Di Francisca braced for Olympic foil title defence

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An individual and team foil champion at London 2012, Italian fencer Elisa Di Francisca will return to the Olympic stage in Rio with designs on adding to her gold medal collection.

Italy is one of the traditional powerhouses of fencing, and the town of Jesi, on the Adriatic coast, is the cradle of the sport in this part of the world, particularly the foil. 

Founded in 1947, the local club has been responsible for producing an impressive collection of world and Olympic medallists, thanks in no small part to the guidance of its late fencing master Ezio Triccoli. Since the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 alone, Jesi alumni Stefano Cerioni, Giovanna Trillini, Valentina Vezzali and Elisa Di Francisca have between them won 14 Olympic titles!

Born in the town on 13 December 1982, Di Francisca has been a prominent figure in the development of Italian foil fencing at the highest level since 2004, when she won her maiden team title in New York. 

Di Francisca braced for Olympic foil title defence

The European crown came the following year, though she made her international breakthrough as an individual fencer in beating compatriot Arianna Errigo 15-11 to win the 2010 foil world title in Paris, with another Italian, Valentina Vezzali, taking third place. That clean sweep was a sign of things to come at London 2012. With the assistance of Ilaria Salvatori, the medal-winning trio then claimed gold in the team event.

Di Francisca lost to Vezzali in the final at the following year’s World Championships in Catania (ITA), with Italy also relinquishing their team title to Russia by a single point. She avenged that defeat in the individual gold-medal bout at the European Championships in Sheffield (GBR) later that year, with Di Francisca and Vezzali then helping Italy beat France to take the continental team title. 

Then, in June 2012, with the London Games just around the corner, the Italians retained their European crown, beating the French by an emphatic 45-28 scoreline in Legnano (ITA).

The Italian foil contingent swept all before them in the British capital, with Di Francisca getting the final touch to beat Errigo to Olympic gold, and Vezzali, the three-time defending Olympic champion, taking the bronze. A few days later, they were once again joined by Salvatori as Russia were put to the sword 45-31 in the team final.

A fight to the end

Reflecting on that individual competition at the ExCel, Di Francisca spoke of the confidence she felt going into it: “I trained very hard. And when I was ready and fully prepared, I put my mask on, without worrying about who I was facing. I just focused on my fencing, which is what I’ve always done.” 

After dispatching Lebanon’s Mona Shaito with ease in the last 32, the Italian then saw off Germany’s Carolin Golubytskyi and Japan’s Seiko Sugarawa with ease. The Republic of Korea’s Nam Huynhee provided altogether stiffer opposition in the semi-finals, with Di Francisca squeezing through 12-11 to set up a final against her team-mate Errigo. 

“I had a very special opponent,” commented Di Francisca, casting her mind back to the battle for gold. “There are difficulties, as we know each other and we’re often on opposite sides to each other. She’s also a friend of mine, my room-mate, and I respect her and value her friendship. She feels the same way too.” 

The two Italians gave as good as they got in a tense, tight final that Di Francisca approached in her own unique way, as she explained: “I just trust my feelings. I don’t have strategies. That’s just the way I am, in my life and in fencing. I do things on the spur of the moment.” 

As she went on to say, the closing stages of the final were almost too much to bear: “It was a bout between two fencers on the same team, which meant that neither of us had our coach at the end of the piste. It was difficult because I had to do everything by myself. 

“We went into the third period and Arianna was leading 10-8 with 45 seconds to go. I wanted to catch up. I needed to catch up. I was in a frenzy, but nothing. I was tense. I wasn’t calm at all. I had to find a balance between the state I was in and my need to get back into the bout. We got to 11-each and it all came down to the last touch.” 

And it was Di Francisca who got the green light. “There are times when it still hasn’t sunk in that I won the Olympics.” 

Di Francisca braced for Olympic foil title defence

Recalling the emotion of the occasion, she added: “It was very exciting because it was unexpected. I came from behind to win right at the end. My clearest memory is the look on people’s faces, especially Stefano, my fencing master, and then my brother, my sister and my parents. I saw the impact of the Olympics in their eyes. They couldn’t believe it and that is the best memory for me. I dreamed about it before I went to London.” 

Di Francisca maintained her high standards in the wake of her London triumph, winning three straight world team foil golds and three straight European individual foil titles between 2013 and 2015, taking her collection of world and European medals to 13 and 14 respectively. 

The first female Italian fencer to make sure of her place in Rio, along with Errigo, Di Francisca is fully focused on defending her title: “The Games are a dream for me, and an Olympic competition is the pinnacle for any athlete. I will be ready.”