On Becoming an Olympian

palmedojpg-54a9bb9e9fe6ea1cThe Olympics or college? Seems like a silly question, but an article published in The Oregonian eloquently contemplated this choice for Olympic hopeful Sage Palmedo of Oregon Fencing Alliance. Sage, like every competitive fencer, faces the choice of “real life” or fencing. I call this a training commitment choice. Fencers make these choices all the time and if your passion is fencing, this is serious stuff! The article got me thinking about what a training commitment means, whether the decision is to excel or just enjoy this great sport.

Culture of Champions

At Oregon Fencing Alliance the pursuit of excellence is the mission. Winning a championship is not an exception for its fencers. OFA is built and designed as a training center for champions. It wasn’t always this way, but it came to be under the leadership of national coach Ed Korfanty, with the support of the Board of Directors. The conscious decision to create champions was made by the board around the 1999 when Sage was probably around six, and was just starting the after school fencing program. I am pretty sure her mother had no idea what she was getting her family into! (I should know, I taught her first fencing class.)

When you are immersed in this culture of winning, training for your goal becomes your entire life. If you choose not to train at that level, leaving is incredibly difficult. It means your value has shifted from the group’s norm. You find you are no longer part of the group and able to integrate in the way you once did. You are not on the lesson list, coaching attention ceases. Fencing is not the center of your world in the way it once was. The power of the group cannot be understated! A strong group is extremely important in creating that winning culture and, in turn, champions.

The Cost

Money is what usually comes to mind when folks think of the cost of training, with time a close second. Writing a $1,000 check each month for training can seem like a lot, even before you add traveling across the world once or twice a month. Funding crosses everyone’s mind, but if you fall into the trap of thinking results should be based on monetary commitment, you will fail. Money is not what a training commitment is about: it should be viewed as an investment in personal growth and education. If money becomes anything more than a tool for training, that’s a mistake. If the cost of training is an issue, do yourself a favor and say it openly to yourself and your coach. Commit yourself to stretch your resources as far as you feel comfortable and don’t dwell on the “ifs, ands, or what ifs.” Support those teammates who can commit the resources. After winning an Olympic gold medal, the amount of money spent on training isn’t highlighted across the bottom of the TV screen and compared between other countries: we watch because of the effort, the drive, the passion, the result. That’s what the Olympics are about.

One year I was top in the points list for the national senior team, and very close to making the team. National Coach Ed advised me to travel to the last world cup of the season, but money was tight. I was going to school, working and training. I made the decision to save for travel next year. It was my first year of traveling internationally and I didn’t have a good sense of my own competitive potential. I should have listened to my coach and traveled. I ended up just missing the team, and that team won their first world championship title. A competitive fencer must be fully committed to each season and I was not able or willing to make that choice.

Time is a little more tricky. We have limited amount of time in our bodies and women’s biological clocks can tick loudly. Women and men do peak biologically for competition at different ages and each person has their own timeline to consider based on injury or physical development. How can you predict next season? You can’t, but you can always count on the young ones coming up behind you to take your place. If you can’t take the heat, or make the training commitments, seeing younger fencers jump ahead of you can be hard. I’ve seen a lot of folks quit or retire due to this dynamic alone.

The Benefits

“Can you afford to not invest in your training?” is the champion mindset. If you have an opportunity, you do it. The benefits cannot be quantified — the educational opportunities, the travel, the people, the respect and self-confidence you earn from making that commitment are just the beginnings of the list. You’ve done well, you are excellent. You have better physical health, increased resiliency, a higher GPA, increased interpersonal skills, greater world perspective, and a work ethic that few can understand.

The Choice

The choice to increase your level of training commitment is ideally made by the athlete who takes into consideration “real life” factors like money, time, training environment, has strong family support and a dedicated coach that supports your chosen goal and mission.

Most fencers will never have the tools to be Olympians. If you have aspirations to work at fencing at this level, my advice is to first consult with your coach and either a national coach of past or present. Many clubs across the county are challenging the status quo of current training centers that collect Olympians, your club could host the next champion, even if it hasn’t already!  Never underestimate the power of one dedicated coach and an exceptional student with drive and a relentless work ethic – I am thinking of Lee Keifer.

Olympians are loved world over. Fencing fans quietly compare themselves to other Olympian fencers based on their own experiences. We live though your victories and losses. We are jealous, proud, curious, supportive and live vicariously though you. I couldn’t yell loud enough for Seth Kelsey to “JUST ATTACK!!!” during his last match up in London 2012.

To make this choice to be an Olympian, to have this choice – incredible! Regardless of who makes this training commitment choice, fencers across the globe are looking forward to the big party in Rio in 2016. It’s past time to start training.