BY | JOANNE C. GERSTNER
It was a stern test of faith, but American epée fencers Ben Bratton, Seth Kelsey, Cody Mattern and Soren Thompson felt they had something special enough to become world champions.
They were down, 22-16, after five bouts, against eight-time reigning champion France, and things were not looking good on April 14 in Kiev, Ukraine. It would have been understandable if the Americans had fallen short, given France’s strength and the pressure of the situation.
But then the unthinkable — and then the historic — happened: the U.S. team staged a furious comeback and won, 44-37, to capture its first FIE World Championship gold medal in epée’s 92-year history.
The French were stunned but cordially congratulated the thrilled Americans. If France had won, it would have set a record for the most world championships in a row.
“We felt something so strong, that we never thought that we were out of it and that we could win a world championship,” said Thompson, who has qualified to be a member of the U.S. Olympic team (pending nomination by the U.S. Olympic Committee) in epee this summer in London. “It was all just such positive energy, even when we were down. We knew it wasn’t over until it was over, and then we had won.
“I think it’s a huge statement about the strength of fencing in this country. We’re getting stronger every day.”
The fencers all remember recent history, when American fencing wasn’t respected as world class. Opponents would stomp away angry if they lost to a U.S. fencer, feeling they had lost to a weaker opponent.
Those days are clearly over.
“You can see that we’ve earned the respect now,” Thompson said. “We still consider ourselves to be underdogs, because that’s how we still want to approach things.”
The days have been surreal since the team came home from Ukraine, as a steady flow of congratulations, handshakes and hugs have come from family, friends, fellow competitors and even strangers. The fencers proudly show off their medals, which despite being designated as gold are actually made out of glass.
Their accomplishment is very real, even if their minds still haven’t totally accepted it.
“I sometimes wonder if I’m dreaming: did we really just do that?” said Mattern, who is a sergeant in the U.S. Army and part of the World Class Athlete training program. “Is it real? Did we just really beat France, and after we were down? Wow. It’s going to take a while for all of us to process what we did. We’re all very different guys and fencers, but we’ve been training together so long that we’re really close. We all did this together.”
Bratton, Mattern and Thompson engineered the comeback; all three upped their aggressiveness after early tough losses.
“I was sitting there, watching this whole thing unfold … it was so interesting,” Bratton said. “It was like an out-of-body experience. Cody went completely crazy, fencing out of his mind. I’ve never seen him fence that well. I thought he was going to need oxygen or something. Seth and Soren are so experienced; they just were calm, cool out there. We were all supporting each other on the bench. We knew we could do it.
“For the past seven, eight years, it’s always been the four of us. This year, we were determined to be one team, together, combining our talent to give it a 100 percent. We had a great game plan. We executed it, and look what happened.”
The final bout, for the world championship, was left in the hands of closer Kelsey. The United States had a three-touch lead going into the final bout, which pitted Kelsey against French star Gauthier Grumier.
Kelsey held off the aggressive Grumier, scored some touches of his own and the United States sealed the comeback win.
“I know that whenever it’s my time to get out there, that my teammates have done everything to get us close, and then it’s my turn to take it from there,” Kelsey, a soon-to-be three-time Olympian who is also a 2nd Lt. in the Air Force, said. “We all have faith in each other. I never thought that we were going to lose; we just had to work harder to get the win.
“What makes me the happiest is that this shows that the investment that U.S. Fencing has made in us, and our training in residency at Colorado Springs, has really paid off. We’ve made such strides since 2003. We’ve been knocking on the door for a while.”
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Joanne C. Gerstner is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.