The U.S. women’s epee fencing team isn’t the best in the world on paper, and that’s not meant as a slight.
In describing his team, coach Andrey Geva pointed out that unlike some of the countries the U.S. women face, they don’t have a world champion, or an Olympic champion, or a top-ranked fencer who stands out as their undisputed leader.
And that’s perfectly OK, because earlier in this month in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the ultimate team moment by Katharine Holmes, sisters Courtney and Kelley Hurley, and Natalie Vie yielded Team USA’s first-ever world cup gold medal.
“It’s about team effort, not having a leader,” Geva said. “Our strength is that we’re a united team, supporting each other, taking the right approach and the right strategy.”
After falling to eventual gold medalists Romania and finishing fifth at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the women’s epee team knew it had the potential to be on the podium in Tokyo in 2020. But, Holmes said, knowing and believing aren’t the same thing.
“It’s one thing to know the facts, to say we have what it takes, to say we have the skills, but to do it takes belief, and to change that knowing into believing can be a really difficult step,” said Holmes, who was part of the last Olympic team along with both Hurleys. The Hurleys had also won Olympic bronze in 2012 along with Maya Lawrence and Susie Scanlan.
Now, they’re beginning to believe it.
A couple of things helped precipitate that change, Geva said.
One was a two-day team building workshop in which they examined how different types of people respond to situations and communicate, and how to use that information to help everyone get on the same page. It wasn’t that they weren’t getting along or having major problems, Geva stressed, but that they wanted to find ways to work better together.
They also switched their lineup for their world cup competition in Barcelona, Spain, in February, moving Holmes into the anchor position instead of Courtney Hurley, who’d long been the one to fence the last bout in team competitions.
The event in Barcelona, in which Amanda Sirico was the fourth member of the team, presented challenges right from the beginning. For the fourth time in a row, they’d need to beat Germany, to whom they’d lost the last three meetings, in order to get to the final eight. Not only did they beat Germany, 28-23, but they also defeated top-ranked China, 30-26. They next faced Russia in the semifinals but the match went to overtime and after neither player scored, Russia won by priority.
That put the U.S. in the bronze-medal match, however, where it once again faced Romania. Courtney won two key bouts against 2008 individual Olympic silver medalist and 2016 team gold medalist Ana Maria Popescu, and Holmes anchored the team to victory. That world cup medal was just the third that Holmes had won since joining the team in 2013, all bronze.
Then just last weekend in Dubai, the Americans faced a similar set of circumstances. They faced and defeated Germany in the table of 16, then China once again in the eight. Their next opponent was France, whom they beat, 42-36, to get to the gold-medal match. To win their first-ever gold medal, they’d have to defeat Russia.
“Usually we lose to them, and sometimes badly,” Geva said. “My main strategy was to convince them, look, we’re fencing for the gold. I know you’re already happy, but how about we make history? We’ve never won gold before, and this is the time when we can.”
It was a close match, although the U.S. led throughout. They worked to support one another and encourage each other as Holmes and both Hurleys cycled through the lineup.
The U.S. won in overtime with Holmes anchoring the team. As in Barcelona, it went to overtime after world No. 7 Violetta Kolobova tied it and took the lead, forcing Holmes to score to tie it once more before regulation ended.
“It was super close,” Holmes said. “It went to OT and I was like, OK. I do a lot of video analysis and try to run stats on what’s the best action to use when. I knew the best action would be to attack, so I set up a touch. While I was setting my touch up I could sense what she wanted to set up. My touch just slid very nicely into her preparation for her touch and I picked her off under the wrist.”
Holmes’ analytical mind is one of the strengths she brings to the team. Everyone is a little different and therefore contributes something different, both Holmes and Geva agreed. Kelley Hurley made her first Olympic team in 2008 and brings a wealth of experience, knowledge and perspective as well as technical expertise.
Courtney, Holmes said, brings fire and passion.
“We call her the Kraken because once she gets a sense of blood, she’s unstoppable,” Holmes said.
At the moment they won gold, Holmes said, her body reacted before her mind had a chance to catch up. It wasn’t until they heard the national anthem that the depth of what happened really sunk in.
“We’ve always known we can do it, but now we believe,” she said. “I think we believe we can do this and that we are one of the best teams in the world. Maybe one day we can be the best team in the world. I’m excited to see what we’re going to do at the world championships in July and over the next couple of years.”