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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Jackie Dubrovich

06/08/2021, 6:00pm CDT
By Kristen Henneman

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.

Jackie Dubrovich (Riverdale, N.J. / Fencer’s Underground / Columbia) clinched her place on the Tokyo Olympic Team with a top-32 finish at the Doha Grand Prix in March. A successful fencer on the junior level, winning four team medals at the Junior World Championships, Dubrovich won two team titles at Columbia before earning a place on her first Senior World Championship Team in 2019, in which she earned team bronze.

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Dubrovich discusses being coached by her fiancé, Brian Kaneshige (Maplewood, N.J. / Fencers Club / Harvard), training at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center with her fellow foil fencers, how she’s preparing for the Games and where she’d like to live one day.

1. What does it mean to you to be going to the Olympic Games in Tokyo?

It’s hard to put into words. I’d always grown up watching the Olympics. It was always such a highlight for me, both the Winter and Summer Games. I also remember always watching the Opening Ceremony and having a very physical reaction. I would start getting goosebumps and I’d get teary-eyed watching it, and to know that in less than two months I’ll be a part of it, it’s surreal. It’s also a testament to the culmination of years of hard work and dedication and sacrifice. So it’s hard to put into words how much it means to me, but I’m beyond excited and honored to represent the U.S. this summer.

2. Take me back to March and getting to compete again for that first time, and you locked your spot on the Olympic Team. What was that tournament like and what goes through your head when it becomes official?

I was itching to compete. It obviously had been so long that any of us were able to fence on the international level, so I just wanted to feel that thrill of competition, that adrenaline again. There’s really nothing like it. You can’t replicate it. Even at the national level, it’s difficult to replicate the intensity and the pressure at these World Cups and Grand Prix [tournaments], so I was really excited to compete. I’d also come off of a coaching change, so it was something new for Brian [Kaneshige] and myself to exist exclusively as a coach and student at an international competition, so I wouldn’t say I was worried, but I was anxious what that would be like and it turned out really well. I remember I made the top 32 at the competition and I was upset with how my top-32 bout went. I didn’t think that I’d fenced well and in that moment I was just thinking about ‘oh, that went very poorly. I didn’t fence well at all.’ And then it was a really beautiful moment. Both Nicole and Sabrina came up to me when I was sitting by the stands by myself and were like, ‘Do you know what happened? You made it! It’s official.’ And then it was just a huge flood of emotions and we all were hugging and crying. All of us have had really unique journeys throughout these past now five years and so, for it to culminate with all of us being on the team together, it was just a very beautiful, very special moment.

3. You said you grew up watching the Games. Do you have any specific Olympic moments growing up that stood out to you?

I think for me Valentina Vezzali (ITA), watching her fence at the Olympics. She’s always been such an incredible fencer to watch and her tenacity and her passion I’ve always really admired as an athlete. Just to watch her fence at any of the Olympics, it’s always been really, really cool to watch. She had a cool comeback with Nam [Hyun-Hee (KOR)] at one of the Olympics where she ended up winning the bronze medal and she was down a significant margin and was able to come back with mere seconds left in the bout. It just showed me her resilience and her mental fortitude and I’ve always admired those aspects of her fencing, outside of her physicality and technique and all those things. So for me, it was always really cool to watch her fence.

4. If you could compete in any sport other than fencing at the Games, what would it be?

I’ve always loved the water, so swimming. I’ve always really enjoyed watching and I will say, the early morning practices, waking up at 4 a.m., not my thing. I’m not a morning person so that unless I had started doing that from a very young age, I think it would’ve been very hard for me to do that. Also, volleyball. I love the team aspect of volleyball. And then I’m kind of pretty good at badminton as a random fact. I don’t know why or how I have this acquired this skill. Maybe it’s the hand-eye coordination from fencing translates, but I’m a pretty good badminton player, so I feel like that would’ve been an interesting one for me too.

5. So when the pandemic hit, your life was not only upended due to the Games, but you’re engaged, you were laid off and you switched coaches. How did you handle so much change?

It was, I would say, probably the hardest time in my life that I’ve ever experienced. So many facets of my life were out of my control, and the pandemic has taught me this – you can’t control everything. There are times in life where, yes, being super organized and planning your life ahead, that’s definitely important, especially as athletes, where we plan our lives in four-year stints around the Olympic quad. But this just showed to me that I had tried to plan everything to a T and nothing came out as I thought it would [laughs]. So from a fencing perspective, I had to change coaches. With work, I got laid off and we moved and there were just so many things. I think in the beginning it was definitely really hard. I wouldn’t have made it through whole without leaning on Brian. It was too many things happening at once and it just felt really suffocating and debilitating. I didn’t know how to handle it all. And then slowly, one week at a time, I kind of had to pull myself together. I couldn’t wallow in my misery anymore and Brian was really funny. He was like, ‘I’m going to give you a week. You’re gonna lounge around. You can play your Switch. You can wallow in your own misery, but then you have to start figuring things out.’ And I really appreciated that honestly and transparency that you can be sad for a little bit, but then life moves on and you have to keep going. Luckily, things, I would say, have resolved themselves and I’ve once again figured out all these different facets of my life. But it was definitely a trying time.

6. Were there any positives that came out of the pandemic for you?

I think tangible positives, like working with Brian. There was definitely a risk. Working with your significant other, there’s so many different things that you have to figure out. Figuring out small details like when we’re outside of the fencing club or a competition, let’s figure out how often we want to be talking about fencing in our regular lives because you do want there to be a delineation between your personal and your athletic life. So we’ve worked on things like that, but it’s been really amazing working together. He speaks the same language as I do and he knows me better than anyone else. There was definitely a possibility that it wouldn’t work out, and we took the risk, and it’s been paying off really well, so that’s been a real positive and a silver lining that’s come out of this.

We got our dog, who I’m obsessed with, so she came out of this pandemic and has been the biggest joy of our lives. She’s helped me tremendously in tough moments, cuddling with her. It’s been really sweet. And I was thinking about this recently, what good things came out of the pandemic. I would say it really taught me honestly being more empathetic towards other people. I do think I’m a person that possesses empathy, but knowing that you never know what people are going through. Yes, we were all kind of going through the same thing with the pandemic to varying degrees, but it just taught me to be very gentle and kind with people. You never know what somebody may be dealing with under the surface and just to be cognizant of that and just really gentle and kind with everyone that you meet.

7. So you and Brian are both foil fencers. What are the similarities and differences in how you two approach the sport?

I think for me it’s no secret that I’m a very emotional fencer [laughs]. I really thrive off of that intensity, that passion, and sometimes it’s both my greatest strength but also my greatest weakness is straddling the line with having all that intensity and emotion, but also channeling it in a positive way in my fencing. And I think Brian has always been so good at keeping his emotions in check and I’ve really tried to learn from him in that way and not let my emotions completely overwhelm me. He just has such a fresh, unique perspective on fencing. He’s always been incredibly analytical. He always sees fencing in a really interesting way. He’s a young coach. He’s excited about starting off his coaching career and that’s something you don’t see all the time with coaches, especially if they’ve been in the sport a long time. That newness, seeing fencing through a completely new lens and he definitely has that advantage … he just recently finished competing, so he knows what the senior level fencing is like internationally. He’s seen it firsthand. And I think that’s also another thing that maybe not necessarily all coaches have competed in the last however many years, so getting that competitor’s perspective too I think is very special as well.

8. Talk to me about getting engaged. How did he propose and did you know?

I knew it was coming [laughs]. We’ve been together for so long. We had been talking about it. To us, getting married is a huge deal and we’re really excited whenever we have our wedding to celebrate with our close family and friends. But at the end of the day, we’ve been together so long that our relationship is so much more than marriage. He planned this impromptu trip to the Boston area and we were going to just do a long weekend up in Boston. I had just come off a summer of traveling like crazy. I was at Pan Ams, we went to the Pan Am Games in Peru. I had World Championships – we were just traveling so, so much and so I had barely seen him all summer.

And so he wanted to do this impromptu long weekend, and we rarely do things like this, mainly because we don’t have the time, so I was already a little suspicious. I was like, ‘Why does he want to do this?’ The day that he actually proposed, we did a really cool tour of Boston. And Brian went to Harvard, and I visited him so many times, but we wanted to have a little touristy perspective of the city, so we walked around, went to different pizza places, cannoli places. We felt like tourists in city for the first time. But he had his drawstring bag with him the whole time and I was just being so annoying. I was like, ‘Hey Brian, can I see what’s in your drawstring bag? Can I carry it around?’ I had a feeling. I just knew that the ring was in there. And he was just being really funny about it too. He knew that I knew and it was kind of an unspoken secret the whole day.

But then ultimately, he proposed in front of the church on Harvard’s campus that was very meaningful to us. The first time that I visited him, which is kind of funny when I tell this story because people are like, ‘Wow. He already knew this when you first started dating?’ [Laughs]. But when I first visited Harvard’s campus when he was a freshman, we took a tour and he showed me this church and he’s like, ‘I’m going to propose to you here one day.’ And at first I was like,’Woah, woah, woah, we just started dating. We’re also like teenagers. Calm down.’ [Laughs] [I was like,] ‘You’re being very forward right now.’ But he stuck to his word and he proposed to me in front of that church and it was a really special, intimate moment … he had all these photos, like a photo album that he had put together of all memories that we’ve shared and key milestones in our relationship and he started from the most recent and went to the earliest memory to when I first visited him at Harvard and we took those old photo booth photos on a Mac when that was cool back in the day. It was a very touching, beautiful moment and it was perfect for us because we’re low-key people and we don’t really like attention on us, so he proposed in the most beautiful, but also the way that suited us best too.

9. With the lack of competitions leading up, how has that changed the way you prepare?

So the foil teams, we’ve been out in Colorado Springs at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center very often this past year. We’ve really kind of made the OPTC our second home and so we’ve been really working on that, trying to replicate as many competitive environments as we possibly could. Obviously it’s really, really hard to do so, but in our training, we’ve been adding more super competitive scenarios, like creating mini competitions, and we try to replicate as much of going through the process of going through a competition, so arriving much earlier, going through the whole warmup we would normally go through, having referees, having time, having our coaches there during the one-minute break.

And then I fenced the previous NAC too, just to continue feeling that competitiveness. Not that I necessarily needed it for any points or anything, but I think it’s important to try to replicate that as much as you can – having those referees there, feeling that adrenaline, feeling that you’re down and you have to come back up or else you lose when you reach 15. It’s not like you’re just free fencing. It’s definitely been hard not having any international competitions other than Doha before the Olympics, but I think we’ve been doing a really good job of trying to replicate it as much as we can and the next upcoming camp, we’re actually bringing in the Canadian team to Colorado and we’ll be training out there and doing team bouting and different team scenarios with their Olympic Team and our Olympic Team, so we’re doing the best that we can given the circumstances.

10. I also assume having those camps helps with the team event and being together?

Yeah, we were all talking about this before we left this last camp. This has not really been done before. It’s hard. We’re all in different stages of our personal lives outside of fencing. Some people are in school. Some of us are working and to be able to make it all work, to be able to be all together in one place, to be eating meals together, to be playing board games after a long day of practice doing two-a-days, there’s something that’s so special about that. We don’t know if we’ll ever have that same opportunity. Maybe for the next Olympic quad, right beforehand like we’re doing now, we can make this a tradition because I know this is something that we truly love doing and would love to see the younger generation also implement. We live all around the country. We’re not like in Italy or Russia where they’ll have these camps all the time and they’ll all be in the same place for extended periods of time. We don’t have the luxury of doing that, but even just getting a small taste of it, I think we all really appreciate it and see the benefits of being out in Colorado Springs this often.

11. So when you guys play board games, how does that go in a group of very competitive people?

About as competitive as you think it would be. It gets very crazy. Alexander Massialas likes to bring his Switch, so we play different video games. Lee [Kiefer] likes to play this card game called Set. We recently introduced Settlers of Catan to a group that was a huge hit, and at least for me personally, I get very riled up when I play Settlers of Catan. Everyone jokes around, I get very cagey when I’m about to win, so I’ll just be chill. If I’m not winning, I kind of check out a little bit, but as I get close to victory, I get very cagey, which is very much in tune with my personality, so it’s funny. You see everyone get super into it and we’re all competitive people and it manifests itself even in simple things like playing board games or videogames together.

12. With the Olympics having a different format – not having pools and going straight into the DEs, how does that change your mindset?

It’s really unlike anything that I’ve experienced before. I just know you have to be ready. Not that you don’t want to ready right away in pools, but there’s a lot riding on each bout and especially if you have a slow start to the bout, that can be super detrimental with how much stress and pressure there is at the Olympics. I feel like it’s very easy to let the bout get away from you and being a newcomer and not experiencing the Olympics, I think you just have to be ready from the start. I have to get a good warmup in and I have to make sure I’m ready to go from the first touch. From what I’ve heard, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed … So just emphasizing being ready from the start and also just ensuring to the best of my ability to ignore any outside interactions or intruding thoughts that I may have.

13. I know you’ve said you didn’t like fencing at first. Why was that and what is it now that keeps you in love with the sport?

I feel like I didn’t love it because I truly didn’t understand it when I was younger. Also, kids would make fun of me in school. Fencing is still a pretty niche sport, but it’s definitely grown so much more than when I started fencing and back then, people would literally ask me that age-old question like ‘Do you jump over fences? Is that what you do?’ It kind of annoyed me that I’ve had to explain myself all the time. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve started to appreciate the nuances and the intricacies of the sport and how strategic it is and how it’s so physical, but also so mental and so strategic. I’ve really come to appreciate those aspects of it as I’ve gotten older, and it’s always something new. You can plan for one opponent and then they get on the strip and they do something completely different, so I love how dynamic it is. I love how versatile and how challenging it is every time you step on the strip.

14. You won team titles your junior and senior years at Columbia. Talk to me about your college experience.

It’s such a unique experience because fencing is such an individual sport and to put it within the context of a team sport, it’s very unique and there’s very few instances where fencers will be able to experience that. Other than competing on a national team, college is really the place where you get that team experience. It was really awesome because I’d never experienced that before. Especially at NCAAs, when you’re competing individually against an opponent on the strip, but then cumulatively you’re trying to get the most amount of wins as a team and I think that definitely helped when – I’ve been on junior teams, but when I made the senior team, just having that experience and having that structure easily translated onto the senior level. Obviously it’s very different in certain aspects, but I did get a lot of experience in college and winning as a team was really, really exciting. To get those NCAA titles is more meaningful to me than the individual titles because you’re able to come together across the men and the women to beat all these other really successful fencing programs. I’m a huge proponent of people fencing in college because you get that experience. Plus, you learn all the things like teamwork, fencing not just for yourself and for the greater good, so that’s a very unique feeling that you don’t really get in fencing just because it’s such an individual sport.

15. At the 2019 Worlds, that was your first Senior Worlds and you’ve said you didn’t have your best performance there individually. What did you learn there that you’ll take to Tokyo?

It was pretty jarring for me. It was my first Senior Team and I just felt very overwhelmed both at the individual and the team competitions. I think the pressure and the gravity of the competition kind of got the best of me and that’s something that I’ve always repeatedly thought about and don’t want to feel that again. I always say with these Olympics, I want to go into it knowing that I’ve done absolutely everything that I can to prepare and then in the moment, actually implement all the things that I’ve been working on and give it my all. The last thing that I want is to walk away with any regret or feel like I hadn’t shown the world and shown myself what I can do. And whether that results in a medal, that’s fantastic and that’s obviously a dream to win an Olympic medal, but ultimately that feeling that I felt after World Championships where I blew that moment and blew that opportunity, I don’t want to feel that again at the Olympics, or ever again for that matter.

16. That year, you did win team bronze. You’ve been a part of some very successful Junior World teams. What are your favorite memories from any of those podium finishes? Absolutely. At the junior level, we were always losing to Italy and for us to finally win my last year of juniors in the team competition was really amazing. And to win it with pretty much the same group of girls that had been trying to do that for all those years, I remember it was a very sweet moment that we still discuss to this day when we were able to win it at the end of our junior careers. But even at the World Championships in 2019, it was still such a beautiful moment to be up there with all those women.

I’m obviously closer to the end of my career than the beginning, and I’ve been very reflective and just thinking about all the different memories and times that I’ve shared and we’ve literally grown up with these women. We’ve been together for so, so many years, have achieved a lot of milestones in our athletic careers together, but have also watched each other get engaged, graduate from college and get married and all these things, so from a very human, personal perspective, it’s really cool to be able to stand on podiums and think about everything we’ve accomplished and how we’ve grown together.

17. With all that experience, you’ve gotten to travel all around the world. Where is somewhere you haven’t been that you’d like to go to and why?

Greece is a place that I’ve never been and it’s never been on the schedule for us to travel to, and I always hear from the Massialases how beautiful it is and I’m a huge beach person and I love Greek food, so I would love to go to Greece. Southeast Asia is another place I’ve never been to before. I’ve traveled extensively throughout Asia, but that’s one region of Asia that I’ve never been to, so going to Thailand and Vietnam and Laos and exploring that region would be really cool, and then also Australia, somewhere I’ve always been interested in going to and I’ve never had the chance to.

18. You’ve mentioned you love beaches and the water. Where is your ideal beach destination?

I’m really spoiled with Brian because he has family in both Hawaii and Okinawa [Japan], so we always jump between the two for vacations. It’s a great opportunity for him to see his family and then also I’m such a huge beach person. I can be a beach bum all day. I’ve always been like that from a young age. We always talk about our dream of moving to Hawaii. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I would love, love, love to move to Hawaii and to live there permanently after I’m done fencing.

19. Is there any advice you’d have for younger fencers?

I would say two main things. For me, it’s really simply putting your mind to what you want to do and doing everything that you possibly can to achieve it. After I graduated from Columbia, I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to fence. I had several conversations with Brian where we knew that if this was something we wanted to do together and try for these Olympics that there’d be a lot of sacrifices that needed to be made, from my personal life, career-wise, I needed to do everything that I could to ensure that I was giving it my all. Working hard, being determined, but also having a healthy perspective on fencing. This is something that I struggle with to this day is if I have a really bad competition, it kind of feels like the world is falling apart, like, ‘I have done everything I could. I trained so hard. How could I lose? What more could I have done? This isn’t fair.’

At the end of the day, it’s sport, and it’s something that I still have to constantly remind myself, so just to tell younger girls that if you have a bad day at a local competition, or a NAC or when you start traveling to these World Cups and Grand Prix [tournaments] and things like that, it happens. It truly happens. Everyone has tough days, has tough bouts. It’s part of the experience. It’s part of the growth, both as a fencer and a person, so not to be too hard on yourself when you do encounter those days and not think that it’s the end of the world.

20. If you could live the life of any book character for a day, who would it be and why?

So I grew up being a huge Harry Potter fan to the point where the books were always released around the end of July and my birthday is July 18, so it would always be perfect timing that my parents would get me the new Harry Potter book whenever my birthday came around. And I just remember the year when the last Harry Potter book came out, I had a birthday party, and instead of actually being a part of the birthday party, I snuck away upstairs into my room and just started reading the last Harry Potter book because that’s how obsessed I was. I remember being 11 and thinking and hoping – this is so dorky to admit, but getting a letter from Hogwarts that I was being admitted. I was a huge fan. So any Harry Potter character, being a part of that world. It was so magical and it was so special growing up with those books and actually waiting for each new one to come out and the anticipation. Going to Hogwarts and being a Harry Potter character would’ve been my dream.

21. But no specific character?

I would say if I had to choose, probably Hermione. She’s a strong female character. I always love those.

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