Flashing blades catch the eye at Rio 2016

Ten different countries were represented on the podiums at the Rio 2016 fencing competition, though it was the Russians, Hungarians, Italians and the French who dominated proceedings at the Arena Carioca 3.

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The opening fencing event of Rio 2016 was the women’s individual épée, which saw Emese Szasz of Hungary defeat two-time world champion Rosella Fiamingo of Italy 15-13 to win the gold. A former world number one and world championship runner-up, the 33-year-old Szasz was in impressive form throughout, defeating Japan’s Nozomi Sato 15-4 in the quarter-finals and France’s Lauren Rembi 15-6 in the semis. Fiamingo reached the final thanks to respective 15-8 and 12-11 defeats of the Republic of Korea’s Injeong Choi and China’s Sun Yiwen.

The outstanding épéeist of the last three seasons, Fiamingo forged an early lead in the final only for the experienced Szasz to hit back and score nine of the last 12 points. After clinching the gold with a simultaneous score, a disbelieving Szasz said: “I don’t think it’s going to sink in for a few days. I believed in myself and in my fencing, and I did it. I never thought I was going to win, though, until right at the end, when I got the last touch.”

After beating Rembi 15-13 to take the bronze, Sun said: “It’s been a wonderful day, regardless of the result. I’m very happy to be here and to compete at the Olympic Games.”

A first for Romania

The épéeists were back in action five days later for the women’s team competition, albeit without the Italians and Hungarians, who failed to qualify. Among those with genuine hopes of getting in among the medals were defending champions China, led by individual bronze medallist Sun, and a France quartet featuring Rembi.

French hopes ended with a 44-31 quarter-final defeat by Russia (Olga Kochneva, Violetta Kolobova, Tatiana Logunova and Lyubov Shutova), however, while the Chinese four, which also featured Hao Jialu, Sun Yujie and world number one Xu Anqi, made serene progress to the final, beating Ukraine 42-34 in the last eight and then Estonia 45-36.

Meanwhile, the Romanian foursome of Ana Maria Popescu, reigning five-time European champion Simona Gherman, Simona Pop and Loredana Dinu were intent on atoning for the disappointment of London 2012, a competition Romania went into as favourites only to endure a first-round exit at the hands of the Republic of Korea. They almost suffered a similar fate in Rio, with the USA taking them to sudden death in the quarter-finals before the nerveless Popescu scored the decisive touch in a nerve-wracking 24-23 win.

The Romanians then saw off Russia 45-31 to tee up a gold medal match against China, a repeat of the 2015 World Championship final in Moscow, which went the way of the Chinese. On this occasion, however, the eastern Europeans hit the front and stayed there, with Beijing 2008 individual silver medallist Popescu again scoring the winning point in a 44-38 victory. Russia completed the podium courtesy of a 37-31 win over Estonia 37-31.

“We made history today, it’s amazing,” said Popescu after collecting her gold. “We dreamed about this day for such a long time, and now we did it. We just did it. Fencing is a one-day sport and today was our day, for sure. In the bout against the USA, they enjoyed fencing and we didn’t, and we hadn’t beaten China in the last two years. But it doesn’t matter now, it was our moment.”

Garozzo heralds a new era in foil

In a gold medal match that brought together the leaders of the new generation of foilists, Daniele Garozzo of Italy held off the USA’s Alexander Massialas to win men’s individual gold. The American made life difficult for Garozzo, however, coming back from 14-7 down to prompt memories of a similar fightback earlier in the season, as the Italian recalled: “He almost did the exact same thing he did to me in the World Cup in Shanghai this year. I was 12-5 ahead in the quarter-finals and he ended up beating me 15-13.”

The American, who fought back from 14-8 down to defeat another Italian, Giorgio Avola, in the quarter-finals, looked set to pull off another dramatic escape act against Garozzo, recording four straight points to close the score up at 14-11. Showing that he had learned the lesson from their earlier encounter, however, Garozzo composed himself and scored the all-important hit to complete a 15-11 win, the most important of his burgeoning career. “I was ready for this type of match and I knew he’d try and come back at me,” said the relieved Italian. “This is incredible. I knew I was going to get that point. I was sure of it.”

In claiming gold, the young Sicilian became the first Italian to win the Olympic title since Alessandro Puccini at Atlanta 1996, achieving something beyond the likes of the leading Italian foilists of the last decade: Salvatore Sanzo and current team-mates Andrea Baldini and Andrea Cassara.

Coached by his father Gregory, Massialas was understandably disappointed to lose a second final in a row, having also finished a runner-up at the 2015 World Championships, and to come so close to becoming the first male American fencer to win an Olympic title. The world number one, he is nevertheless the future of men’s foil, along with Garozzo, and will no doubt be back for another tilt at gold in Tokyo in four years’ time.

Beaten 15-8 by the eventual champion in the semis, Russia’s Timur Safin saw off Germany’s Richard Kruse 15-13 to secure the bronze medal.  

Russia fight back for team foil gold

Back on the programme at Rio 2016, the men’s team foil competition saw France and Russia cross swords for the gold medal. After each failing to progress beyond the last 16 of the individual event, the French four of Erwan Le Péchoux, Enzo Lefort, Jeremy Cadot and Jean-Paul Tony Helissey atoned with an impressive run, defeating China 45-27 in the quarter-finals and then outclassing an Italy team featuring newly crowned individual champion Garozzo 45-30. Meanwhile, a Russian quartet led by individual bronze medallist Safin and also comprising Alexey Cheremisinov, Artur Akhmatkhuzin and Dimitri Zherebchenko disposed of Great Britain 45-43 and the USA 45-41 en route to the final.

Beaten by the French in the bronze medal match at the 2013 worlds in Budapest and again in the semis in Kazan a year later, Russia looked set for another defeat when they lost four of the first five duels to trail 26-16. France were still very well placed at 35-30 only for Akhmatkhuzin to beat Helissey 10-3 and give the Russians the lead for the first time, an advantage that they converted into a 45-41 victory, as Cheremisinov held off Le Péchoux to secure a title that has eluded them since Atlanta 1996.

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“We believed we could win,” said Akhmatkhuzin. “Until the last touch has been made, you have not yet lost. The experience of previous years in similar situations played a role. This is sport. It can happen. There have been times when we’ve gone on to win, and others when the opposition has caught us.” “It was the team spirit and our self-belief,” added Cheremisinov. “It was magic!”

The USA quartet of Miles Chamley-Watson, Alexander Massialas, Gerek Meinhardt and Race Imboden took the bronze after beating the Italian four of Baldini, Cassara, Avola and Garozzo 45-31.

Park strikes épée gold with late burst

Providing further proof that the men’s individual épée is now a truly international competition, Park Sangyoung of the Republic of Korea succeeded Venezuela’s Ruben Limardo Gascon as Olympic champion, becoming the first athlete from his country to win the title. The 20-year-old Park had to work hard for his gold, however, edging out 41-year-old reigning world champion Geza Imre of Hungary 15-14 in the tightest of finals.

Trailing 14-10 at one stage, the Korean strung together five points to snatch the gold from his opponent’s grasp. Reflecting on his improbable comeback, an elated Park said: “My opponent attacked on my arm and so I attacked on his arm as well. It was very uncomfortable for me. My opponent knew my weaknesses so he was able to take advantage of that. He fenced very aggressively, as I knew he would, but I sort of put it out of my mind. When it got to 14-10, though, I thought about it hard and started being aggressive too. I knew Imre was a very good fencer and very difficult opponent. He’s very experienced and very flexible when competing but I had speed on my side. I decided to use my speed when I went into this match and tried to win that way.”

Appearing at his last major international competition, world number one Gauthier Grumier of France took the final place on the podium. A firm favourite to claim gold, having dominated the event for the last three years, Grumier suffered a 15-13 semi-final defeat to the Hungarian veteran, the man who beat him in the final of the 2015 worlds in Moscow. The Frenchman then picked himself up to beat Switzerland’s Benjamin Steffen 15-11 in the bronze medal match.

France power to men’s épée team title

Grumier joined forces with Yannick Borel, Daniel Jérent and Jean-Michel Lucenay to win the men’s épée team gold for France, beating eternal rivals Italy (Enrico Garozzo, Marco Fichera, Paolo Pizzo and Andrea Santarelli) by a comfortable 45-31 margin in a final they led from start to finish. Hungary defeated Ukraine 39-37 to claim the bronze.

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Deciding to sit out the final after the 45-40 defeat of Hungary in the semis, a selfless Grumier said: “I felt I was holding the team back a bit.” Producing a genuine team effort, the French were indebted to the imposing Borel for that victory over the Hungarians. The Bulldozer, as he has been dubbed by national team coach Hugues Obry, used his considerable physique to dominate his opponents and convert a narrow one-point lead into a commanding win. A replacement when France won gold at Beijing 2008 – the last time the men’s team épée figured on the Olympic programme – Lucenay then came into replace Grumier in the final and help the French retain their title.

“We’re so happy because it rounds off four years of hard work. We suffered, we sweated and we stuck at it,” said Grumier. “We didn’t really believe we could do it to begin with, but Hugues instilled us with the desire to go out and do it. It’s just amazing. My thanks to Hugues. I’ve got two medals, but once again I’m grateful to the whole team. If we hadn’t had those guys there to train with us right through to July, I don’t think we’d have been able to achieve this.”

Egorian on top in women’s sabre

Yana Egorian of Russia cemented her status as a rising force in women’s sabre by taking individual gold at Rio 2016. A world bronze medallist in 2014, the 22-year-old Russian was in superlative form, winning all her bouts by at least five hits, eliminating Italy’s Loreta Gulotta 15-4 in the quarter-finals and Ukraine’s multiple world and Olympic medallist Olga Kharlan 15-9 in the semis. Facing her in the final was compatriot Sofya Velikaya, the 2015 world champion and world number one, who beat French trio Charlotte Lembach, Cécilia Berder and Manon Brunet 15-14, 15-10 and 15-14 respectively en route to the gold medal match.

Velikaya moved into an 8-5 lead in the decisive contest, only for Egorian to land the next three hits. In a dramatic finale, and with the scores tied once more at 14-14, the younger of the two Russians got the all-important touch to secure the tightest of victories.

“It’s the biggest win in my life,” said the new Olympic champion. “It’s something that everybody wants to achieve. It was the most difficult fight because Sofya has as much right to this medal as I do. Sport is sport and there can only be one winner. I won because I trained very hard. I’d like to thank my coach, my parents and all the people I know.”

Admitting to mixed emotions, Velikaya said: “I’m quite pleased, but I’m not totally satisfied because I got a silver medal. I felt annoyed and sad after I lost, but now I’m happy that Russia has two medals and that I got the silver. I wasn’t moving enough. Everybody has their own strategy and tactics, and I made some mistakes.” In the battle for the bronze, Kharlan beat Brunet 15-10.

Maiden sabre team gold for Russia

Forty-eight hours after winning individual gold, Egorian linked up with Velikaya, Yuliya Gavrilova and Ekaterina Dyachenko as Russia beat Ukraine 45-30 to win the country’s first Olympic women’s sabre team title. In an event in which scores are invariably tight and comebacks commonplace, the reigning world champions outclassed the Ukrainian four of Kharlan, Alina Komashchuk, Olena Kravatska and Olena Voronina, winning the opening three bouts and pulling away to complete an emphatic victory, with an inspired Gavrilova leading the way.

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On their way to the finals the Russians beat Mexico 45-31 in the last eight and then edged out the USA 45-42 in the semis, while Ukrainians accounted for the Republic of Korea 45-40 and Italy 45-42 at the same stages. The bronze went to the Americans. Led by two-time Olympic champion Mariel Zagunis and also featuring Dagmara Wozniak, Monica Aksamit and Ibtihaj Muhammad, the US quartet saw off the Italian four of Rossella Gregorio, Loreta Gulotta, Irene Vecchi and Ilaria Bianco to take the last place on the podium.

Competing for the last time at the Olympics, individual runner-up Velikaya was delighted to finally come away with gold:  “It’s so important that we’ve all won. It was a great team effort. When you fence on your own you have more time, but here it’s just five touches and you’re off. You have to hand over. I feel such joy. There’s no other way I can put it.”

Szilagyi does it again

A surprise winner in London four years earlier, Hungary’s Aron Szilagyi retained his men’s individual sabre title. The 26-year-old was the only one of the many favourites for gold to live up to expectations, with 2015 world champion and world number one Alexei Yakimenko of Russia suffering a shock first-round exit to Bulgaria’s Pancho Paskov, who is ranked outside the world’s top 300.

Meanwhile, world number two Gu Bongil of the Republic of Korea was knocked out by tournament revelation Mojtaba Abedini of Iran, and 2014 world champion Nikolai Kovalev of Russia went out to the Korean Kim Junghwan in the last eight.

Ranked third by the FIE, Szilagyi made the most of his rivals mishaps, advancing serenely to the final, where he eased to a 15-8 win over the USA’s Daryl Homer to join compatriots Jeno Fuchs and Rudolf Karpaty, the Soviet Union’s Viktor Krovopuskov and France’s Jean-François Lamour as a two-time Olympic sabre champion.

“When I was training this summer, I had the double in my mind and the chance to join the legends of sabre,” said Szilagyi, whose thoughts will now turn to Tokyo and a possible third straight gold, a feat that only Italian foilist Valentina Vezzali, an Olympic champion at Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, has achieved in fencing before.

Deriglazova ends Italian reign, a first for Africa

In the absence of Valentina Vezzali, who failed to qualify for Rio, it was left to reigning Olympic champion Elisa Di Francisca to fly the flag for Italy in the women’s foil and attempt to extend the country’s winning streak in the event, which stretched back 16 years. It was not to be for Di Francisca, however, as reigning world champion Inna Deriglazova edged her 12-11 in a gripping final, a victory overseen by Russia’s Italian director of foil, former Olympic gold medallist Stefano Cerioni.

Deriglazova was in unstoppable form in her charge to the final, winning all her bouts by a minimum of nine hits and overwhelming her compatriot Aida Shanayeva 15-3 in the semi-final. In other half of the draw, Di Francisca made steady progress and booked her place in the gold medal contest with a 15-11 win over Tunisia’s Ines Boubakri 15-11.

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Deriglazova seemed to have the gold safely in her grasp when she led the Italian 12-7, only for Di Francisca to pull the score back to 12-11 with three seconds remaining. Sadly for the holder, she could not land the blow she needed to tie the bout. Looking back on the dramatic denouement, a relieved Deriglazova said: “I had just one thing on my mind: to run away and stop her from getting the hit in those last two or three seconds.”

In the bronze medal match, Boubakri beat Shanayeva 15-11 to become the first African woman to win an Olympic fencing medal. “This is a historic medal for Tunisia. It’s incredible,” said Boubakri, taking stock of her achievement. “I hope this will be a message for all the people of Tunisia, especially for youngsters, Tunisian women and Arab women in general. I want to say to all of them that they have to believe. Women exist and they have their place in society.”