A native of Iesi, a town that has produced several elite fencers, Italy’s Elisa Di Francisca was in sparkling form at London 2012, winning two gold medals in the women’s foil.
Italy has long boasted a strong Olympic fencing tradition, and sits proudly atop the all-time medals table in the discipline, with 121 in total (including 48 golds) since the 1896 Games in Athens. And over the last few decades, the small Italian town of Iesi, situated in the Marche region, has carved its own place in the history of the sport. Remarkably, its fencing club has produced several Olympic foil champions, including six-time gold medallist Valentina Vezzali and London 2012 star Elisa Di Francisca.
As a child, Di Francisca had a brief dalliance with ballet, but as she later explained, “it wasn’t really for me, because it was too quiet and I wanted something with more movement.” Instead she turned to fencing, demonstrating great potential under the guidance of renowned master Elio Triccoli and going on to win the national youth title in 1995 at the age of 13.
In 2000, she finished second in the National Junior Championships, before taking a bronze medal at the World Juniors a year later. A call up to the senior Italian squad seemed an inevitability, and she made the breakthrough in 2003.
Performing in a strong team that included foil luminaries such as Vezzali, Di Francisca enjoyed great success at European and world level, but struggled to step out of the shadows of her more illustrious compatriots in individual competitions. Consequently, she was not selected for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and declined the invitation to attend as a sparring partner.
In 2010, things began to fall into place for Di Francisca. At the FIE World Fencing Championships, at the Grand Palais in Paris (FRA), she went on a tremendous run in the foil event, defeating compatriot Arianna Errigo 15-11 in the final to win her first major individual honour. The following year she was crowned European foil champion in Leipzig (GER) and Italian champion in Livorno (ITA), beating Vezzali in the final on both occasions.
On 28 July 2012 at London’s ExCel Exhibition Centre, Di Francisca finally made her first appearance on the Olympic stage. She proceeded to put in a series of outstanding displays, disposing of Lebanon’s Mona Shaito (15-2), Germany’s Caroline Golubytskyi (15-9) and Japan’sChieko Sugawara (15-9) in the run up to the semi-finals. Her opponent in the last four was Nam Hyun-Hee (KOR), who put up a strong fight before succumbing 11-10 in sudden death.
The gold medal match saw Di Francisca face Errigo once again. In a closely contested bout, she scored the winning point in extra time to see off her fellow Italian 12-11 and claim the Olympic foil title. Vezzali took bronze to give the Italians a clean sweep of the medals.
In the team foil competition on 2 August, the three medallists joined forces to coast to victory, defeating Russia 45-31 in the final. “We’re so happy,” exclaimed Di Francisca. “It might have looked easy, but so much work has gone into this achievement. And it’s so great to celebrate with so many of our fans. They’ve supported us all the way; it was like having a part of Rome with us in London!”
With a CV that now features six World Championship triumphs (including five team titles), 10 European crowns (including three individual titles, won in 2011, 2013 and 2014), and a pair of Olympic gold medals, Di Francisca has certainly lived up to the words she has tattooed on her arm, inspired by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: “He or she who shuns passion, who does not risk certainty for uncertainty, to thus follow a dream, dies slowly”.
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