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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Nicole Ross

04/27/2021, 7:00pm CDT
By Nicole Jomantas

Nicole Ross will fence at her second Olympic Games in Tokyo. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam

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

After competing at her first Olympic Games in 2012, Nicole Ross (New York City, N.Y. / New York Athletic Club / Columbia)  went on to win three straight medals with the U.S. Women's Foil Team from 2017-19, including gold in 2018. Ross suffered a torn ACL in December of 2019, but returned to the circuit in January of 2020, earning top 16 and 32 results on the World Cup circuit to retain her No. 3 position in the National Team Point Standings before the COVID shutdown. Ross underwent reconstructive surgery in May of 2020 and returned to the circuit in March to qualify for her second Olympic Team at the Doha Grand Prix. 

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Ross talks about the moment the U.S. Women's Foil Team first reached No. 1 in the world, her goal of becoming a clinical psychologist and why it's important to "walk slowly on the podium." 

1. You’re at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center for a camp now and I know the foil squads were one of the first teams from any spot to have access to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in February as a camp in the bubble. How were those experiences?

It’s been amazing to be back. I basically lived here for the better part of 2019 and 2020 for my own knee rehab, so it feels like a second home to me and it’s just great to be back with my teammates, and have access to all the amazing facilities and resources.

2. You’ve been to the training center a number of times over the years. What’s the thing you look forward to the most when you come back?

I think just having all of my training in a concentrated area. I can easily go to practice, take a lesson and work on strength and conditioning, receive treatment in sports med, then go back to my room and recovery and rest… so it really fosters training as a true professional athlete. That’s something I always look forward to and then, obviously, the mountain views don’t hurt either [Laughs].

3. Colorado Springs is a little over 6,000 feet in elevation. Do you get used to the altitude adjustment?

Altitude is still difficult for me to adjust to for the first few days, but then it feels great to be acclimated and return to sea level, and feel strong and confident, as a result.

4. I know your training schedule is pretty packed, but what does off time look like?

With COVID, obviously it looks different than it did before. We can hang out in lounge areas and there’s social distancing and masks, but it’s more challenging. With this camp in particular, I’m taking finals for the second semester of my first year of grad school, so I’m swamped with studying and writing papers when I’m not training. There’s very little downtime in these two weeks, but I’m really looking forward to future camps when I can have more time to relax and rest. We’ve actually started playing board games and card games, sometimes virtually, sometimes in person, socially distanced. We’re getting creative with how we relax and hang out.

5. The team is seeing each other more often now, but what did it look like trying to keep in touch as a squad during COVID?

We were very active on our group chat and we Zoomed a couple times. We also tried to Facetime and check in, but it was different not seeing each other for a year. When Lee [Kiefer] and I saw each other again for the first time, we were like ‘Oh my God, we haven’t gone this long without seeing each other in 15 years!’ It was a sweet reunion. It was definitely difficult to be away for that long.

6. You mentioned being in grad school. Where are you going and what are you getting your degree in?

I’m getting my Masters in psychology from the New School for Social Research in New York.

7. What are you looking to do in the future with your degree?

I’m hoping to pursue my PhD in clinical psychology.

8. Looking ahead towards Tokyo and the Games, you finished qualification at the Doha Grand Prix and earned a position on your second Olympic Team. What was it like to earn both your position, but also to have the full squad be qualified?

It was really special to be together for the conclusion of the qualification. It was a high stress situation for everybody with COVID,  not competing for a year, and having our qualification come down to that tournament, but a lot of happy tears were shed after it was all said and done. I definitely felt relief, and just really enjoyed sharing that moment with Lee, Jackie [Dubrovich] and Sabrina [Massialas] and being able to finally look at each other and realize ‘Wow, we’re going to the Olympic Games together.’

9. You’ve been on the National Team for more than a decade, how have you seen the team evolve?

We’ve had a lot of evolution. When we started together, 12 or 13 years ago, we were just kids. Then  we had the unique opportunity to grow up together as people, but also as fencers, and experience many, many ups and downs before becoming one of the best teams in the world, achieving a No. 1 world ranking, and winning three World Championship medals. We always knew we could win a World Championship medal, but I had no idea if it would ever happen. It’s been such a privilege to be a part of the iterations of the team, and with this current iteration, we have a lot of hope and excitement.

10. On every squad, each member has their niche. How would you describe your role on the team?

I would have to defer to my teammates to ask them what they think my role is…But I think there’s been a natural progression of me being the oldest, and playing a role of big sister to some of the younger girls. I’ve definitely been called “mom” once or twice! Honestly though, I learn from everyone associated with our team, regardless of age.

11. There’s so many young athletes coming up now and you’re at the camp with a lot of the next generation who’s in high school and college. Do you give them any advice?

Honestly, I learn from them. They are so hardworking, talented and grounded as a group in both their fencing lives and their personal lives. I’m so impressed with the next generation and how they handle pressure with competition and school, and I’m honestly just proud and feel lucky that I’ve been around long enough to get to know them and train with them.

But I think, ultimately, we want to impart to them that staying really committed and focused are the keys to long-term success. And I think the final piece, and we probably don’t need to remind them of this, is to always find the fun in fencing. They are creative and engaged, and they certainly bring joy to our practices, which is impressive and much appreciated.

12. Speaking of fun, what would be your best fencing related memory outside of being on the strip?

There’s been so many, I’d have to think about what the best one is... But a few years ago we competed in the Katowice World Cup and won a medal. Our flight home was really early at like 3:30 in the morning and it just so happened that Lee, Nzingha [Prescod] and I were on the same flight and we were the only ones traveling together from our group. As we were going through security I checked my phone and I looked at the FIE world rankings, and saw we had moved to No. 1 in the world. I was like ‘Guys, we’re No. 1 in the world!’ and I just burst into tears. We were alone in this airport, jumping up and down, so excited and hugging at 3:30 in the morning. In the airline lounge, which was this tiny little room,  we popped open champagne and poured each other glasses at 4 a.m. I’ll never forget that, the gravity of that moment, and how special it was  to have a private moment to celebrate our years of hard work. It’s something I’ll always remember and cherish.

13. The women’s foil team won three medals in a row at the World Championships with the silver in 2017 and the gold in 2018 and bronze in 2019. What was that 2018 experience like?

In 2017, I think we surprised ourselves. I can’t say exactly what our expectations were, but we definitely surpassed them with that silver medal and that experience showed us what we could do. Then we had high expectations and standards for ourselves in 2018, and we held ourselves accountable throughout the whole year leading into the World Championships.  I think that professionalism is really what enabled us to become World Champions and, honestly, I think we approached 2019 in a similar fashion.  Although we lost our bout to make the final, we approached the bronze medal match with similar professionalism and focus. I think that was the progression from 2017, showing us that we could win, and our commitment to each other to continue to do it in the years that followed.

14. What was it like standing on top of the podium?

Amazing. It was so special. A friend texted me right before the medal ceremony saying, ‘Walk slow on the podium’ I didn’t really get it at the time, but when I got up there I realized I knew what he meant. It goes by so fast. And it was such a pivotal, amazing, historical, happy moment that I tried to enjoy every emotion and make it last. I’ll never forget the pure joy of being there with my teammates, and feeling on top of the world.

15. Looking back, you made the Olympic Team in 2012. In 2016, you were in the top three, but there wasn’t a team event in women’s foil and so only two could go from the United States. I know there was a lot that went into that decision to try again for Tokyo. What was that thought process like committing to another quad?

It was complex. I think I didn’t allow myself the space to really grieve not qualifying in 2016. I know that’s a strong word, but it was very disappointing and difficult to accept at the time. And I truly thought ‘I’ll move on from this. I’ve made an Olympic Team. I almost made two, I’ve done what I can.’

And then when started working with Daria [Schneider] at Cornell, I had the opportunity to be back in fencing and rediscover my love of the sport. I focused less on results or the Olympic Team, which brought out some of the best results of my career. I decided to recommit after finding that cadence and, of course, no one could have predicted what this quad turned into in terms of being five years long. Then, personally, tearing my ACL, having reconstructive knee surgery and going through all of the trials and tribulations of that. I have been humbled by that experience, and I’m appreciative that I’m still here, and have more to give in the next 90 days and beyond.

16. You tore your ACL in December of 2019 and decided to rehab and keep going and returned to competition in January. Can you tell me about that?

That was the scariest experience of my athletic career by far. I had so much fear about so many different things. First and foremost, holding my knee together and being able to  fence and walk and do all of the things I needed to be able to do, but also being out there with the injury fighting and battling with people. So it was really tough, but also, like many things in life, there was a silver lining. I changed my game because of the injury and I found new ways to move and score touches - and I got so much joy and satisfaction out of that. It was an extremely trying time, but some really good things came out of it.

17. The announcement that Tokyo was being delayed was so hard for everybody, but it put you in a very different position with decisions you had to make. You decided to have surgery on your knee and had the operation in May of 2020. What were you feeling at the time?

People thought that I was going to feel so much relief and happiness that the Olympics were postponed, but actually, it was the opposite. When I first heard that announcement, I had that same very sad and devastated reaction that many other Olympic hopefuls experienced. I had made a commitment to myself and gotten myself ready for Tokyo without an ACL. I focused so hard on that goal that I felt really confused about what would happen next. On top of that, it was a very serious time with the pandemic in New York, so I wasn’t able to have surgery right away. The right timing was also an aspect that I had to navigate. It wasn’t clear cut and simple, although, in the end I’m happy how things worked out and I’m grateful that I’m on the other side of my injury.

18. Looking ahead to Tokyo, we’re under 90 days out, what are your goals for the Olympics?

I want to show my potential in Tokyo and shine in a way that I haven’t yet done. I want to rise to the occasion in this pivotal moment, and really show my best under these circumstances. I’m a little superstitious, so I’d rather not discuss specific results, but I’m hoping for us to come together and show the world what we can really do, not just as individuals, but as the U.S. Women’s Foil Team.

19. While you’re training for Tokyo, you’re also a volunteer assistant coach at Harvard. Why did you decide to work with the team?

I’m really looking forward to the future where I’ll hopefully be able to spend more time in person with the team in Cambridge. This last year I spent a lot of time on Zoom, communicating and learning about the team on that platform. Any time I get to work with Daria is a huge privilege and opportunity for me. Her vision for Harvard Fencing is so inspiring, and she’s such a ground breaking force in the sport, so I feel lucky to work with her, and the amazing students and recruits. I’m really excited about the future of Harvard Fencing and being able to be part of it.

20. In 2008, you were a junior fencer when the U.S. Women’s Team won silver in Beijing and I assume you were watching back home. What do you remember looking back on that day?

I remember that night very distinctly. I don’t know if it was late at night or early morning for us, but I was in my parents’ apartment where I grew up, and spent all night watching the event - it was so exciting with so many ups and downs in the scores. When they made the final, I remember being moved to tears and waking up my family to share the news that they won Silver. It was so historic and the performances were just amazing. I have a positive memory of feeling like: I’ve gotten to train with these women and I’ve gotten to travel to competitions with them, and I want to be there one day. It was a big motivator and kind of a North Star to shoot for. It’s funny to reflect on that now after 12 years on the National Team and one Olympic Games. We’re still shooting for that medal so the silver medal in Beijing remains an inspiration.

21. You grew up in New York with amazing fencers and you trained at the Fencers Club and now the New York Athletic Club and you went to Columbia – all places with such amazing traditions of Olympic fencing and people to look up to. How do you think that molded your journey?

I think all of our trajectories are different and I think one of the great things about fencing is you can become a champion no matter where you come from or what your background is and that’s what’s so special about our sport. But for me to be able to look up to people I was interacting with daily and to be able to see the steps that they took to get to the Olympics and reach their goals and to be able to modify that to make them my own, but also use what I learned from them and their experiences. Being able to have such close proximity to World Champions and Olympians certainly affected me in the best way.

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