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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Francesca Russo

05/25/2021, 12:30pm CDT
By Kristen Henneman

Four-time NCAA Champion Francesca Russo qualified as the replacement athlete on the women's saber squad after top-32 finishes at two of the final three international qualifiers. 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.

Making her Senior National Team debut in Tokyo, Francesca Russo (Wayne, N.J. / Bergen Fencing Club / Notre Dame) qualified as the replacement athlete for the U.S. Women’s Saber Team after earning top-32 finishes at two of the final three international qualifiers. Russo found success in fencing from an early age, becoming the first high school fencer in New Jersey to win four consecutive state championships. Internationally, she won bronze at the 2012 Cadet World Championships before competing on five Junior World Teams, in which she won team gold in 2013. She went on to become a four-time NCAA Champion, winning two team and two individual titles.

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Russo discusses how she handled the pressure during qualification, how ended up a saber fencer, her passion for food and her hobbies during COVID-19.

1. Take me through the moment when you realized you’d qualified in the top four for Tokyo. What goes through your mind?

Qualification was a very unique qualification because there was no point at which I was competing realizing that I had qualified. My qualification got solidified when the last World Cup got canceled, but the best experience I can give you is when I competed in Budapest and I was fifth [going into] Budapest and really I needed to get a top 32 or higher to pass up Kamali, who at the point was fourth. [Going into the 32], Kamali had already lost, so I knew that if I got those points that I would bump her. That bout, it was a very emotional and exciting bout for me. It was weird. I had a lot of confidence and I was just going out there to have fun because it just felt like things were getting put in place for me and I had this really awesome opportunity, so I really just had fun with it. When I won, my coach was so happy. He hugged me and it was a very thrilling and exciting moment. Granted, I didn’t know yet that I had qualified. I just knew that I passed up Kamali, but just that moment, it was very, very exciting. Lots of joy.

2. You really came through and had some of your best results in those last few tournaments. How did you handle the pressure?

Oddly enough, I think I do very well under pressure. I think I was able to compartmentalize it and really just focus. I was very focused. I had something that I needed to do, and I was just focused on every single part of the day of the competition. In Budapest, pools is generally very hard for me. I freak out mostly when I have pools, and this time around, I just felt really confident and I felt good on the strip. I was riding that wave. I wasn’t second guessing anything. I was just going for it, so the nerves sort of made their way into becoming some sort of weird confidence, and I was just rolling with it.

3. What was the reaction like from family and friends once everything was official?

So my parents have been my biggest supporters. They’ve been following me more than I’ve even been following myself [laughs], so my dad and my mom were definitely ecstatic. They were so, so, so happy. They were bugging me to post on Facebook and I was like, ‘Guys, it’s not official yet.’ Every day I’d get a new piece of information, they’d be like, ‘Can we please post? Can we please tell our friends?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ [So when I qualified], they were like, ‘Thank God! We can tell the world.’ So they were really riding that wave with me too … I have a really awesome support system here.

4. Going as the replacement athlete, how do you prepare for the team event? How is the mindset different?

I definitely feel like this is a role for me. I went to Notre Dame and I had the best time on the team, and this is like the ultimate team event. So I’m preparing to be that person. I’m trying to be the most multifaceted fencer for them. I’m trying to be ready on every level. I have to get myself ready to jump in when I’m not warmed up. I’m trying to train myself to be quick on my feet and be ready first touch. If they do put me in, I have to be ready, so I have a new way of looking at it now. I’m not going in and doing a 15-touch bout. I’m genuinely gonna go in there in case [things go wrong] with other people. I’m just trying to be the ultimate secret weapon or a crutch that they can use and that they can rely on. So in a way, I’m almost training a little harder because I need to be that ready.

5. You mentioned Notre Dame, where you had that team element. At Notre Dame, you won four titles, two team and two individual. Do you have a memory while there that sticks out the most?

My freshman year of college, our athletic trainer – he punished us for something and was making us do stairs. Tons and tons of stairs. I was on the cusp of like dying, and my teammate Nikki [McKee] behind me, I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something like, ‘Fran, do you want to be a national champion? You need to keep going to become a national champion.’ And that was the year I won my first NCAAs. I always joke around with Nikki. I’m like, ‘You’re the reason why.’ Everyone always took everything so seriously – sometimes a little too much – but for the most part, it was really great. If I was feeling weak, if I was feeling like I don’t want to do this, there was always someone else on the team who wanted to do it, who wanted to practice. That was motivating. So that’s something that I’ve brought into my life today with work and with fencing. It’s always so great to have a team environment because you’re essentially fencing by yourself. You’re doing most of this by yourself, but you need those mini motivators to keep you going. I think I’ll remember that for the rest of my life [laughs].

6. This women’s saber team is a group with lots of experience. What’s the dynamic of the women’s saber team like?

I’m definitely walking onto a team that has way more experience than I can imagine. I was making this joke to Mariel [Zagunis] that the first time I ever started fencing and the first time I ever watched the Olympics with fencing in it was Mariel and she’s been a symbol of fencing for me for so long that I can get to be on the Olympic Team with her is out of this world. It’s so crazy. So just that alone.

I’m definitely walking onto a very mature team. Every single one of these girls is a very focused, very determined and driven fencer. They each play their own different game. They have their own unique styles, but with the experience that I’ve had with them so far on the team, they really know how to buckle down and when someone says ‘get to work’ or the pressure’s on, they perform. It’s very cool to be a part of that. They are very serious. I’m definitely the most goofy out of all of them and I take things pretty lightly, so it is interesting for me to talk onto a team like that, but overall, the group dynamic is very hard working girls and their mentality is that they’re here to win. They’re not playing any games.

7. You mentioned Mariel there and the icon she’s been. Is there anyone you’ve really looked up to in the sport?

I think growing up, I never really got to meet Becca on a personal level, but Becca Ward has always been – you dream to be Becca. She has such an amazing resume from fencing and the way she approached it, I am definitely inspired by the way she’s approached her career in fencing and the success that she’s had. So even though we’ve never met, I think she’s another icon. And I’ve gotten to know Sada [Jacobson] quite a bit. Now, she’s working with our team a lot and I didn’t know her as well when I was younger, but I can tell how determined she was on the strip back then because she’s putting the same energy into our own team. And I really, really admire that. She seems like a really natural team leader and someone who I would definitely aspire to be like.

8. So when you made it official on Instagram that you’d qualified, you also mentioned you’d gone through 16 banana bread recipes during the pandemic. Have you found the best one?

I think I have and it wasn’t me. It was my friend. It’s like these vegan banana bars. Forget banana bread. We made vegan oat bars that have banana in them and they are so good. I don’t know if I have the recipe anymore because I honestly stopped making them because I was like, ‘I’m going to eat all of these.’ But I found the perfect banana dessert [laughs].

9. Nice! COVID activities, right?

Yeah, exactly. It was that and learning how to do a handstand … I got really into yoga over quarantine. For a good three months, I was doing yoga every single day. And I taught myself how to do a yoga handstand. I was getting really good at it, and then I started to work and I haven’t done yoga nearly as much, but I was really into it. I was considering maybe I should become a yoga teacher [laughs].

10. Going back to banana desserts, do you like to cook or is that something you started doing during COVID-19?

I grew up in a very cooking friendly environment. My parents are both from Italy, so I love to cook and not only do I love to cook, but I love food. Before I qualified for Tokyo, my Instagram bio was ‘a big fan of food.’ And then my brother made me remove it because he was like, ‘You’re a public figure now.’ [Laughs]. But I still stand by that. I love food and I wish I had more time to cook, but I actually just recently moved out of my parents house and I feel like I never get an opportunity to cook when it’s my parents because they’re the masters of the kitchen, so my new thing is to try to cook as much as I possibly can and try new recipes. I’m starting my journey.

11. Any favorite recipes so far?

I’m a big pasta person, so I don’t think I’ve found a favorite yet, but so far I’ve made really good Bolognese. I’m so happy. I feel like I was able to get to my mom’s level – not quite, but I’m getting there. I think that’s the best thing I’ve made so far … we were having the conversation at the camp. Because I can basically not stop talking, I was asking all the girls what’s everyone’s favorite cuisine? Without a doubt, there were six of us, and everyone was like, ‘Italian. I mean, you can’t go wrong with Italian.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, of course.’ We’ve all bonded over Italian food. Mariel shared some recipes with me. It’s a whole thing. I know Mariel really likes to cook.

12. That’s awesome. So I want to back up a little bit. How did you start in the sport of fencing?

So my sister used to fence. She went to Penn State. We both were very athletic kids, always trying different sports, but my dad’s dental partner, his daughter was doing fencing in high school and I think we went to their house one time and she took out her foil. And we were like, ‘this is so cool,’ so I think my mom inquired about any local fencing clubs around for us to try it out and we met my first coach. His name was Mark Trudnos. It was in a high school gym and honestly, I think we did a summer camp and I remember him coming up to me and my sister and being like, ‘So what weapon do you guys want to be? Foil, epee or saber?’ I literally had no idea what he was talking about and my sister was just like, ‘Saber!’ So I was like, ‘Me too! Me too!’ I’m so grateful that I chose saber because I struck with it.

13. What is it about saber that you think really fits?

Besides the fact that I don’t think I have enough patience for foil and epee, I think it really fits my personality. I am a little bit sharp sometimes and it allows me to be kind of funky on the stip. I know foil and epee you can have your funky movements, but I think I get very creative with saber because it’s so fast. I know it might seem like you don’t have enough space to be creative, but you can get so down to the nitty-gritty with saber and how different movements of your arm and how different placements of your leg, so you can get really creative. I have a lot of fun with the creativity of saber.

14. You had a lot of success from an early age. You won four high school titles. Not everyone has fencing as a high school sport. How did that help you grow having it as a high school sport?

As much as I kind of laugh at it because I was fencing at an international level on the weekends and then fencing high school on the weekdays, and it was such a big contrast, it really taught me how to be a dynamic fencer on the strip because yeah sure, I might not be fencing high school level athletes when I go to World Cups, but I’m going to be fencing funky people, people who don’t necessarily have the most perfect form but will score touches. So I think it made me become a very versatile fencer and it also exposed me to that team experience at a younger age so that when I got to Notre Dame, I was kind of prepped. I hadn’t really had the time to be on other sport teams. Once I started fencing, that was it for me. I dropped pretty much all the other things that I was doing to focus on fencing, so it was giving me that team experience and I think overall it made so much of a better teammate and I think it made me a better fencer.

15. Internationally, you won that an individual Cadet World medal and a team gold medal at Junior Worlds. What was that top podium finish like?

That was a really awesome experience. I’m almost equating that experience to what I’m now feeling going into this Olympics. I was the alternate for that team event. It the first year I didn’t qualify at all as an individual, so it was just pure fun. The team we had was stacked. All the girls were so good and honestly, it was a really fun experience. I got to fence a lot during that last bout, that last final, so I really felt like part of the team. It was a really, really fun experience.

16. Do you have any favorite bouts you’ve fenced over the years?

I want to say there was one bout, I think this was one of my first Senior World Cups and we went to Senegal, to Dakar. And I think that was the first time I got to fence Olga Kharlan. I’m pretty sure she destroyed me, but at the break, I’m pretty sure it was like 8-7. And I was like, ‘Oh my god! I’m fencing Olga Kharlan and I scored seven touches on her.’ Like I said, I’m pretty sure she destroyed me, but I was so elated after those seven touches. I was like, ‘Wow. I actually belong here.’

17. You’re an Associate Media Planner for CMI Media Group and Social Media Manager at Sicilia Mia Inc. Talk to me about those roles and what you do?

So I work for a media planning agency called CMI Media Group. Basically, it’s advertising strategy, so we work with our clients to best allocate their funds and to gear out the perfect advertising strategy with different media mixes, so we’re the middle man between the advertising agency who actually creates the creative and the client who wants to sell the item. So I graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in marketing and I’ve always been interested in advertising and when the pandemic happened, I was obviously unemployed and really gung ho about the Olympics, but I just had this realization that I should probably start career search now, and it all kind of fell into place. I had a conversation with them and they were very flexible with my training schedule, so I accepted the offer with them knowing that there’s a possibility that the Olympics might happen and there’s a possibility that I might go, so they’re really, really open and flexible about that.

And then, so my family back in Sicily, my cousin, she produces extra virgin olive oil and she sells it there, but she’s really been trying to come to the U.S. and start her own business and my mom’s very entrepreneurial and she’s very interested in Sicilian culture as she grew up there, so she’s very interested in bringing Sicilian culture to the U.S. So over the summer, she decided to open up a store here in New Jersey and since I was not working at the beginning, I was really helping her out with the marketing and I do all the social media work for them, so it’s my little side job.

18. If there were no limits, what’s your ultimate dream job?

My ultimate dream job would be to own like six different restaurants, all Michelin star restaurants. I love food and I love restaurants, so that would be my dream job if I had all the money to do it.

19. Outside of fencing, what do you like to do?

I try to do outdoor activities as much as possible. I think my hobbies and interests changed with the quarantine. As much as I can, I love to be outside. I have a dog and I love to hang out with him whenever I have time. Just being with my friends and my family. I love to travel … the simple things in life.

20. So what’s your ideal vacation spot?

So some tropical island with a beach. I’d say Hawaii … I know Hawaii’s kind of basic, but I’ve never been. So something like that where I have the beach but I can also mountains and hiking and things like that. But there’s beaches and piña coladas waiting for me at the end [Laughs].

21. If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?

Anthony Bourdain. He could tell me about all his fun adventures. I used to watch his show, the one where he went to all the different places and taste the food. I watched the show all the time with my parents. I was like, ‘You have the best job in the world.’

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