Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates the outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Eli Dershwitz won Male Athlete of the Month for July 2018 after winning a silver medal in men’s saber fencing at the world championships and also earning the overall world cup title. In his Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, Dershwitz talks about how hard work got him to the top and is his main hope for staying there.
Olympic fencer Eli Dershwitz can still remember like it was yesterday what his coach said right after he won his first national tournament in men’s saber at 16 years old.
“He told me, ‘Enjoy it for the day, because tomorrow everyone’s coming for you,’” Dershwitz said.
Those words have even more meaning now that Dershwitz is ranked the No. 1 men’s saber fencer in the world following a breakthrough 2017-18 season. Now 22 years old, Dershwitz won his first two world cup gold medals last season, a grand prix bronze, his third gold medal at the Pan American Zonal Fencing Championships and wrapped it all up with a silver medal at the world championships. The latter helped him become the first U.S. men’s saber fencer to win the overall world cup title.
The Sherborn, Massachusetts, native, who’s about entering his senior year at Harvard, knows there’s no letting up now.
“If you had to work ‘x’ hours to make it to the top, you have to work 10x hours to stay there,” he said, still recalling his coach’s words. “When you’re climbing the mountain, no one’s coming for you. Once you get to the top of the mountain, everyone’s coming for you, watching you, studying you.”
Eli Dershwitz celebrates after winning silver at the FIE World Championships on July 22, 2018 in Wuxi, China.
Hard work is something to which Dershwitz is more than accustomed. One doesn’t get to be an Olympian and a student-athlete at Harvard, particularly at the same time, by taking it easy.
In fact, Dershwitz has always operated according to the philosophy that if he worked harder than everyone else around him, good things would come.
After the 2017 fencing world championships, however, he couldn’t help but wonder if there was some flaw or something missing in his thinking. Dershwitz finished 19th. Less than one year earlier, he was knocked out in the first round in his Olympic debut.
“You start to question yourself and how it’s possible to work really hard and end up not performing at the end of the season at the biggest tournaments,” he said. “It’s tough to go home and train after that.”
Yet buoyed by support from his family, friends and teammates, Dershwitz responded by working even harder last year. The first positive results showed up in Algeria in November 2017 when he defeated Italy’s Enrico Berre 15-9 in the championship match to win his first gold medal on the world cup circuit.
It was something of a relief, he admitted, to prove to himself that he could compete against the best in the world, but in the back of his mind he still had the same questions that haunted him heading into the Olympic Games Rio 2016, when he was the youngest member on the U.S. team.
Did he just get lucky?
Did he really deserve to be there?
Then, ranked No. 12 in the world, he won a second world cup gold medal in February, beating 2012 and ’16 Olympic champion Aron Szilagyi of Hungary, and made his way to the podium for a third time in April with a bronze medal at the grand prix event in Seoul, South Korea.
By the time he got to the pre-world championships training camp this summer in Oita, Japan, Dershwitz was ranked third in the world and feeling great.
Being in Oita only helped.
The only other time he trained there was before the grand prix tournament in Seoul that was the final Olympic qualifier in 2016. He went on to win his first gold medal on that circuit and was named to the Olympic team.
“I was thinking the entire camp that this place is special to me and there’s history here,” Dershwitz said. “I had it in the back of my mind that if I can do the same thing after this camp it would be an amazing result.”
At the world championships in Wuxi, China, Dershwitz reached the final before falling to Junghwan Kim, the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist from South Korea. Still, in doing so he became just the second American men’s saber fencer to win a medal at worlds. He also got to watch his teammates have success. The U.S. collected six medals, including two golds, for the country’s best showing ever at the world championships.
Now begins the daunting task of keeping that top ranking and competing internationally while finishing his senior year at Harvard.
One thing that being a student-athlete has taught him, Dershwitz said, is effective time management. He learned during his year off to prepare for the Olympics that there’s a big difference between having nothing but time to train and having to balance school and training.
“With that extra time sometimes you’re not as effective, even if you’d like to be,” he said. “Maybe you start practice a little slower, that type of thing. At school I know in the back of my mind that when I’m done at practice I need to go eat then go to the library. You have to use every minute to your advantage.”
He also enjoys the feeling of being part of a team that comes at Harvard, where your teammates’ success is your success, and vice versa, and never will the moment come when you have to face each other for a medal.
As Dershwitz inches closer to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, he hopes to not only keep his No. 1 ranking but also become the first men’s saber world champion from the U.S.
There is also another goal he hopes to meet.
The two-time NCAA individual champion would love to see the Harvard fencing team win its first championship since 2006.
“Since then no Harvard team has won an NCAA championship,” said the Crimson co-captain. “We’ve won individual championships, but not team. I would love to leave that final impact on the Harvard fencing legacy to help the team bring home an NCAA title. I feel like that would be an amazing way to say goodbye and to graduate.”