SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. men’s foil team started the world cup season on home turf at the San Francisco Men’s Foil World Cup.
In fact, two of the four fencers — Alexander Massialas and Gerek Meinhardt — slept in their own beds, as they are San Francisco natives.
The familiarity didn’t seem to help the Americans at Kezar Pavilion, though. At least not at first.
Both San Francisco natives lost their first matches in the individual competition. Another teammate, Miles Chamley-Watson, was in the unfamiliar role of having to battle into the individual competition through pool play after his world ranking dropped below the top 16.
But by the time the team competition came around on Sunday, the U.S. squad was ready, fencing to an honorable sixth-place finish. After losing to 2012 Olympic champion Italy 45-35 in the quarterfinals, they beat world champion France 45-36 in the consolation rounds before ultimately losing to Korea.
All things considered, it was a good start to a long world cup season for Chamley-Watson (ranked No. 4 in the U.S., 24th in the world), Race Imboden (2nd, 10th), Massialas (3rd, 7th) and Meinhardt (1st, 4th).
The men, who finished fourth at the London 2012 Olympic Games and are gunning for a medal at Rio 2016, have been a dominant force since teaming up in 2011, and show no signs of losing that grip.
“We kind of had an up-and-down season last year, but now it’s coming down to game time,” said Imboden, of Brooklyn, New York. “I think we have the strongest team in men’s foil we’ve ever had. Ever. In the history of U.S. Fencing. And now we have a team that’s individually setting those boundaries and breaking those boundaries. It can really only skyrocket from here.”
The Americans drew a bye into table of 16 and defeated Egypt, led by 2012 Olympic silver medalist Alaaeldin Abouelkassem, 45-36, winning seven of the nine bouts.
Italy is well known to the U.S. team. The Italians beat the Americans in the gold-medal final of the world championships last year. In San Francisco, the Italians jumped out to a commanding 10-touch lead before the Americans rallied behind Massialas, who was stunned by Mexico’s Daniel Gomez 15-9 in the table of 64 the individual tournament.
With his hometown crowd — which included his parents and other family members and buddies from Stanford, where he is a junior — shouting “Massi! Massi!” Massialas scored 10 of the first 14 touches against Andrea Baldini, the 2009 world champ, before Baldini clinched the match 45-35.
“I actually grew up fencing in this stadium when was 8 or 9 years old,” said Massialas, the 20-year-old son of three-time Olympian and national team coach Greg Massialas. “I have a lot of history in this venue.
“It was awesome because a lot of my Stanford friends were able to make the drive up and were probably the most rowdy and rambunctious unit in the crowd.”
Massialas had to withdraw from the Korea match with a strained groin.
Meinhardt, who also lost in the table of 64, fell 15-14 to France’s Vincent Simon. Meinhardt, 23, who is completing his MBA at Notre Dame, said he’s glad to have competed before family and friends in his hometown but that he looks forward to the season so the four teammates can further cement their brotherly relationship.
“It’s a little different since Alexander and I are at home,” Meinhardt said. “Usually we’re at the hotel spending a ton of time together. We enjoy going all over the world competing together and we’ve really formed a bond.”
Chamley-Watson, 24, who lost 15-13 to eventual gold medalist Jérémy Cadot of France after fighting into the table of 64 through Friday’s pool play, said he’ll take it.
“It was nice to be back competing at a high level,” said Chamley-Watson, the 2013 individual world champion who launched his campaign for breast cancer research by competing in pinks socks and wristbands. “Qualifications (for Rio) will be here in no time — in a bang. I don’t think it matters whether it’s Olympic season or not — you just want to win. That’s our goal.”
Throughout the weekend, the four would watch each other’s individual matches, cheering each other on. It would be a fencing cliché to invoke the Three Musketeers’ phrase “All for one and one for all,” but it really seems to fit this group. They genuinely like each other.
“It’s different because we all talk to each other,” Meinhardt said. “If one person isn’t fencing that great, the others can pick up the slack, or be there for you. We all trust each other and support each other.”
Or, as Imboden put it, “We push each other. When you see one of us do well (in individual competition), somebody always comes up and tops it, and it’s kind of like we’re competing in a bubble — we’re competing against each other.
“We grow with each other. So when we come together as a team, all those strengths come together and we’re a dominant force on the circuit now.”
And for a long time to come, it seems.