Father and son fencers heading to London

By Amy Rosewater | June 15, 2012, 2 p.m. (ET)
Alex Massialas

Greg Massialas grew up in the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games, in Athens, Greece, less than a mile from the fencing venue for the 2004 Summer Games.

He was about 10 when he emigrated to the United States with his family, and although he initially was a swimmer, Massialas found his true passion in fencing and qualified for his first Olympic Games in 1980. He did not get to compete that year, since the United States boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow, but Massialas did compete four years later in Los Angeles and again in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988.

In 2008, he represented the United States as an Olympic coach, and this summer, he will be in London in the same role.

The big difference this year, however, is he will be at the Olympic Games as his son’s coach. Alex Massialas qualified to compete in London, pending approval from the U.S. Olympic Committee, as a foil fencer, just like his dad.

 Greg an Alex Massialas

So, this year, they will celebrate Father’s Day together in San Francisco, where they live and train, but the real Father’s Day event will come later this summer when they walk into the Opening Ceremony together at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“I think it’s really hard to imagine what that will be like right now,” said Alex Massialas, who turned 18 in April and already has had much to celebrate -- his high school graduation, acceptance to Stanford and now a trip to the Olympic Games. “The Opening Ceremony is going to be so overwhelming. I don’t know if I could put into words being there, let alone being there with my father.”

Although Alex Massialas grew up around fencing strips and was 3-months-old when he went to his first senior world championships in Athens, where his father was a fencing referee, this will be the first time he will witness the Opening Ceremony of an Olympic Games. Alex traveled to Beijing in 2008 to watch some of the fencing competition, but he tuned into the Opening Ceremony at his grandmother’s home in Taiwan.

Alex began fencing when he was a second grader, and his younger sister, Sabrina, also started at a young age and is ranked fifth nationally at the senior level (the top four made the Olympic team). It is hard to escape fencing in the Massialas household, as Olympic memorabilia abounds. Even though Greg’s wife (and the mother of Alex and Sabrina), Chwan-Hui, is not a fencer -- rather, she is a pianist -- she certainly is supportive of the rest of the family’s top passion.

“I think her role is keeping everybody calm,” Greg Massialas said with a laugh.

Chwan-Hui, whose Anglicized name is Vivian, is Chinese, so the family made the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games a family affair. This year in London, the Massialases have another family connection. Greg Massialas’ mother is from England and he has a great aunt living in London who is about to turn 104.

“We are trying to get her to go,” Greg Massialas said of his great aunt.

Any relatives living in Rio?

“No,” Greg said with a chuckle. “Not yet.”

Greg Massialas always dreamed of running a fencing academy but his first job was in advertising. He started his fencing school when Alex was about 4. Today, the Massialas Foundation of San Francisco has emerged as one top fencing programs in the country. In addition to Alex, Greg Massialas also coaches Gerek Meinhardt, who earned a bronze medal at the 2010 World Championships and competed in Beijing, and another foil star, Doris Willette, who qualified to compete in London, pending approval from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“That was my goal,” Greg Massialas said. “When I started, I wanted to develop champions.”

Another focus of his fencing school is academic success. Several of the top fencers Massialas has produced are also top students. Of the current high school graduates, Alex is Stanford bound; two other fencers are heading to Yale, another is going to the University of Pennsylvania, one is going to Penn State, another to the Air Force Academy and one other is off to Johns Hopkins.

Part of the reason Alex chose Stanford to continue his education is that there is a fencing facility about 15 minutes away from the university’s Palo Alto, Calif., campus. Alex can also easily shuttle back to San Francisco for additional training and to work with his dad.

This past year, Alex had a lot of schedule-juggling so he could keep up with his senior year of high school and competition for the London Games. Even though he missed about 50 days of school for competitions around the world, Alex still received high grades and won an award as one of the top students. His high school graduation took place in early June and, although he missed his prom for fencing, he made it to graduation.

Originally, he had been scheduled to compete in St. Petersburg, Russia, and would have gone directly from graduation to the airport, but the Massialases decided to skip that competition at the last minute.

As strong as Alex was on the academic side, he was equally strong on the fencing strip. In February, with just a few World Cups remaining, Greg Massialas calculated his son’s scores in a hotel lobby in Spain.

“I knew mathematically that he had qualified for the Olympics, so I walked up to him and told him, ‘Congratulations, you made it!’ ” Greg said. “I think it took him a while to get it. We went out for dinner that night and he said, ‘Wow. I can’t believe it.’ ”

Although some might think it would be difficult to try to follow in the fencing suit of an Olympic dad, Alex did not view his childhood as overwhelming or overbearing.

“I think he served more as inspiration,” Alex said of his dad. “My dad was so good about not pressuring me. Ever since the very beginning, I wanted to do this. I just loved it. To me, it’s just the perfect mix between your mind and your body.”

Greg said he made a conscious effort not to offer preferential treatment to his children at the fencing school, saying, “They have to earn their stripes like anyone else, and sometimes, at competitions, there would be conflicts and many times where I had other priorities, and I would just have to leave Alex be. A lot of people have told me that I’ve proven that it can be done; that it is possible for a coach to coach his son.”

When Alex and Greg are home, they tend to spend time together watching sports on TV, often tuning into the San Francisco Giants or the Golden State Warriors. And Alex is also an avid video gamer.

This summer, they will share in the biggest Games of all: the Olympic Games.

“You know,” Greg said, “One thing about fencers is that we don’t make the millions of dollars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, but I have been able to travel all over the world with my family and experience so many things with them together. Now we will be in London together. It’s really been quite a ride.”

Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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