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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Jake Hoyle

05/04/2021, 10:15am CDT
By Kristen Henneman

Two-time Senior World Team member Jake Hoyle will compete at his first 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.

Jake Hoyle’s (Philadelphia, Pa. / New York Athletic Club / Columbia) breakout result came at the 2015 NCAA Championships. After starting to fence in middle school and not being highly recruited out of high school, Hoyle walked on to the Columbia Fencing Team, winning individual and team titles at the 2015 and 2016 NCAA Championships. After graduating in 2016, Hoyle made his debut on the senior international circuit in 2017, qualified for his first Senior World Team in 2018 and in February of 2019, won back to back bronze medals on the World Cup circuit, becoming the first U.S. men’s épée fencer to win two medals on the circuit in one season since Seth Kelsey (Vancouver, Wash.) in 2010. Ranked No. 1 in the United States in the Team Point Standings, Hoyle punched his ticket to Tokyo after the Kazan World Cup in March.

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Hoyle discusses his experience at Columbia, how he coped with the pandemic, his favorite place he’s traveled to and the best day of his life (hint: it’s not fencing related!)

1. What does it mean to you to have qualified for Tokyo?

Qualifying for the Olympics has just been my dream for my whole life, like ever since I can remember. I’ve always watched the Olympics with my family. I’ve always thought it was the peak of athleticism and I’ve been an athlete my whole life, so I’ve always looked to the Games as the top of the summit. I can’t even realistically say that it was a goal, right? That’s a dream, and there’s a difference. As a wide-eyed kid, that was an absolute dream, so to qualify this year after so much work, especially after everything that’s happened this most recent year – normally it’s four years, it’s been five, just everything that comes along with that – it’s the best feeling in the world.

2. You mentioned you grew up watching the Games with your family. Are there any specific Olympic moments, in fencing or not, that stand out to you as favorites?

I didn’t start watching Olympic fencing until I was a fencer. My family, we’re a really big sports household, so there’s always sport on in our house – football, basketball, hockey. We’re from Philly. We love all Philly sports teams and follow everything really closely, and Summer and Winter Olympics, when that’s on, we’re watching everything. And if there’s an American competing, we’re cheering super hard. So I remember all the big Olympic moments from the last couple Olympics, before I started fencing anyway, that were huge. Simone Biles sticks out, Phelps, Usain Bolt. We consumed it all across all the different sports, but fencing specific, what Keeth Smart did in Beijing stands out. That’s what I think about when I envision what I would want to do at the Games.

3. Unfortunately there won’t be friends and family in Tokyo. With it being your first Games, what message would you want to give your family before you leave?

I wish beyond anything that my family – my parents, my sister, my girlfriend – could be with me in Tokyo and I’ve thought a lot about this because I feel that I don’t need a lot of support at a tournament. I’ve usually gone without a coach and traveling alone or just with the U.S. guys to a World Cup, but I’m thinking back on every tournament that I’ve ever won first place – not just do well, literally first place – and my dad was there. He went to a lot of tournaments over my career and he’s been by my side for every win, so the message is I couldn’t have gotten here without them, but I’ll bring it home to them.

4. What was the experience like being back in competition in March?

It was in Kazan. I had never been before and as I’m sure you can imagine, there were a lot of new problems to deal with – COVID testing before you go and very strict quarantine protocol once you arrive and more testing and social distancing requirements, everything. Everything we had to deal with with COVID changed the way the tournament was run. But by the time we made it out to Kazan, we’re all familiar with that. We’ve had to deal with those kind of new regulations and above all else, it just felt amazing to get back on the strip. That first touch in pools where the ref calls ‘Fence,’ that’s what I’ve been waiting for for a year. Normally you get that feeling every month, twice a month even. So it just felt really good to get out and compete again finally. Like I said, when they call ‘Fence,’ and you take your first advance off the line, it made all of last year worth it – all the testing we had to do for the tournament and all the anticipation for an entire year, we were back. It was a great feeling.

5. How did you handle the pandemic? What were your ways of getting through it?

First and foremost, I was very lucky through this whole pandemic. My entire family remained healthy. All of my friends are healthy through it all. So, short of a really big tragedy, nothing went wrong for me and those close to me, but it was hard for everyone. The big coping mechanism for me was I reconnected every day with a college teammate of mine. His name is Brian Ro and me and him would work out together over FaceTime for like three, four hours a day. A lot of chit chat in there, but a lot of hard work and having that to focus on and look forward to every day, it kept me accountable, it let me set little goals for myself when I’m not leaving the apartment. I was just sitting at my desk working and then when it was time to work out, just stand up, push in the chair and work out in the same spot. I never left the room, but being able to do that with him, heavily kept my head on straight.

6. How did you start in the sport?

I got started at a club at my middle school, Strath Haven Middle School, and I was coached by Pixie Roane. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and they had a club in the middle school there and they taught fencing in gym class. You go to normal gym class, you run the pacer test, play basketball, you go outside, you play baseball, softball and then you fenced at Strath Haven. So we only did it for a few days, but it was enough that me and a couple friends were interested and then we joined the after-school club and Pixie was just so enthusiastic about the sport and made it really, really, really fun. Her club after school was what I looked forward to every day while I was in class. We were down in the cafeteria and set up the reels and the strips in between the cafeteria tables and it was just so much fun. I’ve kept in touch with a lot of the people that I fenced with back then. It was a really great experience. I would’ve never gotten started if it weren’t for Pixie.

7. Did you play other sports growing up?

I did. I always loved being outside, playing sports my whole life. As I got more and more serious with fencing, the other sports I was playing started to drop off one by one. So when I was a kid, I did taekwondo. I saw that all the way through and got a black belt and then eventually had to stop to focus on fencing. I played baseball. I was on my high school swim team for a year. I was playing basketball with my friends almost every night. My dad hooked up a flood light in our backyard, a basic motion sensor light, and we would just play basketball all night. But obviously as you start getting more and more serious with fencing, I had to start cutting those sports out. But it never really felt like a sacrifice, just a priority.

8. What do you love most about the sport of fencing?

Honestly, I think what I love most about the sport of fencing is the feeling you have after a good result, the competition’s over and you’re on your way home. When I’m looking back at all these years I’ve spent fencing, those are the moments that stick out to me and the reason that I do it. You spend so much time preparing and so much time training and studying and talking about fencing, thinking about fencing – and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the journey. A lot of it is about loving the work, but to go out and compete and put everything that you’ve worked on on the line and showcase your new skills and put yourself out there like that, and then to have it go well – let’s say you win a tournament or you pop off a big result – that night you’re either traveling home or you’re getting some sleep, that feeling is so satisfying. I think that’s what I love the most.

9. So is there a specific tournament you’ve fenced or a specific result that’s been your favorite and given you that feeling?

I don’t think so. Every big result feels like a big result as you’re coming up. So winning a local tournament – I remember when I was first starting out all I wanted to do was win this eight-person Halloween tournament at my middle school. That’s what I was training for. I wanted to win the Halloween tournament and if you won the Halloween tournament, you got a little pumpkin with candy in it. That was my goal and winning that tournament felt just as good as winning NCAAs. It felt just as good as winning Div I Nationals at the time. They’re all equal. That satisfactory feeling feels the same. The amount of work you put in and the amount you invest in it and how much you want to win doesn’t change, just the magnitude of the tournament and obviously you get a higher and higher level, but it feels very similar.

10. I read you weren’t highly recruited out of high school, so how did you end up at Columbia?

I walked into Michael Aufrichtig’s office in Dodge Fitness Center on campus and said, ‘Hey, I want to come to Columbia.’ He met with me and my dad and we talked and he said, ‘I can’t recruit you, but I could put a letter of recommendation in with your application and if you get in, you can walk on to the team.’ And I said, ‘All right, let’s do it!’ I was born in Brooklyn, so I love New York City. Obviously Columbia has very strong academics, but it has the best fencing training partners you can get in the U.S. by far. In terms of a balance of academic caliber and training caliber, it was a perfect fit and it felt like a reach for me. I don’t know how I got in [Laughs]. Honestly, I always say that they had a stack of acceptances and a stack of rejections and they were about to mail them all out and someone ran into the admissions office and was like, ‘Wait! We need one more person,’ and they just pulled my paper off the top of the pile and threw it in. [Laughs]. It felt really lucky, but that’s how I ended up there. I just walked into his office. He was putting a team together. It was his first year as the coach, so he was trying to build a program. I think he liked my attitude and saw some potential in me and rolled the dice … It changed everything. It changed absolutely everything. I don’t even know if I would be fencing now if that didn’t happen.

11. Based on your experiences, what advice would you give other high school fencers?

I don’t want to give like a normal work hard, set small goals type of answer. I think singularly what helped me the most in pursuing fencing is taking ideas from other people. So, I was always looking at what other people are doing and trying it out. And if I liked it, I kept it and incorporated it into my routine wholeheartedly, and if I didn’t like it, I forgot about it. Especially in fencing, you meet so many people, and epee fencing specifically, there’s so many possibilities. There’s so many ways to score touches and there’s so many ways to train and there’s so many ways to think about the game. You really have to try as much as you can and learn what works. I don’t think everybody can fence the way I fence because I can’t fence the way a lot of other guys fence. I try. I can’t do it, but that has helped me so much and I would say in terms of improving your fencing game, that’s what I would try to do. If your friend is doing a new workout, try it. If they’re on a new diet, try it out. If they’re switching up their volume of bouting versus lessons, give it a shot. See what you like because someone might think of something you didn’t think of that you really like and it works well for you.

12. You won two individual and two team NCAA titles with Columbia. What was your collegiate experience like?

My collegiate experience was very rewarding. We had an extremely close fencing team. Some of the relationships that I made in college are still just as strong today. As I mentioned, I spent 100 hours training with Brian over FaceTime during the pandemic, so that was amazing and I made lifelong friendships there, close to family. And Columbia was a very difficult school academically. I did not do much besides fence and study … I studied really hard and I do feel like I got the most that I could of going to a school like that and being on a fencing team like that.

13. How was your experience different winning in 2016 when you were the defending champ than in 2015?

It was a lot harder. 2015 put me on the map, but it put a target on my back, so from now on, anyone I fence after that wasn’t just thinking, ‘Oh, Jake’s a good fencer. I want to beat him.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, Jake won NCAAs. He’s all that now. No, I’m going to take him down.’ People were fencing me twice as hard as they were before. So I actually didn’t have a great season in 2016, in dual meets or at NACs. I didn’t do that well, but when we got to the championship event, I pulled it together and I showed out, but we were really focused on winning the team event back then, so I was really focused on winning for Columbia because a lot of the team was graduating that year and we wanted to win again before we all left. It was a great year to cap off my four years.

14. You really didn’t compete internationally until after you graduated. After college, how did you decide to keep going and at what point did it become the Olympics?

So I did not go to any international events in middle school, high school or college. So I had never been to a Senior World Cup until after I had graduated. There were a lot of factors for that. It’s very, very expensive to travel for that and once I had a lot of support from Columbia, I actually chose not to go to Senior World Cups because I was really focused on collegiate fencing and school. Honestly, I look at some of the students at Columbia now, who are going to every Senior World Cup, every Junior World Cup and all the collegiate events and are studying and doing well in school, and I don’t understand it. They’re just, honestly, better than me. I couldn’t do it … I had to give up that international part of it, but it’s okay because I just recognized that it was going to spread me too thin and I wanted to execute and perform in school and for collegiate fencing. That was my goal when I came to Columbia. I wanted to be an All-American. I didn’t want to make a senior team. That wasn’t on my radar yet.

When I graduated, I had two titles under my belt and I was hungry for more, so I went to my first Senior World Cup January of 2017 right after I graduated. I won a NAC in December and then that put me on the travel squad and I started competing internationally. It was a whole new level to the game. Fencing is very much like that. You’re always uncovering a completely new level, even once you’ve been traveling internationally for years. You crack the top 16 in the world, now you’re on a new level. You’re fencing on the podium for a medal, it’s another new level. There’s so many, and I’ve been hungry the whole way, so I really kept going.

15. You won two medals on the circuit in early 2019. What clicked at those?

I was fencing really, really well. In response to that, I would say that every time I come back from a tournament where I did well, including those two back-to-back bronze international medals, my coach, Dr. Aladar Kogler says to me, ‘Remember that you have to die.’ [Laughs] And the idea there is you might feel on top of the world right now, but just as easily as you can do badly at a tournament, you can do well as a tournament, and you need to keep your eye on the prize and keep working on what you’re working on. So even though I had all that success, when I came back to the gym, I was working on the same things I was working on before I was top 16 in the world. I owe that to Aladar for keeping my head on straight.

16. I know you were really into music in high school. What types of band were you in and what instrument did you play?

I played the trumpet and I was in every band. I was in jazz band, orchestra, symphonic band, marching band – I was in everything. I played the trumpet every day and I loved it. We had an amazing music teacher at my high school. His name was Jack Hontz, may he rest in peace. He changed my life too. Same as Pixie changed my life, he changed my life with music. I loved playing. It was a hard choice to give it up when I got to Columbia, but at a certain point, you have too many balls to juggle, and I really wanted to pursue fencing, so I put my horn in its case. It’s under my bed to this day.

17. So what was it about music for you?

I love performing. I love being able to play and sound good. It’s the same kind of thing with fencing. I love to compete. I think I ended up loving to compete a little bit more than performing, but that’s why I made the choices that I did. Fencing and playing music are very similar in a lot of ways. You have a lot of technical work you have to do in between performances or in between competitions to really get where you need to be. And then on game day or on concert day, you’re showcasing and the work is done, so that’s finally where you can finally relax. You should probably always be more stressed for practice than for a competition because once you’re there, you just have a job to do. There’s nothing else you can do to prepare, and I think they’re very, very similar in that way, at least how I look at them and what I like about them.

18. What is your favorite place you’ve ever traveled to and why?

Salt Lake City, Utah and Moab, Utah. Yes, that is the single favorite place I’ve ever traveled to. I’ve been all over the world, all these tournaments. I’ve been everywhere, and Moab, Utah has a very special place in my heart. It’s my favorite place I’ve ever gone. My sister was living in Salt Lake City when we had Division I Nationals there in 2019. I flew out. I stayed with her. She ran the Salt Lake City Half Marathon. I won Division I Nationals. It was the first time I’ve ever won a national title individually and then my whole family and I drove down to Moab to go to Arches National Park. It was my birthday and I had just paid off all my student loans from Columbia, and it was just the best weekend ever, and that’s why Moab is my favorite place on the planet … I’ve been to a lot of national parks in the last year. With COVID, we did a bunch of park trips, and Arches and Moab is definitely No. 1.

19. So talk to me more about going to all those national parks during COVID.

Yeah. We went to Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, Acadia and Joshua Tree. It was awesome. COVID safe. We were up at 4:30 in the morning to hit the hikes when there was no one there. Back at the Air BnB by noon to work or train, get some sleep. We didn’t fly. We were driving everywhere. It was great. It was the only kind of opportunity to do that.

20. So coming from Philadelphia, you’re an Eagles fan I hear? What was that like having them win the championship in 2018?

February 4, 2018 was the single best day of my life. Nick Foles is my personal hero. And that is my full answer. I’ve been watching the Eagles my entire life. That was all I ever wanted. I didn’t know if I was gonna die before they had won a championship, so to see them do it, I was in Philly for every single playoff game that year. It was a big party and it was awesome.

21. What’s something people may not know about you?

I am an ordained minister. I got my online certification and officiated my aunts’ wedding in Upstate New York in 2012. Takes 10 minutes. It’s like $15, got it done. Signed the certificate. I did the whole ceremony. It was awesome.

It’s a funny story. I turned 18 and my aunts were visiting and they were like, ‘Oh, what can you do now that you’re 18? You bought a lottery ticket. You can rent a car or whatever.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, and I can be an ordained minister.’ They had just decided to get married and I was like, ‘I’m going to officiate your marriage.’ And they were like, ‘No Jake. You’re not officiating our marriage. We have a minister to do that. We have a real person to do that. You’re 18. You’re not doing that.’ And I was like, ‘No, c’mon, let me do it.’ And they’re like, ‘No! Stop. You’re being annoying. You’re not doing that.’ [Laughs] And they called me the week before the wedding. Their guy canceled on them. They had no one. They were like, ‘All right. We’re scrambling. It might be kind of cute if you did it actually.’ [Laughs] And I was like, ‘I’m preparing. Don’t worry.’ And it was awesome.

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