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16 for 2016: Eli Dershwitz – Men’s Saber

12/12/2015, 5:45am CST
By Nicole Jomantas

Eli Dershwitz's first international gold of 2015 was at the Junior World Championships. Photo Credit: Serge Timacheff / FIE /

Eli Dershwitz after his gold medal win at the Pan American Games. Photo Credit: Devin Manky.

Twenty-year-old Olympic hopeful Eli Dershwitz (Sherborn, Mass.) has had the year of his young career in 2015, winning gold at the Junior Worlds and following with titles at the Pan American Championships and Pan Am Games. After winning bronze at the NCAAs in March as a Harvard freshman, Dershwitz is taking the year off from school to train for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, but will return to campus this weekend when the Absolute Fencing Gear® FIE Grand Prix Boston is held at Harvard’s Gordon Indoor Track.

Dershwitz took a break from training to chat with about his preparations for Rio, fencing with a home strip advantage and the importance of family on his success as a fencer.

Q1:  The Grand Prix is coming to Harvard.  So not only is it going to be your hometown, but your home school. What do you think it is going to be like?

A:  I think it is going to be a lot of fun. I am going to try and get a lot of my friends from school to come out. Try and get a nice loud rowdy audience. Fencing audiences aren’t exactly always as energetic as some other sports. I am going to try and get the energy level in that competition at a new high. 

Q2:  You know it’s interesting, when you watch fencing finals sometimes they are super quiet and sometimes they are just crazy.  As an athlete what do you prefer for an atmosphere?

A:  I prefer crazy. I like it loud and I like when tensions are high.  I like when everyone is yelling, screaming, cheering and I feel like in that atmosphere that is when I succeed the most. 

Q3:  Why did you start fencing?

A:  I started fencing, one because my brother did it and it looked really cool, and I played other sports in my town with my friends from elementary and middle school, but I wanted another outlet  another place where I could do physical activity but meet new people from different towns and get a new athletic experience.

Q4:  Everyone always says each weapon has its own personality. How would you describe saber as being different then epee and foil?

A:  I’d say they just take different types of talent, technique and mental readiness.  For saber if you are not ready the second the touch starts, you can lose right away.  It can be done in an instant.  The other two weapons it’s not as common for people to run at you right off the bat. Saber is so fast paced you have to always be ready, always be on your toes, always be ready to move and that is like always being on the edge. That is just something I really enjoy.

Q5:  So, your brother was a successful fencer.  When you were a kid did that put pressure on you or were you like ‘oh no I am going to kick your butt?’

A:  It definitely helped me when I was younger. When I was growing up and I was trying to beg my coach to let me fence the older kids in the older classes. Me and Andrew [Mackiewicz] were always trying to get up there and it was my brother and eight other guys in his year that were all like big, older people that were always trying to fence and everything and my brother definitely beating up on me.  It was a lot of tough love but it definitely made me better in the end.

Q6:  What has been your favorite moment as a fencer?

A:  Favorite moment as a fencer … If I could say one moment … Probably be the Junior World Championships in Croatia in 2013. It was such a nice atmosphere. All the fencers were staying on the same little resort alcove. Everyone was really close. The competition was nice. The weather was beautiful. The atmosphere there was amazing. I was there with my friends; people I grew up with. Just being able to fence in that amazing place was out of this world. 

Q7:  Best place you’ve ever traveled to?

A:  I don’t know if I could say one single place.  We’ve been to so many cool places. We’ve been to exotic places. My first World Championships was to Amman, Jordan.  We’ve traveled throughout South America, Asia and Uzbekistan for World Championships, all throughout Europe. I don’t think I can really pick one. I think they all mix together to make a really cool childhood and growing up and being able to travel to all these places with your friends.  I don’t think I could pick one that was the best. 

Q8:  So how was that like in high school? Because I hear from a lot of people that kind of like you have your fencing life and then your high school life. So with all the travel that you do, how is it to balance having friends and is it weird when you come back from trips and their like ‘oh hey how was whatever country?’ Or do you not talk about it? 

A:  Yes, it’s definitely been a weird experience throughout high school.  You leave on Thursday night and you go to another country and you’re back by Sunday night.  And your friends are like ‘Oh how was Russia for two days?’ ‘Oh it was awesome. My competition was fun.’  And they’re like ‘oh that’s cool.’  I’ve had really supportive friends throughout high school and college so it’s always really nice to come back. And I have people and friends to look out for you to help you with stuff you miss. Same thing in college. My roommates and everything they were really helpful. Nothing really changed, you leave, come back and you leave off right where you were. It is really nice to have friends to be with you through the whole thing. 

Q9:  How was it balancing being a freshman at Harvard with that kind of schedule?

A:  It was definitely hard at times. There were times where you wake up early, a little bit sleep deprived.  You go to class. You maybe get an hour nap in before practice. You practice throughout the afternoon.  You take a shower, you have dinner, and then you go straight to the library. You are tired from the day before from work, you’re tired from practice. All you want to do is sleep. You know you have to get work done early as well as the work done that you have due because you are leaving for a tournament the next week. There were definitely times that were really stressful but in the end it worked out OK. Now that I am taking a year off from school I am able to train full time. It’s definitely a lot easier, less stressful and I am able to get so much more out of my practice. Now I feel like I am on a good track. 

Q10:  You won Zonals this year and last year, but the Pan Am Games is so much different than the Zonal Championships. How was that? 

A:  Yes, it was definitely different. For a rare occasion, both my parents were actually at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, so to be able to have family and friends there. Whereas usually fencing tournaments have only fencing, being able to be a part of a community with all these different sports and like where your medals actually count towards an overall medal count. There are so many sports coming together and like training and just seeing that whole community coming together is amazing.

Q11:  Did you get to meet many of the other athletes?

A:  Yes, we definitely did.  After competing we went into the city of Toronto and got to see so many different places. We met a lot of different athletes – American athletes and foreign athletes.  A lot of the fencers from different countries introduced us to other athletes from those countries as well.  So it was definitely a very nice atmosphere to meet new people.

Q12:  What would it mean for you to qualify for Rio and be an Olympian?

A:  It’s kind of hard to describe. To be able to say you worked your entire life for one moment, for one day of competition, one thing, one single time ... It’s crazy to think about how much work can go into one little experience. Of course, the journey is everything, but qualifying would be such an amazing experience. I can’t even imagine it. If you’re training full-time, that is all you think about. Your training is trying to get you to some place. Your strength and conditioning, the way you eat, the way you act, the way you behave, the sacrifices you make is all for one end goal. I am still coming to terms with the fact that I am training full time and might have a chance. I really want to make it and just the fact that I need to really keep working hard. It’s overwhelming.

Q13:  You are one of the youngest members on the team and your first Zonals was in 2013 when you were still a teenager. How has the transition been from being the complete rookie to having a couple more years on the circuit under your belt?  

A:  It’s definitely a different feel. When I was the youngest kid on the team and it was my first year, I definitely felt like an outsider. I felt like I was still like a junior fencer and I was just barging in to the senior group and I felt like I didn’t really fit in. But over the last three years, getting closer to my saber team, going to Worlds and Zonals with members of other weapons  and getting to know everyone, I really feel like I have gotten close with a lot of people on the team and I really feel like the team as a whole gets along and works together really well. It’s definitely been like a really cool transition to be like part of the U.S. National Fencing Team.  No cadet, junior there’s no need to describe it any other way.  It’s just the U.S. National Fencing Team.  It’s just like a cool group and a very small select group to be a part of.

Q14: People always talk about the support they have gotten from their family. I’ve seen your parents at tournaments. What has support from your family meant to you in terms of making you a successful athlete? 

A:  You can’t mention enough how important family support is. People always talk about like athletic success, they say ‘Oh how strong are you’ or ‘how fast are you?’ They don’t talk about the mental game and the psychological benefits of having a support system back home. Whether you do really well and you need someone to really keep you from letting it get to your head or whether you have a really bad tournament or a really bad practice, and you need someone to be like, ‘take a day off, relax, like it’s no big deal.’ When I find I’m a little stressed out with school, practice, anything, just having like my mom, dad, brother and sister always there is so important. They all fill different roles; they are all different kinds of people. My brother really pushed me to be better. My sister was always there for me. My dad, also, always there for me. My mom is always trying to make sure that my feelings were ok because most people don’t like to talk about how they’re feeling.  My family has definitely been one of the biggest factors in my success as an athlete.”

Q15: You’ve talked in the past about watching our men’s saber team compete in London. What’s it like going from watching Daryl and Tim make the eight and compete and, waking up your family, to knowing that in a year that could be you?

A:  It’s just so hard to think about. When I was watching 2012, I was still not on the level that I wanted to be at or where I thought that I could make the next Olympic Games. So, the hard work has brought me to a new level, but just to think that in three short years just to think of how much I have grown, how much I’ve improved, how much hard work has really helped my game, just to think that it can go from watching on a computer screen, watching four strips at one time, screaming in my pajamas at 3 in the morning to actually be on the biggest stage in sports, it’s so hard to picture.  But now it’s all I think about.

Q16: Was there a moment where you realized ‘Oh I could qualify for 2016’ rather than just ‘down the road’ or ‘maybe 2020.’

A:  Of course I am still looking long term and I hope that I am still fencing by 2020.  I’m planning on still doing that, but over the last few years as my training has gotten better and as I have started working harder and my results have improved and ending my career in juniors with a world title, it’s built my confidence to a level where if I keep working hard and I keep on the road that I am on right now I really believe that I have a shot to make the Olympics and then do well.

Tag(s): News  Eli Dershwitz