What is the first fencing lesson you learned?
That I had to learn to control my emotions. I would lose, I would panic, I would break my business. Often times, people lose because they lose control over their emotions. Halfway through [a match], the thought enters your head that you might lose and you just can’t stand it.
So what do you do if that thought comes over you, mid-game?
You continue to focus on the touch in front of you and on what you can control. You close your eyes, you breathe, and you think about what to do next. I always describe it as a boxing match mixed with art. At some level, you have to have all that emotion. That’s why we scream after every touch, like they do in tennis matches. There is so much emotion and focus in controlling all the possible variables of that touch, that you then have to let go of that refocus.
I have a lot of friends in athletics, where you run your race and it’s just you focusing on yourself. But with our sport, we have to really understand the psychology of the opponent. Like, you could be a really strong attacker. Maybe I should put you in this situation, to make you feel strong. I eat this several times, maybe to neutralize you, so that you lose confidence in him. And then I can understand my strength. It’s a lot of head games, knowing, “You like to do that, so I’ll let you thought you do that, and set up something else.
So when you step on the strip, especially on a high-profile stage like the Olympics, what’s your self-talk during those minutes and seconds before a game?
Before the game, I stay calm and remind myself that I can do this. I visualize different things of the opponent, I visualize my best fencing. I just sit in silence. That’s where I like to be before games.
It almost sounds meditative.
It’s meditative. You’re in a space where… I hate to use that word, but you’re ready to kill. It is calm, and it is Zen. Because if you come out too hard, that’s not good either.
I’m curious if you can talk about how this translates outside of fencing because there is so much going on here about things like focus, focus, and controlling your emotions.
With athletes, you know who should win and who shouldn’t when you start competing. We may not admit it but we know it. But your job is still to show up and prepare at a high level, and believe that because of your training you can perform at a high level. And that sometimes when you play at a high level the other person gets a little scared and then [who knows]. So one of the first lessons Peter taught me is that everyone is afraid and everyone pretends not to be afraid.
It’s like the boxer who faces Floyd Mayweather. Floyd never lost. This guy knows it, but he’s always going to go with his routine, he’s always going to look fierce. But he also knows deep down that Floyd has never lost. If you’re running against Usain Bolt, you know his time and you know yours. But you still have to get in there and make your jump, and try to look hard.
So we understand intrinsically, when we play sports, that everyone has a game face.
You won a silver medal in Rio in 2016. Did this competition seem different to you?
I was very focused in the three months leading up to it. I had just won a medal at the World Championships the year before. I meditated a lot. I had my three mantras. But I woke up that morning knowing it was going to be a good day. I could smell that morning. I didn’t compete until 1:30 or something like that, but I was up at five, and I was on the balcony, and I could tell it was going to be a good day.