff and everyone to keep us safe and healthy during our time there. I’m definitely excited to eat some more of [USOPC cook] Flower’s cooking. Not being at the Springs in a while, I haven’t been able to eat Flower’s cooking, which is always a highlight when you’re there. [Laughs]. So I’m excited for that and really just excited to see and train with all these teammates that I usually see on a monthly or bimonthly basis, but have not seen for a year now.

6. With a Grand Prix on the schedule now in March, how do you prepare given the time off?

I think during this whole pandemic, I’ve been able to work with my trainer to keep myself in reasonably good physical shape and then obviously, trying to peak when we know what competition is coming up, so obviously Doha is that for us. And then, also, just getting back into fencing shape. I think the main thing for me was keeping in reasonably good physical shape so that when I get back to fencing, it’s not about getting myself back into good physical shape and then also have to get back into fencing shape and redevelop those fencing muscles and tendencies. It’s about just focusing on the fencing when I get back because I’m already in reasonably good physical shape.

7. Did the pandemic change your perspective on fencing at all? 

It definitely gave me more of an appreciation for fencing and just going through the process. It was really nice to take a long break, especially after a grueling Olympic year that I hadn’t even finished, but being taken away from fencing for so long, really gave me the determination and gave me the motivation to come back and work harder and work more to that ultimate goal of getting the gold medal at the Olympics. It’s been a while since I missed fencing in that way for so long. Usually, I’m training so rigorously and all the time that, if anything, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to go to practice today,’ but toward a few months into the pandemic, really the opposite started being true. It’d be like, ‘Oh my God, when can I actually get back in and start training?’ And not just because it’s anxiety about what my competition is doing, but really just a love for the sport and wanting to get back to the fencing gym and start fencing again.

8. What do you love most about the sport?

I’ve always loved competition since I was kid. Anything I can compete at, whether it’s board games, video games. I just love competing and the process of going through the ups and downs of competition. Obviously you always want to win, but you learn more from your losses, and the whole rollercoaster of the experience is something that I love.

As far as fencing specific, I think fencing is an amazing sport because it’s so mental while also being physical. I think the mental aspect – I’ve  seen a lot of younger fencers not be successful because even though they’re great athletes, they didn’t have the mental aspect to it down, and vice versa as well. I think fencing strikes a really great balance between the two and you need to have both to be successful in fencing.

Another thing I love about it is that it’s so worldly and you really get to meet people from all walks of life in competition, both at the national and international level. Being able to see the world in the way I have from such a young age is something that is so valuable and is an experience that very few people in this world ever get to have. And fencing has been able to take me places I never dreamed of going, including places like Petra in Jordan and a lot of these very exotic parts of the world I would’ve never thought of going to. It’s about the whole experience, whether it’s experiencing the culture of these various places, meeting new people, gaining friends from around the world and building those relationships. Those are some things that are so invaluable and without fencing, I would’ve never had.

9. Do you have a favorite stop on the World Cup circuit?

Men’s foil has a pretty amazing circuit, so I don’t know if I can pick out any favorite one in particular. I love Paris because not only is it an amazing city, but the rich fencing history in France, and Paris in particular, is amazing. Being able to fence in front of a huge crowd every year that we’re there and interact with fans that are so passionate about the sport, and also know a lot about the sport, is something that I always really love about Paris. From a fencing aspect, that has to be one of the most amazing competitions on the circuit, up there rivaling even World Championships and the Olympic Games sometimes. And then obviously anytime we go to Asia I really feel at home and I love it. I love going to Tokyo. I love going to Shanghai. Both cities are some of my favorites, whether it’s because of food or culture. Both of those places really resonate with who I am and what I love.

10. What’s the best thing to get to eat if you’re in Asia?

Oh man, that is an impossible question, depending on what city you’re taking about. When we used to be in Seoul, the Korean BBQ was amazing there, so that’s something we always used to go eat when we were in Seoul. In Shanghai, a lot of times it’s just amazing Chinese food and great dumplings. The Shanghai soup dumplings – those things are amazing. Getting them in Shanghai is a little bit different than getting them anywhere else in the U.S. Tokyo, you can walk down the street and have anything from anywhere and it’ll taste pretty good. Whether that means a really fancy sushi restaurant or just going to the 7/11 or Lawson and buying some pork buns, that in and of itself is some of the stuff I love to do the most. The lunches from those convenience stores are some of my favorite. Obviously the ramen and all kinds of curry and tonkatsu and stuff like that – just talking about it is making my mouth water!

11. Growing up, you went to Chinese-American school, right? What was that experience like?

It was great. It was the foundation for a lot of my personality and what I love. I went to Chinese-American International School for 11 years, so going there and learning how to speak Mandarin, doing a half day of English and a half day of Chinese Mandarin every day for 11 years really drills it into your brain. But not just the appreciation for the language, but also the culture itself, and learning not just from my mom about Chinese culture, but being able to learn it in the classroom and the history of a lot of these things and then bring it back to my family’s culture and history, and tying those together, is something that I’m extremely grateful for and something that was so formative for me.

12. What Chinese traditions does your family take part in? Eating. Eating is the most important. [Laughs]. Chinese New Year is one of my favorites because it’s generally centered around a big meal. There’s a saying which means: ‘Every year you have prosperity and wealth.’ The last word is also the same as the word for fish, so a lot of times, you eat a little bit of fish on Chinese New Year to represent that prosperity and good luck. This year, I spent it with my girlfriend and her family and we had hot pot and that was amazing and obviously, had some fish in there, and exchanged red envelopes and whatnot, but in year’s past, we’ve been able to wrap dumplings as a whole big family and also share that tradition with some of my friends from college as well.

13. You’ve locked your spot in Tokyo, and your sister Sabrina could also make this team. How exciting would that be? That would be amazing. That would be a culmination of our whole family’s journey through the Olympic process. Me and my sister have been able to compete on cadet and junior teams before together, but with Rio being only an individual event for women’s foil, she wasn’t able to compete as part of the team. We’ve been very successful independent of each other as well. We both had a lot of success at the Youth Olympic Games, but obviously in different years. She followed four years after I did and was able to one-up me by actually getting a gold medal as opposed to silver and bronze when I competed. So I think it would be really, really amazing to be on the same team with her and see her realize her own Olympic dreams that I know she’s had since she was young as well. Obviously, a lot of the time I get a lot of the spotlight because I’m a little bit older and more experienced, and also what I was able to accomplish in Rio, but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have her own Olympic aspirations and I think she can achieve them as well.

14. Talk to me about your family, their support and what it has meant to you?

It’s been amazing. It takes way more than just one person or two people to make a kid’s sports dreams reality. Being able to have a whole family behind me supporting and then also having a whole family supporting my sister as well is something that is really amazing and something I’ll never take for granted, or try never to take for granted. [Laughs]. My mom was so instrumental in our upbringing, not only taking us to practice every day, but drilling the lessons into us that weren’t necessarily fencing specific, but really important to learn about the mental game as well. Using her background in music and performance, even though it’s not necessarily the exact same as fencing, a lot of the skills and things you need for that, are so similar, like keeping your emotions in check. That was always something really big for me because there are times, especially when I was younger I was a lot more emotional, and it was a lot harder for me to keep things under control when I was behind or in a bad situation. But really my mom, even though my dad was trying to teach those lessons as well, my mom was so instrumental in really drilling them home and making sure we really listened to her. Her way of teaching is very different than my dad’s, so it’s nice to have it from both sides.

15. You won team gold at Worlds in 2019 and the men’s foil team is currently ranked No. 1. Talk to me about the men’s foil team dynamic and why it works? What has allowed this team to be so successful? 

I think we’ve been so successful because we really support and trust each other fully. We operate like brothers and that I think is the most important when you’re fencing on a team like us. Gerek is like the older brother who is the most wise and definitely sets the tone and operates by example. And then you have me and Race who are younger, but now not actually that young, and it’s our job to bring up the intensity. That’s something Race has always done extremely well is bringing that intensity to our team, whereas sometimes me and Gerek can be a little bit more soft spoken, but Race is there making sure his voice is heard and he’s pumping us up and then we pump up everyone else. Once you get Gerek pumped, it’s game over because he’s such an awesome athlete even when he’s not pumped that when you get him there, it’s a whole other [level] … Nick has been a really great addition to the team. He’s been super supportive of anything we want to do and he always listens. He’s super receptive and he’s just been such a great voice and great energy on the team as well. He just wants to go out there and do the best as possible, not just for himself, but really for the team and seeing him come into this spot so quickly and then also so selflessly and really try to make the team better, it’s something that I really appreciate from him as well.  

Obviously we’re all competing for Olympic spots and only three of us get to fence the individual event, but what I think is so amazing about us is that we wish for each other’s individual success. I don’t want my success to be based on someone else’s failure. I want my success to be based on my own success and I think that’s something that resonates with our whole team and why we’re able to operate at such a high level without feeling any negative feelings or experiencing any jealousy for someone else’s success.

16. You’re the anchor of that team. What makes you want to be in that position?

I love the pressure. I’ve always enjoyed being the anchor for the team. But really I think any one of us could anchor and be successful because we’re all great athletes and a lot of my success as the anchor is really predicated on the success of my teammates and them setting me up for success, whether that means holding a lead, or if we’re behind, making a slight comeback so that I’m in a position to succeed.

For me, it really just is a full team effort, and I really give credit to my teammates for setting me up to be successful in those anchor positions. The anchor can’t do it by himself and I don’t see myself as a more critical part of our team more so that anyone else

17. You played basketball and swam in high school. Do you see any ways those sports translate to fencing and help in any way?

Absolutely. I think the cross training was a big reason why I was able to succeed at a young age, not just because it built a lot of endurance and strength and conditioning just by doing so many different sports and practicing two times a day in different sports, but also the dexterity you learn when you play basketball and soccer and a lot of these sports really translates to fencing. Especially in basketball, one of the big things was when I got to high school and was trying out for the high school team, when we were doing the tryouts and we were working on footwork drills and stuff, and defense in particular, the coaches were always extremely impressed by me and when I told them I was a fencer, they were like, ‘No wonder your footwork’s so good.’ From that point on, I was always our team’s probably best defender, but it goes both ways because basketball is so reactive. You have to be out there sprinting for short bursts, similar to fencing, and then you have to react to your opponent. You have to react to where the ball is. There are so many aspects of basketball that translate to fencing, both in the explosiveness and in the reaction times and the footwork and stuff like that. I think it was really helpful to drill in a lot of those things that I was already doing for fencing, but in a different sport.

18. Is there anyone you’ve met at the Olympic Games who’s left you star struck?

Yes. [Laughs]. Obviously meeting people like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles and all those big name athletes are huge. For me, meeting a lot of the NBA players is a huge thing. I remember so distinctly in London, our training room was right next to basketball’s training room and it’s not like we mingled or anything, but this one time, I went out to grab a drink from the communal refrigerator and they must’ve been in the middle of practice. So there you have Tyson Chandler opening up [the fridge] and being like, ‘Hey, you want a Powerade?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God. You’re Tyson Chandler and you’re going to hand me a Powerade? That’s awesome! Uh, yeah sure, I’ll take one.’ [Laughs]. Little experiences like that are really amazing because it shows that a lot of these athletes, no matter their star power, a lot of them are so down to earth and super cool. They’re like normal people.

19. I know you’re a big Golden State Warriors fan. Over the years, who have been your favorite Warriors players?

Steph [Curry] and Klay [Thompson] are two of my favorites right there. Obviously Draymond [Green] as well, but all three of them, they brought the culture and the success back to the Warriors. Seeing that process from high school, seeing them getting drafted and then seeing them succeed at such a high level, that was super amazing for me growing up in the Bay Area and in San Francisco.

So my other favorite Warriors, Jeremy Lin, the Warriors gave him his start in the NBA. Obviously he didn’t play a lot of games, but being able to see Jeremy Lin succeed at the NBA level was always something that was really actually important to me. Seeing that kind of Asian representation in the NBA when it isn’t there generally was amazing for me to see firsthand. Obviously he had a lot more success when he went to New York, but seeing him first get a spot on an NBA roster in Oakland for the Warriors was something that I loved, so Jeremy Lin’s got to be one of my favorite Warriors for his brief stint. And now I guess he’s on the G League Warriors, so he’s back with the organization.

And then Monta Ellis was also someone that I loved growing up. Obviously those were some challenging times for the Warriors [laughs], but he was one of the few really bright spots on that team, so watching him play was a highlight in my high school and elementary school years.

20. I hear you’re big into skiing. What’s your favorite place you’ve been to ski?

That’s tough. So I grew up mostly skiing in California. I learned how to ski in Tahoe, so in particular, Northstar holds a really special place in my heart because that’s where I grew up learning to ski and that’s where I got my skiing legs underneath me. From then, as I got older, I started going to new places and experiencing more of the skiing scene. Even going a little bit further from Northstar to Squaw [Valley]. Squaw is an amazing resort, but really, I have a lot of family in Colorado, so being able to ski in Vail and Beaver [Creek] and even Copper Mountain, which is sometimes overlooked, but still an amazing mountain.

I loved all those places but going to Utah and skiing in Alta was actually a really amazing experience. That was one of my favorite mountains. Hopefully there’s an opportunity for me to go back to Utah and ski in Alta, but there haven’t been a lot of mountains that I’ve disliked going skiing, so I guess my current favorite is Alta, but definitely love skiing in Colorado. California, love skiing there, especially Tahoe. I’ve never skied down south in Mammoth and whatnot, but I’m still a Northern California, San Francisco kid, so I have that Tahoe pride [laughs].

Also another amazing place I’ve skied is Taos, New Mexico. That was something where when my parents wanted to go, because there was a competition in Albuquerque once – I think JOs were in Albuquerque before – and my dad was like, ‘Let’s go to Taos afterwards,’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, they have skiing in New Mexico?’ It happened to be some of the best skiing I’d done at the time. So I was really impressed.

21. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I think the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is the same advice that I generally give people when they ask for advice too, and that’s just to fail fast and fail forward. Life is going to be full of failures. You can’t succeed unless you feel failure yourself and as I’ve said before, you learn more from failing than you do success, so that’s something that I’ve always held dearly when I was growing up.

It was actually reinforced a lot when I was in school because that’s actually one of the main tenants of the mechanical engineering department and the product design department [at Stanford] because when you’re doing rapid prototyping and building different products, you’re going to fail a lot, but the most important is to fail fast and fail forward, so you have to bank on failing because that’s where you learn the most. It’s about taking the most from those failures to set yourself up for success later, whether it’s in mechanical engineering and product design into a successful product or taking those failures and learning and adapting for your sport.

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