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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Sabrina Massialas

06/15/2021, 7:15pm CDT
By Kristen Henneman

Four-time Senior World Team member and 2014 Youth Olympic Games gold medalist Sabrina Massialas has qualified for her first Olympic Games as the replacement athlete. 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.

She might be the youngest member of the Massialas family, but Sabrina Massialas (San Francisco, Calif. / Massialas Foundation / Notre Dame) has already made a name for herself in fencing. The younger brother of two-time Olympic medalist Alex Massialas (San Francisco, Calif. / Massialas Foundation/ Stanford) and the daughter of three-time Olympian Greg Massialas (San Francisco, Calif.), Sabrina Massialas won eight Cadet and Junior World Championship medals, including individual gold in the junior event in 2016. She also became the first U.S. fencer ever to win a Youth Olympic Games gold medal in 2014. After two NCAA team titles at Notre Dame, the four-time Senior World Team member qualified as the replacement athlete on the U.S. Olympic Foil Team in March after earning a top-32 finish in Doha.

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Massialas discusses going to a Games with her brother, paving her own way, her appreciation for marine animals and what’s on her bucket list after returning home from Tokyo.

1. How does it feel to have qualified as the replacement athlete for Tokyo?

I don’t really have the words to describe how it feels, even now. It feels really amazing to fulfill this lifelong dream after so many challenges and battles, so I just feel really grateful and really lucky to be on the team, especially with such a fantastic group of women.

2. At the last international qualifier at the Doha Grand Prix, where you locked that spot, how did you handle the pressure?

Honestly, I was just doing everything I could to have a positive mindset and try to go in wanting to fence well. Not make it so results oriented, but a culmination almost of the journey that we’ve been on. I really wanted to perform well for myself and come out of the competition proud of how I fenced and how I approached the competition. So I think just doing different things to hone in that feeling and that focus was really helpful, but then also talking to my teammates and hearing each other out and pumping each other up.

It’s funny because I had to fence Nicole [Ross] as my first bout in the second day and the day prior, before we knew we were fencing each other, we were talking about how much we believed in each other and how we thought that we could both really far and we could both do really well, and unfortunately we had to fence each other. But even once we found out we had to fence each other, we texted each other and we said we still think that holds true. We still can bring out the best versions of ourselves and fence extremely hard even though we have to fence each other. That kind of support helped.

3. You’ll be competing in the team event as the replacement athlete. Talk to me about this women’s foil team and what you bring to this squad.

This group of women, I love them so much. They’re some of my closest friends. I’ve known them for forever. Nicole is kind of like my big sister. Lee [Kiefer], I was in her wedding. She’s one of my best friends. Jackie [Dubrovich], we call each other twins because people always say that we look alike and it’s been this ongoing joke. We all get along so, so well. I have so much love for them.

I’m told that I bring a silly factor to the group, or maybe a lightheartedness, just because I am a very smiley person. That’s what I’m told I bring to the group, but I guess you’d have to ask them [laughs].

4. You mentioned being in Lee’s wedding. What was your favorite part of getting to be a bridesmaid on that day?

At the beginning of the day, I went up to Lee and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh Lee, this is my favorite day ever!’ And it really was because it was more than just a celebration of Lee and Gerek [Meinhard’s] love, which is so amazing and something to aspire to have, and all our friends, all of our loved ones were in the same place on the same day, just having fun and celebrating Lee and Gerek and celebrating each other and it was such a special experience, so just knowing that we had everyone we loved in the same place to celebrate Lee and Gerek, that was the best thing ever.

5. You had so much success as a junior and cadet. You were the first U.S. fencer ever to win a Youth Olympic Games gold medal in 2014. What was the experience like for you at the Youth Olympic Games?

It was really cool because the Youth Olympics is kind of like a mini Olympics. You get to stay a village with all the other athletes and there are all these fun activities and things to do. They kind of treat you like an Olympian, or at least what I imagine it seems like to be an Olympian. [Laughs]. So I think it’s a really cool experience that they have going on because I feel like it does prepare you in some ways for the Olympics, so because I’ve had that experience, I do feel like I might have a slight insight – not exactly the same as the real Olympics because the real Olympics is a lot more exciting, but I’m excited to go to Tokyo and see what they have to offer.

6. Then in 2016 you won the Junior World Championship. What did that one mean to you?

I was so stressed going into that competition. [Laughs]. I remember I was a freshman in college and I was having a really hard time my freshman year with all the classes and being a science major. I was behind on all these assignments and I remember I was in my pool and I won my match and then I started crying. Gia [Kvaratskhelia], my coach at Notre Dame was there, and he was like, ‘Sabrina, why are you crying?’ And I was like, ‘I’m just so stressed because I have so much homework and I have to study for exams and all this stuff.’ I was so tired and I remember in between DE bouts before the finals, I was napping for like 15, 20 minutes – whatever time I had – because I was so tired. And somehow I pulled out a win and it was very, very exciting to know that I was able to accomplish something even though I was so stressed and so tired, but I was able to pull something out of me and do what I need to do to win. But even after I won, I remember I stayed up at two in the morning finishing my calculus homework, so it was a very long and stressful day.

7. What was it like growing up in such a strong fencing family? Has being an Olympian always been your goal?

Yeah for sure. I wanted to be in the Olympics before I really even knew what the Olympics were. I just kept hearing that my dad was a three-time Olympian and I saw his Olympic rings and his medals and trophies in his trophy case and it was something that was so exciting for me, and both my brother and I are very competitive people, very sporty, so it was just something that we fell naturally into. It really culminated as this giant dream that we both had. But of course it was hard too having such big footsteps to fill with my dad and my brother. So that definitely has been a challenge for me growing up, having people in my family be so successful and then having the pressure and expectations to do that myself.

8. How have you handled that and wanting to step into your own spotlight?

Everyone kind of asks you about the narrative of like, ‘How do you fill in your dad and your family’s footsteps?’ It was like, ‘Is it in your blood?’ It’s a very fun or cliché narrative to follow and it sounds really good, but I think having that idea in my head really worked to my detriment because I was putting so much pressure and constantly comparing myself to my brother. If I wasn’t doing something that he did at my age, I was very disappointed in myself. I was very hard on myself. I think once I realized that that wasn’t a narrative that I needed to have – that I was not following in their footsteps, but rather paving my own way and taking my own path – that’s when I really started to come into my own with confidence and being my own person and my own fencer.

9. Five years ago, you were in Rio and watched Alex win silver. What was it like being there in person and seeing him earn a medal?

Oh my gosh, I was a teary-eyed mess. I was crying throughout the day and screaming my face off. My brother had some very dramatic bouts, in particular his top-eight bout against [Giorgio] Avola (ITA) where he came back 14-7 and I remember screaming at the top of my lungs hoping that something would reach him and I don’t know, he’d turn something on. I didn’t for a moment think that he couldn’t win and I was just doing everything in my power to show him my support and when he won that, I was just crying constantly. I was just so happy and proud of him and then when he eventually was in the final and lost to [Daniele] Garozzo (ITA), I didn’t even feel an ounce of disappointment. I was so, so proud of him, and so happy for what he had accomplished. I was literally sobbing. Could not get it together. [Laughs]. But it was incredible and such an emotional day.

10. Now what’s it like to be going to the same Games together?

I guess you could say it’s kind of a dream come true. I know that my brother has been to two previous Olympics, but it’s both of our dreams coming together, and I think that’s something that’s very special. And maybe he’ll be sobbing for me! [Laughs].

11. As a younger sibling, I know you get compared a lot. How are you and Alex both similar and different on the strip?

I’ve asked a lot of people if my brother and I fence similarly or differently, and for the majority, everyone says that we fence nothing alike. And I’m kind of excited about that because I’m happy that we have our own personalities and our own fencing. The only thing I’m told where he have a similarity in our fencing is our panic action is kind of the same, so when something doesn’t happen and we’re in panic mode, we kind of do the same thing.

12. Were there other fencers you looked up to growing up?

I think there’s things I admire about all of my teammates and all the great fencers I’ve come across. I think one particular is Doris Willette because, although she didn’t start at my club, after the 2008 Olympics she switched over to my club and she was definitely a big role model for me. She was the best female fencer at our club and I felt so humbled and so honored to be able to train with her and she definitely played a big part in me reaching a higher level of fencing and really introducing me to a higher level of fencing. So I really admired and continue to admire her. I love Doris so much. But everyone on this team too. Nicole, Lee, Jackie – they all have things that I admire so much and look up to them so much and feel like I have so much to learn from. Nzingha Prescod too, an incredible fencer that I really, truly greatly admire and I love them all so much. They’re all so close to me and I like to think that I have a lot to learn from each and every one of them.

13. It’s well known that your dad is your coach. But talk to me the role your mom plays in this equation.

My mom is just the best person ever. She’s the kindest and sweetest and most supporting person … it’s no secret that me and my dad have our scuffles every once in a while and she kind of acts as a translator for us. When we can’t hear each other because we’re upset or emotional or whatever, she kind of translates what we’re trying to say to each other to make it more productive. She’s the heart of everything that we are … She’s always there, but silently there, because she’s not a very mainstream person. She doesn’t like to make a lot of noise. She always likes to sit far away, not because of she’s nervous, but because she likes to be the overhead watcher. She’s watching over us and we just always know she’s there. She’s always watching, whether it’s waking up at three in the morning to watch an online match or to watch live scoring. You just always know she’s there and it’s always a very heartwarming and supportive feeling.

14. With family ties to Greece and China, what is it like growing up with two very different, strong cultures?

It is very special. I feel very lucky to be able to learn about and experience two very different, but deep and meaningful cultures. I’m a big food person and both of those cultures are big on food and eating as a bonding and loving experience. I think because of that, I have this very deep love for food, both Chinese, Greek and all kinds of other cuisines. I think it also has helped me having a deeper appreciation for all cultures. Being able to learn more about my own also makes me want to understand others because I know how special and deep they are. So I think it’s helped breed my curiosity and my desire to learn about other people’s backgrounds and cultures as well.

15. So what’s your favorite meal?

One of my most common questions I ask people if they could only have one type of cuisine for the rest of their life, what would it be? Mine is Chinese food, even though I also really like Greek food. If I had to choose, probably based on frequency and ease of access, it would be Chinese food. As for dishes, I don’t know if I could choose a favorite dish. I love noodles. All forms of noodles. Asian or not Asian. So good. But I’m also a big sucker for home cooked meals and stuff that my mom and dad make.

16. When you were deciding on where you went to college, how did you choose Notre Dame and why did you decide to go away to school rather than staying close and training with your dad?

Of course I was considering Stanford very strongly, but I really wanted to do what I wanted to do as opposed to what other people wanted me to do. I think a lot of people expected me to go to Stanford because that’s what my brother did and I kind of followed in a lot of ways his career, or decisions. We went to the same middle school, high school, everything. We made a lot of the same choices. The college was the first big decision that I felt like I was making on my own and I really kept an open field of the schools I was considering until I visited them all, and that’s when I really started to form my opinion. Ultimately, I just felt the most at home and felt like Notre Dame was the best fit for me and I just loved the community and family feel at Notre Dame. I am always glad I made the decision to go there because that really was the best for me.

17. While there, you were a four-time All-American and two-time NCAA Team Champion. Does having that college team experience help prepare you for your role in Tokyo?

I think, especially because I’m the replacement athlete and only potentially fencing in the team event, that makes it even more specific to how they relate. Of course, NCAAs, even though you’re fencing individually, it’s such a team aspect, and at Notre Dame, we’re all about the team. We do everything together. We love each other so much and I think that relates a lot to the Olympics and specifically, my position because all I’m thinking about is the team event and helping my teammates and helping us do the best that we can and feel the best that we can. I think the pressure that you feel at NCAAs of wanting to do the best for your team is going to translate really well in Tokyo because you’re going to feel like you have the whole team behind you and I think when we go to Tokyo, we’re going to feel like a cohesive unit, taking on both individuals and teams, as opposed to feeling like its one-on-one. I feel like it’s going to feel like it’s four-on-one and that’s something that Jimmy Moody actually said to us and I really liked and it’s kind of stuck with me.

18. You earned your degree in environmental science. What do you want to do with that?

I have no clue. [Laughs]. Whenever someone asks me what I want to do, I say that I want to do something in environmental or wildlife conservation, but that is the widest umbrella. That could be anything … I’m entertaining the idea of being a wildlife veterinarian because I would love to work at a rehabilitation center for wildlife. There’s a few organizations in the Bay Area, like The Marine Mammal Center and Lindsay Wildlife Experience, where they rescue, rehabilitate and release animals that are sick, injured or orphaned in the wild. If you’ve ever watched “Finding Dory,” they took a lot of inspiration from those organizations and those places. So if I could do something like that, that’d be really cool.

19. I know you worked at the aquarium in San Francisco, the Aquarium of the Bay, and have worked with a variety of animals. Do you have any favorite animals to work with?

I don’t know. It’s hard to choose a favorite. I have a deep appreciation for the sea cucumber because people don’t think much of sea cucumbers, but there are some cool things they could do, like they as a defense mechanism will throw up their guts. They’ll throw up their respiratory system if they’re starting to get attacked so it either scares away the predator and they can go away really quickly or the predator will start to eat the respiratory system and the sea cucumber can then get away and they can regrow its respiratory system after that. So there are some pretty cool creatures that don’t get enough credit.

20. I know you’ve traveled all around the world. What’s currently still on your bucket list?

Most of them have to do with marine creatures. I really want to swim with whale sharks. I really want to see in person a killer whale … I’d like to see a bowhead whale because that’s my favorite whale. They’re the fattest whale and I would like to see them. There’s a lot of countries I’d like to visit. I’d love to see the Northern Lights one day. I want to get my motorcycle license and get that going … I actually did a motorcycle class I think after my sophomore year in college where I could’ve gotten my motorcycle license, but I did it in Indiana, and unfortunately it didn’t transfer to my California ID, but I do know how to ride one, so all I’ll have to do in California is take the test. It’s something I intend on doing at some point after the Olympics.

21. When you need a break from fencing, what do you like to relax?

So I have a dog named Koda and a cat named Kenobi, and they’re my favorite things ever on this planet. So I love spend time with them and hang out with them. Koda I can obviously take out more often, although I have considered buying one of those strollers for cats and take him on a walk. [Laughs]. I don’t know how much he’d enjoy it, but I’m entertaining the idea. But just walking my dog Koda, bringing him on hikes. Spending time with him is a really great way to disconnect from anything and appreciate him and the environment.

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