RIO DE JANEIRO – All it took was a hug from his father and Alexander Massialas realized that one of the worst moments of his life was also one of the best.
Massialas hung his head after losing the men's foil final to Daniele Garozzo of Italy 15-11 Sunday at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
His father, Greg, who is also his coach, was right there at the end of the strip and quickly moved to embrace his son.
“I just told him, ‘I’m so proud of you. You fenced really your heart out. This is a great day for you,’” Greg said.
“It was heartbreaking to lose a bout like that,” Alexander said, “but for him to come over and just give me a hug and embrace me… He said that he was proud. To know that he knows that I left it all on the strip meant the world to me.”
Even in defeat, Massialas checked off a laundry list of superlatives in the Carioca 3 arena.
Massialas, who came into the Olympic tournament ranked No. 1 in the world, made history for his team.
By winning the silver medal, he became the first U.S. men’s fencer to win an individual medal at the Olympic Games since Peter Westbrook won a bronze in men's saber in 1984.
Massialas is also the first U.S. Olympian to win a foil medal since 1960 when Albie Axelrod won the bronze.
He's the first U.S. Youth Olympic Games athlete to win an Olympic medal. Massialas won a silver at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games.
And, finally, Massialas became the first in his family to win an Olympic medal. His father made his first Olympic team in 1980, but did not compete because of the boycott. He fenced for Team USA in 1984 and 1988. Massialas’ sister Sabrina followed in his footsteps as a Youth Olympian in 2014, when she won gold, and is in Rio as training partner and the loudest voice in the stands during her brother’s bouts.
“And I’m not done yet,” Massialas said.
The youngest male athlete in any sport at the 2012 London Games at age 18, Massialas took a year off from Stanford, where he is majoring in mechanical engineering, to train for Rio.
He had a scare in the quarterfinals when Giorgio Avola of Italy scored eight straight points to build a 14-8 lead, but Massialas fought back to a 15-14 victory.
In the final, he trailed Garozzo 14-7, then scraped back to 14-11 before the Italian secured the win.
“I’m always out there to fight,” Massialas said, noting that his quarterfinal win, “if anything it assured me that I have a chance regardless. I can never give up in a bout like that, especially in the gold-medal match of the Olympics. Obviously I might have used up my luck earlier in the day. I know every second I step on the strip, no matter the odds, I have a chance to compete and win. I never thought for a second that I didn’t have a chance at that gold medal.”
Although Massialas had defeated Garozzo every time they had faced each other in the past, the Italian had a different technique this time and Massialas was not able to adjust in time.
It was so loud in the arena that he couldn’t hear his father. There was a break at 14-8, where Greg could explain what he needed to do, and Alexander scored three quick points in succession.
“He made the correction, and then you saw him kind of go on a roll,” Greg said. “Unfortunately, with 14 against you, you can only pull so many rabbits out of a hat, like he did in the quarterfinals.”
On the last point, Garozzo threw off his mask and sprinted off the strip in elation. There was a pause for a replay, however, and he had to put his celebration on hold.
Then he went wild again, while Massialas digested his silver.
He fought back tears on the podium. “It was overwhelming,” Massialas said. “Obviously, I wish I could have gotten the gold; I was sad a little bit, but I couldn’t be prouder to bring back any medal for the United States. I stood up there and tried to keep my head held high.
“I couldn’t be a prouder son, I couldn’t be a prouder brother, I couldn’t be a prouder friend, teammate. Being able to bring the silver back to the United States, U.S. fencing, everyone along the way who has been there every step of the way… it really takes a village to raise a child.”
He credited his mother, Vivian, as “the silent force” behind everything he does.
“She hates being in the limelight,” Massialas said, “but this is the one chance I have to thank her for everything she’s ever done for me, driving me to fencing practice every single day, encouraging me every step of the way even when things got tough, just giving me unconditional love over the 22 years I’ve been alive. She’s the secret hero that no one ever talks about. I couldn’t be a prouder son.
“My sister, obviously the loudest one in the stands, the only one I can hear clearly. Out of the thousands of voices out there, being able to hug her and know that she’s proud of her older brother is an amazing feeling.”
Greg Massialas said his wife was texting him, “Remember to make sure he eats.”
Alexander, despite having five bouts, was also looking his phone, watching notifications pop up “endlessly during the competition,” he said, “especially after that quarterfinal match. “It was an amazing feeling, knowing that the whole country’s behind you. And even people I have never met before or people who have never seen fencing before tweet at me or Instagram me. It’s an amazing feeling just to give fencing a good name in the U.S. We’re a smaller sport. We don’t get a lot of media.
“For the longest time, we weren’t a power in fencing, but to bring back a medal for them… as my dad says like to say, men’s foil is probably in its golden age right now in the U.S.”
The U.S. has won two other silver medals, but that was in 1904 and 1932.
“It’s still the first time we’ve had a silver medal in eons, the modern era,” Greg said. “When you start going back in time like that, travel’s a big deal so you didn’t always get all the top players here. You had everybody here. Everybody was going at it and you come home with a silver medal, that’s a great thing, so it’s a tremendous day for U.S. fencing and we really look forward to stepping up for the gold in the team event. Actually, the goal the entire quadrennial has been the team event.”
The team event is Friday.
In the semifinal, Massialas defeated British fencer Richard Kruse 15-9. Kruse had knocked out Massialas’ teammate, Gerek Meinhardt, the No. 4 fencer in the world, in the quarterfinals 15-13.
In the table of 16, he also avenged his other teammate. Massialas defeated Artur Akhmatkhuzin 15-9 after the Russian eliminated Miles Chamley-Watson 15-13 in the table of 32 in a rematch of their 2013 world championships final won by the American.
“You know what the best thing is?” Alexander said. “I hope I’ve given a lot of young fencers inspiration, a chance to dream big. Obviously a lot of people for the longest time didn’t believe that U.S. men’s foil could ever bring back a medal in the Olympics and to show them that yes, we can, and to show them that you put in hard work and never let down and always believe that you can do it, hopefully I’m able to inspire tons to either start fencing or either dream big in general in whatever they do.”