RIO DE JANEIRO – You know what tastes sweet? Revenge. You know what tastes even sweeter? Olympic revenge.
Four years after the U.S. men found themselves on the losing side in the team foil semifinal match at the London Olympic Games against Italy, the American fencers exacted revenge at the Rio Games – with a medal at stake.
Team USA won the bronze inside Carioca 3 to earn its first medal in men’s team foil since the 1932 Olympics, bringing the nation’s total to four medals in the event in Olympic history.
The American quartet - Alexander Massialas, Gerek Meinhardt, Miles Chamley-Watson and Race Imboden – was the same exact team that fell short in London, and, adding to Massialas’ individual silver and Daryl Homer’s saber silver earlier this week, brings the U.S. medal count to three for men’s fencing in Rio, having not medaled in the sport at the Games since 1984.
“This is a brotherhood,” Chamley-Watson told reporters after the bronze medal. “I hope this medal inspires a lot of people to see fencing as not just an Olympic sport, but something they want to get into.”
The U.S. beat Italy 45-31 on Friday, using an 8-0 run midway through the bout, having trailed 20-17 at one point. But after Chamley-Watson evened things at 20, childhood friends Meinhardt and Massialas spurred the Americans to a 30-21 lead that they never relented.
Four years after the Americans were happy just to get into the medal rounds in London, the bronze in Rio is a triumph, even if they started Friday chasing gold. The U.S. lost 45-41 in a back-and-forth battle with Russia earlier in the day in the semifinals, having bested Egypt in the quarterfinals.
“We had our minds set on the gold today, but we came back as a team, regrouped and came out on top,” said Imboden, initially a replacement athlete, who was subbed in with the U.S. leading 35-22 and widened that gap to 40-26.
Italy was the top-ranked team in the Rio competition.
“It took years for us to build up momentum against the Italians,” added Meinhardt. “To come into the Olympic Games and not only fence them for a medal but send them home without one. It’s symbolic in men’s foil; it’s a changing of the guards we think.”
Italy had won gold at the London Games in 2012 as well as Athens in 2004. Team foil was not a part of the 2008 program in Beijing.
The U.S. men all rank within the top 15 in the world, Meinhardt having joined Massialas in the quarterfinals of the individual foil event earlier in the week.
“It’s been such a hard road for us,” said an ecstatic Chamley-Watson, who at one point carried Imboden on his back through the media mixed zone. “The best part about it is that this is the same team from London. That’s the best part.”
There is no modern success that compares for Team USA, that 1932 team foil bronze being preceded by a bronze in the event in 1920 and silver in 1904.
“After London, we had our best year ever,” Imboden explained. “We won silver at the world championships and then were ranked No. 1 in the world. As a brotherhood, we talk about growing up with each other, we’ve all known each other since we were 10 years old.”
Massialas and Meinhardt, both from the San Francisco area, train at the same club under Greg Massialas, Alex’s father. They’ve been friends for some 15 years. Chamley-Watson and Imboden are both New York City area natives.
“He used to be chubby and now he’s good-looking,” Chamley-Watson joked of Imboden, the guys all laughing together. “Things change.”
The U.S., ranked No. 2, and Italy both lost their semifinal matches, the Americans to Russia and Italy vs. France. The U.S. was 2-1 against Italy in international competition this season coming into Friday.
After Italy won the first point after the initial “En garde!” from the referee, it would trail the U.S. 9-5 before taking a 20-17 lead. But that’s when Chamley-Watson ran off three straight points and the match turned on a dime. To close, the U.S. won 25 of 36 points.
“This is just the beginning for us,” Chamley-Watson said. “I’m going to go until 2048.”
The laughter was easy and light in the mixed zone, but the celebration was fierce on the piste when Massialas won the U.S. that all-important 45th point in the ninth bout. The three other guys rushed the floor as chants of “U-S-A!” spread throughout Carioca 3, American flags waving in the stands.
Ten years ago, the U.S. was not a part of the medal conversation internationally.
“In Beijing in 2008, I took 10th (in individual),” Meinhardt said. “It felt amazing just to qualify. It’s a totally different mindset now. We think we belong here.”
Team USA feels as though it’s an international powerhouse, and one that has been built on a fencing family working as one unit.
“We celebrate with each other, we hurt with each other, we push each other,” said Imboden, growing emotional. “Gerek started it all back in the day when he became one of the guys who could compete on the circuit, and then Miles became the No. 2 guy in the world. There are no better guys to grow up fighting against and improving yourself with.”
Imboden said watching Meinhardt lose his individual quarterfinal earlier this week was one of the hardest parts of his Rio experience, and earning this team bronze together was something important to him.
That drew the two teammates into a hug, obviously emotional over the history they had just achieved.
“We’re a mixed bunch of people, a crazy bunch,” Imboden said, smiling. “We are fun to watch and hopefully people see that.”
“We showed up in London and came this close,” he continued. “We came back here wanting a team medal.”
What made the Team USA men the proudest on this day was their ability to come back from a tough semifinal loss against Russia, unlike four years ago when they were defeated by Italy in the semis, then fell to Germany in the bronze-medal match.
“The best athletes in the world have the shortest memories,” Chamley-Watson said plainly.
But hopefully this bronze-medal win is something they will remember for a long, long time.