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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Kelley Hurley

03/30/2021, 10:45pm CDT
By Nicole Jomantas

A 2012 Olympic team bronze medalist and 2018 Senior World Team Champion, Kelley Hurley has qualified for her fourth straight Olympic Games in Tokyo. Photo Credit: Augusto Bizzi

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.   

Kelley Hurley (San Antonio, Texas) has qualified for her fourth Olympic Games in women's epee. After competing as an individual at the 2008 Olympic Games as a 20 year old, Hurley was joined by her younger sister Courtney Hurley (San Antonio, Texas) on the team that won the first ever medal for women's epee in Team USA's history. 

Together the Hurleys have fenced on the National Team for nearly 15 years as well as at Notre Dame where both Hurley sisters won individual titles. 

After the conclusion of the Kazan World Cup in Russia earlier this month, Hurley sat down to discuss the growth and development of the U.S. Women's Epee Team – a squad that won gold for the first time in history at the 2018 Senior Worlds – as well as starting medical school during the COVID-19 pandemic and her hopes for the Tokyo Olympic Games. 

1. What was it like to return to competition at the Kazan World Cup after a year?

It wasn’t so bad for me, and probably my sister as well. Thank goodness there wasn’t too much pressure on us for this competition because we were pretty much already qualified so the pressure was on a lot of other people. So it wasn’t so bad in terms of pressure which was nice, but to get my brain back into competitive mode, especially since I’ve been in school this whole entire past year, it was a pretty big switch and I don’t know if I’ve actually managed to fully switch it over, but at least we have a few more months here and a few other competitions to try and get into the mode and at least we’re not just jumping straight into the Olympics at this point.

2. So you started medical school this year during COVID. I know that’s always been the long-term plan, but why did you decide to start now?

I decided to start when I wasn’t sure if the Olympics was happening. I didn’t want to wait another year and then find out the Olympics had been canceled. I’m not exactly a spring chicken and I just be waiting around.

3. Where are you going to med school?

I’m going to medical school in a Caribbean medical school called the St. James School of Medicine. It’s on the island of Anguilla … it’s all online right now. It’s the only reason why any of this was possible. It’s such a tiny island. They have pretty big restrictions on who they’re letting in and you have to go through all of these different processes to get on the island, let alone stay there. If I had managed to actually go to the campus, which they’re allowing because there’s both an in-person and an online option, but I didn’t go to the island specifically because I thought ‘well maybe if they have a tournament, I can’t just hop over to China or wherever they have a tournament real fast from this little island.’ So thank goodness online is an option.

4. How is med school going?

It’s really hard. Talking about switches … having a completely 100% athletic career for the last decade with no school at all, it was really difficult in a lot of different ways just to turn my brain back on. The last time I did school was in 2010 when I graduated from Notre Dame. So I went from being super active and training to sitting down and not moving to studying and studying and studying … it was a rough first semester. [Laughing]. I’m getting the hang of it now.

5. You’ve always talked about going to medical school someday. What made you want to be a doctor?

My dad was a doctor and he definitely made it sound like it was the most amazing thing ever … I’ve always been interested in medicine, even before my dad tried to glorify it [Laughs]. Even before the pandemic, I’ve always been interested in global public health so it’s been fascinating watching how the world is dealing with and it’s something I would have loved to have been involved in and hope I will be in the future. I’ve always had this feeling that I want to help people and have an impact and make people’s lives better. I’d like to do something in public health. I’d love to work at a global level at the CDC or the WHO.

6, How has the last year been for you during the pandemic?

I was locked in my room pretty much studying the entire year. So I didn’t have much reason to go outside and I rarely did, so it kind of worked out, so it didn’t disrupt my schedule much except for the whole Olympics being postponed and possibly cancelled which left me feeling quite sad and not sure what I should do with my life, but medical school reallllllly took my mind off it.

But it was really lucky that I did start medical school because I don’t know what I would have done just sitting around all day thinking about ‘What have these last four years been for and what am I doing now and how did I invest these last four years and it’s all for nothing?’ So medical school definitely didn’t give me time to think about that. I have medical school to thank for getting me through this COVID year.

7. Speaking of school, your alma mater, Notre Dame, won their 11th NCAA title over the weekend. What was your college experience there like? Do you have a favorite memory?

There’s so many, it’s hard to pick one. Slowly they’re fading out of my memory because it was so long ago, but just being on the campus and just that feeling of having been a part of this amazing school and this amazing program … Even now when I go back and I bring my boyfriend, I can barely show him around campus because there’s so many new buildings and I barely know where I am. So just that special feeling. It’s really hard to describe. I think a lot of Notre Dame graduates can probably relate with that. It’s just that special feeling that you were once a part of this amazing campus and this amazing school. I just really miss walking around with my friends on campus and being part of that.

8. You just missed qualifying for the 2004 Olympics as a 16 year old and then you earned the individual qualification slot for the 2008 Olympics. Courtney was in the mix for Beijing as well, how was that dynamic between the two of you?

When I was younger, it was more competitive between me and her and when she got in there behind me I just thought ‘C’mon, Courtney, this is my glory. Move on. Fence a different weapon or something.’ It was very competitive between us for 2008. But by 2012, we had definitely come to terms with our competition against each other and we joined forces with each other. Since then, we’ve really been a team, but at the beginning it was rough. And I know it was really tough for her when I qualified. But she was so young, I think she didn’t take it too hard. I would have taken it really hard if she would have qualified over me.

9. You’ve been on junior and senior teams together for the past 15 years. How has it been traveling and competing with your sister as a teammate?

I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve been so successful. Courtney’s and my leadership and experience and the combination we have, we both fill important and different roles on the team. She’s good at one thing and I’m good at something else and together it really provides for a great team dynamic. But it’s lucky it worked out that way. If we both had the same role, if we were both closers, for example, it probably would not have been so harmonic [Laughs]. But since we offset each other’s weaknesses, it kind of worked out perfectly and we’ve been doing that for the last three Olympics and it’s worked out amazingly … it never ceases to amaze me how amazing the team is now. Especially with the other girls, we have such a great team now. I love those girls.

10. Your parents were fencers and your dad was your first coach. How was that experience?

It’s not like we had other coaches filtering in and out. It was always just our parents and us. My mother gave us lessons, not to mention she is the one who booked all our flights and hotels and planes and buses … She was just headquarters [Laughs]. It might have been one of the reasons why Courtney and I always felt outcasted because we weren’t a part of any club. It always felt like it was ‘them against us.’ But that’s how we group up and that’s what we knew. It was always just our parents cheering us on versus like fencing somebody from a big club and there would be like 100 people on the other side and then it would be just our parents cheering Courtney and I on in the box.

11. Where did you train?

My dad built a strip in the backyard, so we did a lot of footwork and drills back there and bouted each other. We did a lot of that in the beginning and for a long time we did only that. We got lessons from our mother, from Paul Pesthy … We would fence other places occasionally, like Alliance is probably the place we fenced most on the weekends. And that was pretty much it. We would go to local tournaments all the time and that’s just how we did it.

12. How was it transitioning from that world of just the two of you to Notre Dame?

Notre Dame was just a whole different beast because it’s all about team. So it went from not team and just Courtney and I to all about the team. It was a huge shift and it was super fun. I could see why people love being a part of a team. It was awesome being included and being valued and being loved. I loved it.

13. Over the course of your career, how do you think you’ve seen women’s epee in the United States evolve?

I think women’s epee has made a humungous jump over the last four years and I know US Fencing has put a lot of effort into making that happen, so I know it’s not just luck that it’s evolving this way. I’m really grateful to US Fencing for doing that and giving us the tools to evolve. It’s certainly made a difference in our results, our chemistry … I think even the women that haven’t made the top four of the team, I think it’s spreading to the younger generations also … I’m so happy it happened before I retired.

14. Looking back to 2018, after the Barcelona World Cup the team stayed and did teambuilding work with the People's Academy. How did that help the team as a whole?

That’s definitely one of the things that started the shift. At first it was a little, I don’t know if uncomfortable is the right word, but it was different, it was strange. Courtney and I have been around for a really long time and we’ve seen a lot of changes in US Fencing and this was a strange one to have everybody sit down and talk to each other and try and support each other … Courtney and I were the oldest ones there and I think it was really hard for us to start this shift.

And it took us probably longer than the other girls to come around to that thinking as far as ‘oh, it’s all four or six or eight of us and we’re all here from the U.S. and we’re all supporting each other and I genuinely want my teammate to do well.’ It was tough, but thankfully we had some amazing teammates that really helped us. I know we’re the older ones and it should be us helping them, but they definitely helped us get past our old ways of thinking.

15. You went on to win team gold at the World Championships in 2018, what was that experience like in comparison to winning bronze at the Olympics in 2012?

Honestly, that World Championship result was more meaningful and that was because we’d all put in a lot of hard work into becoming a better team together and we’d started this journey and really at World Championships everything was just aligned and everything came together and all of the hard work that we’d put into this and changing our dynamic together was paying off. So to see that so evident, really it was amazing. It was a special moment and it brought all of us even closer together. It was a great tournament. I think about it more than I think about our bronze medal at the Olympics to be honest.

16. Did that result change how you viewed Tokyo in terms of what you thought was possible?

After winning Worlds and then the following results, I thought ‘wow, we can win this. We can win the Olympics. We have a really solid chance … This team, we’ve done so much hard work together, physically, emotionally – we deserve that medal in Tokyo.

17. The four of you are officially qualified so it will be you and Courtney and Kat [Holmes] and Anna [van Brummen]. What does it feel like to know not only that you’re qualified and Courtney’s qualified, but now to know what the full team is?

I’m really happy with the team that’s been selected for Tokyo. But it wasn’t just the four of us that officially qualified, there were six or seven of us that were really in it together throughout the entire quad that had a hand in this ... who all worked really hard and deserve to be there with us too.

18. Looking back to the London Games where you won bronze with the team … You were a replacement athlete for the event. When they decided to put you in for the bronze medal match, what were you thinking?

I was soooo nervous. I’d barely even warmed up that day yet because, as far as I knew, I wasn’t going to fence. It definitely showed in my first match because I think I got my butt kicked like 4-1. I was just paralyzed with fear and after I warmed up and woke up, I fenced great for the next two bouts, thank God. So it worked out, but I was definitely petrified because as the alternate you get put in and you have this sense that you have to prove yourself.

19. When Courtney was in as anchor and the bronze medal match went to overtime … Did you watch her fence?

No. The only time I watched was afterwards when I saw video later and I knew what happened [Laughs]. There’s times where the camera panned over to me and my face is pointed at the floor and my fingers are in my ears. I don’t want to hear, I don’t want to see … I was tenfold more nervous for her than when I was up there – which is saying something because I was very nervous for myself … What I was doing is there was a strip of light at the end of the strip that would go off when one of us hit, that light at the end of the strip would go off, so I had my face pointed down at the floor and I was just barely looking over to that strip of light to see if it would go off. That’s how I watched it. I'm nervous now even just thinking about it [Laughs]. 

20. What was it like to be on the podium in London?

It was bliss. Mostly I was just so happy I was even able to fence so it looked like for a bit that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to be put in. so to actually be put in and then have it result in a medal, I couldn’t think of a better story and to have that result with my sister. In that way, it was a very special moment, a very special surprise.

21. Going into your fourth Games in Tokyo, what are your thoughts on this Olympics?

I’m just really happy with the team we have. Win or lose, we’re such good friends that the Olympics will be a really fun experience, I think. I’m really sad that we’re not going to be able to stay much longer after our competition ends. That was really disappointing because I was really looking forward to enjoying Tokyo. One of my favorite places in the world is Japan so that was really sad to find that out. But, regardless, we’ll be in Iwakuni [for camp] before Tokyo so that’s going to be a blast. I just think it’s going to be a really positive experience, no matter how the results end up.

This is just a really special group of girls and we were all really in this together from when US Fencing first started trying to get us to work closer together and the sessions with the [People's Academy]. Coach Andrey Geva he really did a lot and Sebastien [Dos Santos] … It just feels like a really close group and it was fortunate to get this team moving in the right direction. It definitely took everybody. Besides just me and my teammates, the coaches were equally important in having a role in getting us all working together and as a cohesive unit. It’s been a team effort, through and through.

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