SANTIAGO, Chile — What’s the secret to bringing Team USA its first Pan Am Games Men’s Epee medal since 2015? For the 2023 squad, all it took was a group of talented fencers who had never before fenced together.
On Thursday at the 2023 Pan American Games, the trio of Curtis McDowald (Peter Westbrook Foundation, Fencers Club), Samuel Imrek (Alliance Fencing Academy) and Samuel Larsen (Northwest Fencing Center) won gold, defeating Canada in a stunning comeback.
Moments later, the Women’s Foil trio of Lee Kiefer (Bluegrass Fencers’ Club), Jackie Dubrovich (New Jersey Fencing Alliance) and Zander Rhodes (V Fencing Club, Columbia University) did the same thing, defeating Canada, 44-33.
In the Men’s Epee final, down 41-37 with less than 50 seconds remaining in the final leg, McDowald stormed back to tie the match at 41 before time expired. In priority overtime, McDowald fenced more aggressively and landed the decisive touch.
With a deficit and little time remaining, the plan, McDowald said, was simple: “Score touches. Hit this guy.”
“I just was staying to my plan, sticking to my strategy, remembering my team and just executing the plan,” he says. “That’s it.”
It was the first Men’s Epee medal — individual or team — since 2015, when the trio of Yeisser Ramirez, Jason Pryor and Benjamin Bratton won team silver and Pryor an individual bronze.
The last Men’s Epee team gold for the USA came in 2011 when Soren Thompson, Weston Kelsey, Cody Mattern and Gerek Meinhardt took home the title. (Meinhardt, a foil fencer, didn’t fence in the tournament but was the team’s emergency substitute.)
McDowald says he loved to see this scrappy squad unite in such a successful way — even if they make for a somewhat unlikely trio. McDowald is an Olympian, Imrek is an 18-year-old rising star and Larsen is seeing a career resurgence in his early 30s.
“We’ve got a lot of different strengths here,” McDowald says. “And in our weaknesses, we’re able to complement each other. We’ve got three completely different styles, completely different ages, but we all came together. And it just worked perfectly.”
“Yeah, even though we've never been a team event together before,” Imrek says, “we just knew we have good chemistry. And we worked together so well, the whole time. We just knew from the start that it was gonna be a good day.”
That confidence didn’t falter when the initial rankings put Team USA as the fifth best of the eight teams. Larsen and the guys didn’t see their three wins — against Colombia, Venezuela and Canada — as upsets.
“I wouldn’t say that we're underdogs,” Larsen says. “Everyone here everyone we beat was tough. But I didn't go in thinking that we were gonna get blown out. I didn't go in thinking we were going to lose. I think this is just an example of all the hard work we've all done.”
In Women’s Foil, it’s now back-to-back golds for Team USA in the team event, matching the 2019 result achieved by the team of Nicole Ross, Lee Kiefer, Jacqueline Dubrovich. Four years earlier, Team USA lost in a hard-fought final against Canada.
Speaking of Canada, this match was something of a revenge match for the U.S. women, who lost to Canada at the Pan American Zonals earlier this year.
“We've talked extensively about this,” Dubrovich says. “I think we just had a really positive outlook. There was a lot of energy all day today. We were cheering supporting each other. So we're really happy we can come out with the gold medal.”
Dubrovich and Kiefer say they’re especially happy for Rhodes, who gets her first Pan Am Games medal at her first trip to the quadrennial tournament.
“We have a lot of fun fencing team together,” Kiefer says. “And I think all of our eyes are on Paris. So this is just a good practice opportunity.”
For Rhodes, the mere opportunity to fence after watching her teammates across all three weapons fence on the first three days was a welcome moment.
“I was really excited to fence,” she says. “I saw my teammates fence individual on Monday. And it looked like a lot of fun, and they were so supportive. So I had a really great time.”