Jason Pryor competes at the grand prix on March 20, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Some athletes would be intimidated by being the only athlete from their country competing in a particular event. Not so for USA Fencing’s Jason Pryor, Olympic rookie and lone wolf in men’s epee.
While he feels a team bond with the athletes in other weapons, at the end of the day, it comes down to him and his opponent, alone on the strip.
“There’s no help. There’s no one else coming to save them, they just have to deal with me,” Pryor said. “So lone wolf gets me amped up. Love it.”
Fellow Team USA fencers Gerek Meinhardt and Kelley Hurley had similar experiences in the past, competing solo in men’s individual foil and women’s individual epee, respectively, in 2008. They both said that Pryor is talented and will be just fine on his own, though he’s a popular member of the team.
“Jason is my favorite person,” Hurley said. “It seems like he’s ready to fence. He was talking about his strategy and everything, and really I think he has a great handle on his first Olympics... He’s training hard.”
Meinhardt said it is different, not being able to feed off teammates’ energy, but echoed Pryor’s mindset. “You just have to stay focused, keep your eye on the prize,” he said. “When it comes down to it, whether or not you have teammates doesn’t have a huge impact when you’re on the strip because it’s just you and your opponent. He’ll be ready, he knows that.”
Pryor took an unconventional road to fencing, starting off as a soccer player before giving it up at 11 years old. His parents told him quitting soccer was fine, but he was chubby, so he needed to pick another sport. Soon after, they took him to a fencing club 20 minutes away and said, “Here you go.”
He was drawn to the individuality of fencing, the self-reliance and self-motivation it took to succeed at a high level.
“I didn’t have to rely on others, for good or ill, and I could completely own my own development,” Pryor said. “When I won it was all me. All of it. The glory, you know, etcetera, and when I lost, I knew I had no one to blame but myself.”
Epee is considered the descendent of the traditional dueling sword, according to the USA Fencing website, closer to foil in lightness of blade and slower-paced strategic style than the slashing and outright aggressiveness of saber. Pryor enjoyed the “controlled violence” as he called it.
“I had a lot of fun; it spoke to me,” he said. “My coach put a blade in my hand and he said, ‘Hey, just stab this guy.’ Most fun I’ve ever had. Way better than kicking a ball.”
The switch worked well. Pryor is currently the No. 1 men’s epee fencer in the country and 24th in the world. Earlier this year, he beat Gauthier Grumier of France, the world No. 1, at the Budapest Grand Prix.
“When you play Grumier’s game, when you play any of the top players’ game, you are going to get beat,” Pryor said. “Grumier is literally, without a shadow of a doubt, the best at what he does. So my entire strategy was to make sure that the game was played, the bout on my side of the strip, doing what I like which is counter-offensive actions. Once I got a little bit of success with that, he got a little bit frustrated and I managed to keep the bout going continuously in that sort of strategy and it turned out in my favor in the end.”
Pryor won that bout 15-14.
While Grumier will be a major threat in Rio, Pryor said he’s doing nothing but dream about his first time on the strip. Pryor will compete on Tuesday, Aug. 9, for his chance at a gold medal.
“So right now I don’t know if I have Gábor Boczkó or Benny (Benjamin) Steffen, but I can assure you that, again, either of them are top-16 fencers with piles of championships and whatnot,” he said. “These are some of the most grizzled, hardened veterans in men’s epee. Some of my biggest competition is that first bout. My world, my reality, doesn’t extend past that.”
Rebecca Harris of the Sports Capital Journalism Program, is a graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.