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16 for 2016: Jason Pryor – Men’s Epee

07/31/2016, 2:15pm CDT
By Kristen Henneman

Jason Pryor after winning silver at the Pan Am Championships. Photo Credit: Devin Manky Photography

As Team USA prepares for the Rio Olympic Games USA Fencing is sitting down with members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Teams to ask each 16 questions about their Road to Rio.

Twenty-eight-year-old Jason Pryor talks about qualifying for his first Olympic Team, the advantages that come with being a 5’9” epee fencer and why his role models growing up were authors …

Q1: What was the moment like in March of finding out you were going to Rio?

Pure, pure shock. It was like, ‘What is happening?’ And then of course, you immediately think, ‘Surely I’m dreaming. This can’t be real.’ But then you really think, and you’re like, ‘No I’m awake.’ And then the happiness hits. It was unlike any feeling. I’ve never felt that strange mix of complete intoxicating happiness with complete shock and disbelief.

Q2: What are your expectations and goals at the Olympics?

My goal is to have the best day of fencing that I can possibly orchestrate. Everyone always asks about medals and I don’t care about them. I have never in the history of any competition I’ve ever had done well when I sit there thinking about a piece of medal as a reward. Yes, the medals are incredible and life-changing, but they don’t help you win. They’re a distraction. My goal is to win the touch. And if I can get away from all the distractions and the pomp and circumstance and all the things that make the Olympics the most incredible competition ever … if I can turn it into what it is, which is just a competition with a human being in front of me, then I can meet my real goal, which is to have the greatest day of fencing.

Q3: Is that advice you would give to young fencers, to not focus on the medals but on yourself and how far you can go?

Absolutely. I think some people mishear it and say, ‘No. It’s about winning and winning is great.’ Don’t get me wrong, no one loves to win more than Jason Pryor. I dream about the feeling of winning, but the feeling of winning is very different than thinking about what happens at the end of the day. It’s all about giving everything to that pinpoint focus of being in the moment, of wanting to win the touch, and if you can always have that hunger and drive and desire for simply the joy of fencing and winning the touch, then it all works out when you start winning more than you lose and you’ll have success.

Q4: You will be the only men’s epee fencer in Rio for the United States. How have your teammates supported you?

Unconditionally. In men’s epee, ever since Sebastien Dos Santos was the national coach, he really put in a culture that the enemy isn’t each other. The enemy is the country that we compete against. When it became very clear that it was going to be head to head with [me and Ben] with the very outside chance of Yeisser coming in, they could have frozen me out when I moved to New York. But they didn’t. Fencers Club, Athletic Club, everyone came together and said, ‘All right. It will be one of us, but for sure, the only way for us to get better and stay sharp and actually do this is if we grow up, act like adults and work together, and simply understand that it’s not personal. Someone will win and someone will lose, and let’s go ahead and do it anyway.’

Q5: Do you feel extra pressure going in as the only fencer with no team?

No. You’re always alone on the strip, so it’s fine. I’m an underdog. I’m used to having all of the chips against me -- that feeling where it’s just you and the expectations that it won’t go well. That just makes me hungrier. That’s where I belong. This is exactly what I love to do.

Q6: What’s the best advice you’ve been given going to Rio?

I think one of the most profound things that I heard was from Dan Kellner. He said, ‘Walk slow (at Opening Ceremony) because you only get one lap and you don’t know if you’ll go back.’ So, it really comes down to enjoying the moment. Enjoy the moment, have fun in the fencing when I’m there at the competition, enjoy the moment of what’s going to happen at opening ceremonies, drink it in because it’s going to be a really incredible experience and it will end.

Q7: What do you love most about the sport?

My favorite part about the sport is the feeling you get when you get that 15th touch in the competition. It’s unlike anything else on the planet. I love training, I love fencing, I love pushing my technique, pushing my body to get stronger, faster and the ability to do things, but I love competing more than anything else. And the most amazing thing about competing is that feeling when you win. It’s not like winning a race, it’s not like winning a game where it drags on in the final seconds and the team really knows that it’s done. It’s immediate. It’s lightning. It’s one-on-one with someone and then you get to lay into someone and crush their dreams, win and then have to walk away.

Q8: You started your international career after your parents bought you a plane ticket as a graduation present to Colombia for your first international Grand Prix. Can you tell me a bit about your family and where they’ve taken you in this journey?

My family has almost shockingly been overwhelmingly supportive of my fencing career. My parents have always been really big about making sure I felt free enough to pursue my passion. My brother and sister, they’ve all supported me. They’ve supported me with their words, their encouragement, their love, financially when and if they could. My mom and dad, we share in the victory and they’ve been lick since I qualified, like moonwalking around South Euclid, Ohio. One of the biggest reasons I’ve been able to do this is because my family are some of my closest friends and their encouragement has just never wavered and they’ve always believed even when I didn’t.

Q9: Outside of the Olympics, do you have one favorite fencing memory?

I think it was the first NAC I won. That was a humongous turning point for me personally. Everyone knew (after 2012) there were three open spots on the World Championship Team. My biggest goal as a kid was to make a World Championship Team. I tanked the first two competitions because all I thought about was the points. I was so far behind. There was no way I was going to make this World Team. I went to a sports psych, and she really pointed out that it seems like the trigger for whenever you’ve done well is that you’re more into the fencing than you are into these results. I realized that she was right, so I went into the competition and my only goal was to lay into these punks in my pool. And then I got to the semifinal and I beat my opponent 15-2 and then I got to Soren and by this time, I’m really feeling it. I’ve definitely never fenced this well in my entire life and I had never beaten Soren Thompson in practice, much less in a 15-touch DE. I remember I got on the strip and the only thing I could think about was Ben telling me, ‘If you ever make it to a final you should definitely put everything in there because you don’t know if you’ll be back.’ So then I beat Soren and I won the tournament and it was the first tournament I ever won. Because of that win, I was actually able to stay competitive and I made the World Championship Team that year. I went from absolutely screwing the entire year off to winning a competition out of nowhere and that more anything else kept me on the trajectory to eventually making this team.

Q10: I know a lot has been talked about other fencers typically being taller than you. How would you describe your style and what would you say is your greatest strength as a fencer?

There are disadvantages to being shorter, but there are advantages too. I’m very fast. It’s forced me to be more creative and more deceptive with the things that I do. I couldn’t rely on my hand to bail me out of trouble, it had to be my feet. I have some of the most unique and high-tempo footwork that’s out there and I use it brutally to my advantage. I think my greatest strength is definitely my ability to improvise. I had a lot of years where my technical wheelhouse was very limited, so I had to push myself and figure out how to get a lot of touches in an unconventional manner.

Q11: Did you have any role models growing up?

My biggest role models growing up were definitely authors. My dream job when I was a kid was definitely to be a novelist. Telling a story is probably the most amazing thing a person can do because we all are so thirsty for stories. Being a good storyteller means that you can capture everyone’s attention. Everyone likes you more and it means that you’re just very good not only at expressing yourself, but communicating and understanding a very nebulous thing that’s defining things perfectly.

Q12: What are your hobbies other than fencing?

It would be reading books, reading comic books, watching TV movies and reading and writing screenplays. I just love a good story, like a great movie or story that can make you forget everything else, because the one thing I’ve learned about how to deal with the stress of the Olympic season was escapism. I started going back and reading and watching all of my favorite things from childhood, whether it was an animated Disney movie or all those old Piers Anthony books, and as the season started getting more and more dramatic, I really started really designating time where I could just shut my brain off, go in and just escape into something.

Q13: Do you have a favorite place you’ve traveled for fencing?

I would say Tokyo is by far my favorite place I’ve ever been to. I’ve been to Europe and South America plenty of times and it’s different, but it’s really not that different. Some parts of Asia are truly, truly different. It’s like, if you’ve got gum, throw it in the trash can because that’s not going to fly here. Personal bubbles are completely different things. Don’t talk loudly on the subway. There’s a big list of things. The fashion, how people dress. This was the first time I’d ever seen a kimono in person. Or there are shrines. I’d never seen a shrine in person. Seeing a 30-foot Buddha is very different than seeing it in a picture.

Q14: Do you have any superstitions for before you compete?

I have rituals, but superstition is you freak out when you don’t get to do your ritual. I learned a long time ago that there is no place for superstition. I like to eat as many things for breakfast as I can. My normal thing is oatmeal, some meat, and then I like to throw the raisins, ham or bacon or whatever in the oatmeal along with salsa if I can find it. Then maybe some potatoes, coffee – I don’t really drink coffee but the morning of a competition I have a cup of coffee. I like to eat an apple. And then I like to watch one particular movie right before every competition, even if it’s just a couple minutes of it. Even though it’s not a very good movie, for some reason I really like to watch a couple scenes from ‘Sucker Punch.’ And then right before I fence, I have a much more formal ritual. I say a mantra in my head, I take a couple deep breaths, I touch the strip when I go to hook up, and then I do a little three simple-step lunge right before I fence.

Q15: Favorite junk food?

I love a good, Bucci burger – a thick, medium-rare burger with bacon, goat cheese, whatever. I’m thirsty to go to the best burger joint to get the absolute greatest burger that can be found because there’s just nothing more American and delicious than a freaking cheeseburger. Maybe what’s slightly ahead of that is chicken and waffles, which is probably the greatest meal that has ever been concocted in human creation.

Q16: What does being an Olympian mean to you?

In the greater scheme, it’s one of the greatest honors you could ever get, to represent your country at the Olympics. It has this history that spans over 100 years and is larger than life. The thought of it was so out of the wheelhouse of what I believed I was capable of when I was a child that I can’t even rightly say I dreamed of being an Olympian. So on a personal level, being an Olympian is really the realization that it’s not just achieving a goal, but it’s doing what was possible to change myself. I had to dig deeper, make more drastic changes and become more creative. I had to take all these insane risks on myself, most of which didn’t look like they had any shadow of a hope of ever coming true. 

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