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Massialas Follows Family Fencing Tradition Into Youth Olympic Games

By Karen Rosen | July 21, 2014, 12:17 p.m. (ET)

Sabrina Massialas and her father, Greg, pose in front of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in February 2014.

Sabrina Massialas wore an American flag T-shirt, a hand-made Stars and Stripes mask and “USA” face paint as she and two friends cheered on her brother Alexander in the London 2012 Olympic Games fencing competition.

“We just wanted to be the loudest ones there and the biggest supporters of my brother and the rest of Team USA,” said Massialas.

Sabrina Massialas cheers on her brother Alex at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

That was on the outside.

On the inside, she carried a quiet resolution.

“I was watching him fence and I saw how his dream started to become a reality,” Massialas said, “and it just made me think that it could really happen for me.”

Now it’s her turn. Sabrina Massialas, 17, will compete at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, from Aug. 16-28, as the only U.S. competitor in women’s foil.

Olympism runs in the Massialas family’s blood. Sabrina and Alex are coached by their father, Greg, a three-time Olympian who was born in Athens, Greece, birthplace of the modern Olympic Games. He competed for the United States in 1984 and 1988 after missing the Moscow 1980 Games due to the boycott.

Alex, now 20, fenced in the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore four years ago, winning a silver medal in men’s individual foil.

“I hear that it’s just like a mini-Olympics,” Sabrina said of Nanjing. “I heard all the stories from the Olympics and also from the Youth Olympics that my brother went to and I’m really excited to be able to experience it for myself.”

But first, she has the other major event of the summer: the World Fencing Championships, taking place now in Kazan, Russia.

Making her senior world championships debut after two straight silver medals at the Cadet (under 17) World Championships, Massialas is competing only in the women’s team event.

While Massialas said she feels more of a connection with youth fencing because of her age, she can also sense that “I’m transitioning into this different environment and I’m at that level.

“I feel like I fit in with both.”

There are about 800 fencers in Kazan compared to only 78 fencers among 3,500 total athletes in Nanjing.

Massialas is excited about meeting athletes from other sports at the Youth Olympic Games.

She also is looking forward to spending more time in China, where she fenced atop the Great Wall a few years ago. Massialas’ mother grew up in Taiwan and her grandparents are originally from the mainland.

Sabrina Massialas fencing on the Great Wall of China on Dec. 25, 2005.

With her looks and a Greek last name, she said when people find out that she speaks fluent Chinese “they’re blown away.”

Tall, athletic and fast, Massialas has already fenced many of her Youth Olympic Games rivals.

She also has plenty of experience in high-pressure situations.

At the cadet worlds in April in Bulgaria, she trailed 14-8 in her semifinal bout and won.

“That’s an amazing sense of determination,” said Greg Massialas. “The opponent just needs one touch and it’s over.”

It was her fourth straight come-from-behind victory.

“Talk about excitement,” Greg Massialas said.

“To know that I did that, and not only once, but many times within that tournament,” Sabrina said, “really makes me a lot more confident in myself and believe that if I’m behind I can get back and still win.”

Greg Massialas, who started the Massialas Foundation program in San Francisco, said that determination was evident when Sabrina wanted to start fencing while in kindergarten. His rule was second grade.

“Finally she comes to me, ‘Daddy, you know what I want for my birthday?’” he said. “I was thinking some sort of Barbie. She goes, ‘I want to fence.’ I was like, ‘What can I do? How can I say no to this?’”

He relented, especially since Sabrina, who is now 5-foot-10, was already tall for her age.

Sabrina said that growing up in a household surrounded by fencers and memorabilia, “I naturally just thought it was interesting and wanted to start it, too.”

But after a year her feelings changed. “I actually really hated it, and I didn’t want to continue,” Sabrina said. “I remember going up to my mom and telling her, ‘I don’t like fencing. Can I quit?’ My mom said, ‘OK, well, tell your dad.’”

Sabrina couldn’t bring herself to tell him she didn’t like his sport any more. “So I just pushed through it, then I found the passion again and I’ve loved it ever since,” she said.

“A lot of people say it’s like a physical game of chess, so it really balances all kinds of different aspects. You have to be athletic, of course, and have endurance and strength, but at the same time you’re constantly trying to outsmart your opponent. You need to be thinking all the time, thinking of the next action you want to make.”

As a youngster, Massialas was always trying to stretch herself. After a tournament in which she won national championships in the 10-and-under and 12-and-under divisions and fenced some under-14 bouts, she set her sights on an international event in France. It was for under-17 fencers.

Massialas asked her father, “What do I need to do to go to Cabries?” He told her if she made the top 32 at a national tournament in Columbus, Ohio, she could go.

A few weeks later, Greg was about to put Sabrina’s fencing pants in the wash when he noticed a piece of paper in her back pocket.

It said, “Must make Top 32 in Columbus. Very important!!!”

“The moral of the story is she made the top 32 in Columbus and she did go to Cabries,” Greg said. “And even though she was 11 years old in arguably the strongest cadet tournament in the world, she ended up placing sixth out of 250-plus competitors. That was shocking to everybody there. In my opinion that shows the power of determination of Sabrina. When she applies herself to believe in something, nothing will stop her.”

So what’s written in her back pocket now? The Rio 2016 Olympic Games are just two years away, and qualifying will start next year with world cup events. Competition will be fierce, with a maximum of two U.S. female foil fencers.

“Going to London was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” Massialas said. “I got this new motivation.”

But she added, “I like to take it step by step and not get too far ahead of myself. Right now it’s Kazan and helping the team so we can hopefully medal, and after that Youth Olympic Games and going for the gold there.”

Then it’s back to high school, where Massialas will be a senior. Last year she was captain of the volleyball team and also played on the badminton team. Because of her travel schedule, Massialas took the SAT in Costa Rica after a tournament. A self-proclaimed “big science geek,” she is looking into colleges on both the coasts.

Meanwhile, her family is looking for another trophy case.

“We have this big trophy case, and it’s starting to get kind of full,” Massialas said. “It’s mostly my brother’s stuff, but I’m starting to get some of my own.”

Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.

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