How Alex Massialas Made US Foil History with His Epic Comeback

HOW ALEX MASSIALAS MADE US FOIL HISTORY WITH HIS EPIC COMEBACK

by Geoffrey Loss

If you’ve been watching the Rio Olympics, you’ve seen a lot of exciting fencing. And hardly anything has been more exciting than Alex Massialas’s historic silver medal in the men’s foil event. But although he had a lot of great bouts, one in particular stands out: his 15-14 victory over Italy’s Giorgio Avola in the quarterfinals.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE MATCH?

Alex and the Italian were going back and forth until 7-7, but then Avola took off. Pulling ahead to 14-8, he seemed to have already won the bout. But Alex didn’t lose any focus, kept fighting, and came back—touch by touch—to win the bout 15-14. 

As dramatic as that comeback was, it’s a situation that plays itself out at countless world cups, NACs, and local tournaments. In some ways, it can be harder to win a bout when you’re up by a lot than when it’s close the whole time. Why is that? It’s not for any technical or tactical reason, but because of both fencers’ psychological states.

HOW CAN YOU BE AS TOUGH AS ALEX?

When you’re fencing, you have to be focused on what you’re doing—what happened in the last touch, what your plan is for the next touch, how you’re going to execute it. Even if you’re hyped up and screaming after every point, you still have to be very present and in control.

Jason talks more about the psychology behind all this in another article. But often when a fencer builds a wide lead on their opponent—14-8, for example—they stop focusing on their fencing and start thinking about the fact that they’re about to win the bout. Worse, they might even be already thinking about their next opponent—before they’ve even beaten this one!

And while a six or seven touch lead might seem insurmountable—after all, you just need one or two lucky touches to win!—against a skilled opponent it can be gone in an instant if you’re not just as focused on the last touch as you are on the fourteen touches before it.

Conversely, a lot of people might have panicked or given up when down 14-8 with an Olympic medal on the line. But Alex’s ability to stay calm and stay in the bout allowed him to prevail.

KEEPING YOUR COOL

"You need to be able to act in an intellectual fashion in this sport,” says his father and lifelong coach Greg Massialas. “Being emotionally out of control will not allow you to intellectually apply what it is that you need to do.”

That’s why Alex was able to win. He was just as controlled at 14-8 as he was at 0-0 and as he was at 14-14. With an Olympic medal on the line, that’s very difficult to do—even Avola wasn’t able to stay in control and focused on his fencing, only one touch away from victory. But it is possible, and it’s something that can be trained and improved on at every level—at practice, in a pool at a local tournament, in a final, at an NAC or a world cup, or even in the top 8 at the Olympics.

DRILL SUGGESTION - GIVING YOUR OPPONENT THE LEAD

If you often find yourself having trouble coming back after someone builds a lead on you, you can try letting your opponent start up by a lot—5-0, 13-7, 10-2—in practice bouts and forcing yourself to come back. And if you often struggle with keeping a lead, you can try letting your opponent have two points for every touch they score after, say, the first period, to force you to fight for every touch all the way to 15. You can build your confidence by trying this first on younger or less experienced fencers at your club, before working on it with tougher fencers or even trying it against someone like Alex at your next NAC!

When you are behind in a match, how do you stay focused?

FOOTNOTES

*Header Image Photo courtesy of Serge Timacheff / FIE