Three-time Olympian Greg Massialas has coached son Alexander and daughter Sabrina since they picked up their first swords.
They keep fencing and family mostly separate, but Greg’s dual role is clear when they address him on the strip.
“It’s always just ‘Dad,’ never ‘Coach,’” Sabrina said. “That’d be weird.”
The name Massialas has become synonymous with Team USA’s First Family of Foil Fencing. Greg made his three Olympic teams in the 1980s before founding a fencing club in San Francisco in 1998.
Alexander, 24, began fencing in second grade, adhering to Greg’s minimum-age rule, and won historic individual silver and team bronze medals at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 in men’s foil.
Sabrina, 21, took her first lessons in kindergarten – after wrapping Greg around her little finger to persuade him to let her start early – and won the gold medal at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014.
“We get sort of a two-in-one,” Sabrina said, “an opportunity to get coached by one of the best coaches in the world and also have all these experiences with him as our father. And I think that’s really unique and special.”
Alexander looked to his coach for advice during the most important bout of his career, but it was his dad that he needed when it was over.
Ranked No. 1 in the world, Alexander went into the men’s foil final in Rio with his heart set on gold, and then lost to Italy’s Daniele Garozzo. Even though his silver medal was the first men’s Olympic medal for Team USA in any weapon since 1984 and the best result for a U.S. men’s foil fencer in 84 years, Alexander was despondent.
Greg was there as he came off the strip to hug him and tell him he was proud of him.
“The highs and lows, we’ve been through it all together,” Alexander said, “and to go to Rio, obviously silver is a bittersweet moment. We really would have loved to get gold, but to have him there and be the one to console me as the first one off the strip, there’s no one else I would have wanted in that moment.”
And Greg was grateful his status as Team USA coach gave him that access.
“Of course, nothing was more touching to me,” said Greg, who was also the U.S. men’s foil coach in 2008 – before Alexander made the Olympic team – and 2012, when his son was the youngest men’s athlete of Team USA in any sport.
“I’m able to be his dad there in that situation, to give a few comforting words and make him feel better about it, and that was something that I will always treasure.”
World Cup Sweep For Men’s Foil
They’ve continued to collect medals and memories as Team USA, coached by Greg, won all five men’s foil world cups this season for the first time in history. Alexander was joined by Miles Chamley-Watson, Race Imboden and Gerek Meinhardt as they defeated arch-rival Italy to claim the sweep.
“To be one of the few teams to say they swept the season is pretty fantastic, but we still have work to do,” said Alexander, who is ranked No. 2 in the world.
The culmination of their work will come at the world championships in Wuxi, China, July 19-27.
“That is the next step and then we’ll have the real perfect season,” said Alexander, the 2015 world silver medalist and 2010 Youth Olympic Games silver medalist, “but to be able to do this with my dad leading the charge as a coach has been an amazing feeling. Just having him there as a fatherly presence has been pretty phenomenal.”
Both Alexander and Sabrina say Greg’s analytical ability and attention to detail set him apart from other coaches.
Alexander said Greg was able to take the best of each fencing school to develop his own program, and then when he’s on the strip and watching a bout, he can expertly dissect an opponent’s moves.
“He’s very good at noticing patterns, what actions they want to do and they are doing,” Alexander said, “and that way he can give you information on what you should do to counter them.”
However, when two of Greg’s students face each other, nobody coaches them. They coach themselves.
“I feel like all my fencers are my children,” he said.
Added Sabrina, “He just cares so much about his students and in addition to having all the answers, he wants his students really to come out and win.”
Greg was born in Greece and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he was 10 years old. He took up fencing his first summer in the United States.
While he also excelled in swimming and water polo, fencing was the sport that stuck. Greg graduated from Cornell and moved to California in 1977 to work with a coach in San Jose. He made the 1980 Olympic team, which did not compete because of the U.S.-led boycott, then fenced at the 1984 and 1988 Games, finishing 28th and 14th individually. The 1984 men’s foil team placed fifth.
Sabrina Massialas (R) and coach/father Greg Massialas celebrate her gold medal in women's foil fencing at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014 on Aug. 17, 2014 in Najing, China.
A Fortuitous Career Change
Greg became an international referee and forged a career in advertising in San Francisco. His wife Vivian, who was born in Taiwan, was the one who encouraged him to start coaching.
“When Alexander was 3 years old,” Greg said, “she told me, ‘This is something you’re really good at, you’re passionate about, and you know so well. You really need to do this. You can make history.’”
When the administrator of the Chinese-American school where they were enrolling Alexander in pre-K found out Greg was a three-time Olympian, she asked him to give classes.
He started in January 1998, and the Massialas Foundation fencing club was born. In 2002, Greg posted a 10-year-plan on the side of his desk with the goal of Olympic gold by 2012. In 2008, he had his first Olympian in Meinhardt.
Meinhardt suffered a knee injury which set him back, but he still made the London Games in the team event, where he and Alexander were part of the squad finishing fourth. Alexander finished 13th individually while Sabrina, face painted red, white and blue, was the loudest voice in the stands cheering for him.
Greg said he never pushed his own children to take up his sport, realizing that “then they really weren’t going to be as good as if they wanted to do it themselves.”
They wanted it. “Ever since I can remember,” Sabrina said, “seeing my dad and my brother go to fencing practice every day, making the Olympics was this ultimate dream for me.”
However, neither she nor Alexander said that out loud to their father until they became successful. Greg said they eventually told him they would sneak peeks at the “humble little case” that holds awards such as his Pan American Games medals and Olympic rings.
“At night they would go over there and open the thing and put on the rings,” Greg said. “They never came out and said a word to me about it, but in their own way, they went about what they were doing. Maybe it’s like these are lofty goals and if you make a statement about it, all of a sudden there’s the pressure of doing it.”
Alexander said he wouldn’t call it pressure. “It was more of a motivation,” he said, “because it was the kind of thing where it was like, ‘All right, I need to do this because if my dad can do it, I can do it.’ Ever since I was a kid, I never felt like if I didn’t make it, it would be a failure, but it always was a goal.
“I’m definitely going to put myself in position to train my hardest to try and make as many Olympic teams and get as many medals as possible and hopefully one day show up my dad.”
Did he do that in Rio with his two medals? “Well,” said Alexander, “he’s a three-time Olympian, so if I don’t go three times he’ll still hold something over my head.”
A Balancing Act
Greg acknowledged that wearing two hats as coach and father can be challenging.
“From time to time, you get in certain critical moments, and you kind of get distracted being one or the other,” he said. “But when Alexander’s fencing, even though he’ll say Dad or Baba (Chinese for Dad) to me, he understands that I’m the coach. At home, we don’t really talk about fencing hardly at all.”
He said they may talk about the logistics of upcoming trips, but don’t have in-depth conversations about fencing strategy.
“That way they know that on the strip, I’m the coach, then right off the strip, I’m Dad.”
Greg said he and Sabrina end up butting heads more than he does with Alexander, even though both are generally easy-going.
“We both get a little bit emotional, so that makes us butt heads a little bit more,” Sabrina said. “We both have very strong characters, and it comes from our love and how much we care.”
She said if Greg yells at her, she’ll snap back at him and then he’ll get mad at her for doing that.
“Sometimes I’ve been told that he kind of does it on purpose to get some fire in me,” Sabrina said, “and although that’s frustrating in the moment when I’m really angry, I guess it definitely works sometimes.”
While Alexander stayed close to home for college – attending Stanford 40 minutes away and graduating in December with a degree in mechanical engineering – Sabrina went to Notre Dame, where she is a rising senior with a major in environmental science and a minor in sociology.
Greg said he and his wife told their kids they could attend college anywhere they wanted, but he misses having Sabrina nearby. However, he’s glad that Buckie Leach, the national team foil coach, is the Fighting Irish coach.
Sabrina had surgery for a broken foot two months ago and also has a torn hip labrum – both fencing-related. She’s counting on being back in form in time for the run-up to Tokyo.
However, her injury has kept her from skiing with her dad. Greg has taken both kids skiing since they were 2 and he held them between his legs down the mountain.
“I’ve only been on the mountain one time my whole life when he wasn’t on the mountain as well,” said Alexander.
Greg held him out the Olympic year as a precaution, but last year he was the one who was injured.
A veteran skier for four decades, Greg was skiing in the south of France when he hit a low tree branch that he never saw.
“It cracked my helmet, which of course saved my life,” he said. “I was knocked out cold, which saved my life because otherwise I would have tried to get up.”
He underwent surgery to fuse three vertebra together with a titanium plate, and was in a neck brace and wasn’t able to give lessons for four months.
Then he had a perforated appendix and was hospitalized again. “The entire year, Alexander got maybe only a dozen lessons from me,” Greg said. “He won the world cup for the second time in a row and it was kind of a miracle in some ways.”
He’s 100 percent again and in February went skiing for the first time since his accident. As president of the Northern California Olympians Alumni Chapter, Greg was in Squaw Valley for a celebration for the Closing Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Games.
He and Alexander hit the slopes.
“Of course,” Greg said, “his mother said, ‘Whatever you do, do not take him through the trees.’”
Alexander’s coach would probably concur.