SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Race Imboden is known as the “Face of Fencing,” and for good reason.
Not only is he an Olympian and the world’s top-ranked foil fencer, the 22-year-old Brooklyn resident has also garnered considerable prestige for his side profession as a menswear model.
Imboden’s two blossoming careers make for a demanding schedule and expectations, but as the man who has been designated to lead U.S. foil fencing into a new era, Imboden embraces the challenges with the same fervent spirit that fueled his meteoric rise to the top of the rankings.
“When I was younger I played a lot of sports; I was pretty good at all the sports I was doing,” said Imboden, the first U.S. man to win an individual FIE Overall World Cup title, which he did in 2015. “The sport I was the worst at was fencing, but it was the thing I loved to do and I wanted to be good at it.”
Even though Imboden often gets more recognition for modeling than for fencing, he remains fixated on honing his craft and carving out his place in the pantheon of fencing greatness.
“I don’t really think about the modeling, I focus on the fencing,” Imboden said. “Fencing is my number one priority. It’s all game time. I do fencing night and day. I sleep and dream about fencing. If I’m at a fashion show and I have a break, I’ll watch fencing on my phone. The shoots are just something for me to do as a side job. I’d much rather be going to practice.”
Imboden, a 2012 U.S. Olympian, readily acknowledges the pressure that comes with being regarded as the best in the world, but he hopes to use his stardom to encourage others to try their hand at fencing.
“It’s something that I’m passionate about, and I truly do give my all to it,” he said. “For people and for kids to try to recreate this is what I want them to do. I want to see more people fencing. I want people to be like, ‘Wow, look at this guy,’ and then go join a club. That’s my goal.”
The same passion that drives Imboden to be the best was something he needed to learn how to keep in check when he first started competing.
“He has tremendous physical gifts and fencing characteristics, but sometimes his emotions kind of get away from him,” said Greg Massialas, coach of the U.S. men’s foil team. “Everybody loses their focus at some point, somehow. The key is to not give up and think about what you have to do to regroup. That’s something he’s worked on getting better at.”
A prime example of his skill at handling his emotions was on full display at the San Jose Men’s Foil World Cup this past weekend.
After an early second-round exit in a dramatic showdown with Russia’s Timur Safin — the eventual gold-medal winner — in the individual competition on Saturday, Imboden looked to regroup and claim a medal with his teammates in Sunday’s team event.
A hard-fought loss to Japan in the semifinals dashed any hope for a gold or silver, and an early 5-1 deficit in the bronze-medal match against Italy, the reigning world champions, looked like it would quickly turn into a runaway victory for the Italians.
Instead, Imboden buckled down and put up a 7-4 round against 2015 world team champion Daniele Garozzo to give the U.S. team both the lead and the momentum as the Americans proceeded to cruise to a convincing 45-28 victory and the team bronze medal.
“A lot of it is just maturity and knowing when to use your emotions at the right moment,” Imboden said. “When somebody else is being emotional, you need to match that level of intensity or you’ll get run over. It’s the same in any sport. When somebody comes out more intense than you, sometimes skills don’t matter.”
With the new season officially underway and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games fast approaching, you could forgive Imboden if he were looking ahead a little bit, but his dedication to his craft keeps him from overlooking anything and thinking too far ahead.
“Race is doing this as his primary thing, and that’s difficult to do because there’s a lot of sacrifices,” Massialas said. “I’m really proud of what he’s accomplished. Now as we get into this Olympic year, it’s time to follow through.”