(L) Kenji Bravo poses with his silver medal on Oct. 9, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Kenji Bravo was nervous. Understandably so, considering he was competing on the biggest stage of his life to date.
Everything was magnified for the 17-year-old as he looked around the Africa Pavilion, housed in the Youth Olympic Park. There were more lights than previous competitions – and they were brighter. They were far more people in the stands than he had ever seen. Oh, and not to mention the Olympic rings displayed on signage across the arena.
While the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 were a whole new ballgame for Bravo, he managed to overcome the nerves and the pressure that came with an Olympic atmosphere and win the silver medal in men’s foil fencing Tuesday night.
Bravo’s medal marked the fourth for the United States in Argentina but the first by a male athlete. His is also the second fencing medal for Team USA after May Tieu earned bronze on Sunday.
“It means a lot, especially because this is our first silver medal, and it’s just a great honor to represent my country,” Bravo said.
After winning the 2018 cadet world title (for fencers ages 14-17) in April, Bravo was the No. 1 seed in Buenos Aires and entered the competition with big expectations.
“It’s completely different,” Bravo said, comparing the Youth Games to cadet worlds. “The fact that it’s two weeks, there’s way more fans here. It’s just really great competing here.”
Bravo went 5-1 in his pool, with winning results of 5-4, 5-0, 5-2, 5-2 and 5-3, and losing only to France’s Armand Spichiger, 5-3. He then won his quarterfinal handily, 15-7, before struggling more than expected in the semifinals. Bravo’s match against Jonas Winterberg-Poulsen was a close one, but Bravo prevailed, winning 15-13 to make it to the gold-medal bout.
“I just got really nervous and I tried to reset, calm down and focus on my game plan,” Bravo said of pulling out the victory.
“I think nerves really got to him, and that’s part of this experience of participating in this event,” coach Greg Massialas added. “You don’t see this kind of energy and crowd elsewhere. The semifinal bout should not have been like that. He wasn’t able to follow instruction as much. He was getting lost in the moment, especially in the gold-medal match. I was trying to get him to do certain things but he wasn’t able to ingest it. It unfortunately happens. But he had some great moments.”
In the gold-medal match, Bravo once again faced Spichiger, who was on fire. Bravo scored a few comeback points but fell to the Frenchman 15-7.
“Armand had a really strong game plan,” Bravo said. “He came in looking really strong, and he was able to capitalize on my mistakes.”
His coach knows, though, that the experience will only help him going forward.
“I think this is a very important stage and a building block. When he comes to the Olympic Games – hopefully he qualifies – he will have had this experience to draw from and see what’s going on,” Massialas said.
Bravo will have little time to celebrate his medal and rest before competing again Wednesday in the mixed continental team event. He is the men’s foil competitor on Team Americas 1, which includes fellow Americans Isaac Herbst, Tieu, Emily Vermeule and Robert Vidovszky, as well as Mexico’s Natalia Botello Cervantes. Women’s saber athlete Alexis Anglade is on Americas 2.
“We have another event tomorrow in the team event, and we’re just going to try to win,” Bravo said. “That’s always the goal.”
Bravo hopes his men’s foil medal is the first of many to come in the Olympic world. And while it was his first, it marked the fourth Youth Olympic medal for his coach.
Massialas, as three-time Olympian himself, has served as coach of the U.S. fencing team at all three Summer Youth Olympic Games since the event debuted in 2010. In Singapore, his son Alexander won individual silver and team bronze before going on to win Olympic medals of the same color two years later. Four years later daughter Sabrina won gold in women’s foil. And now Bravo has added a silver to the collection for the Massialas Foundation (MTEAM), Greg’s club that has two locations in California.
“It’s something that we work on as a club, to develop champions in this age group and then going on as a stepping stone to senior national team, Olympics and so on and so forth,” Massialas said on the importance of his pupils excelling at the Youth Olympic Games. “That’s part of what our process is, so Kenji’s part of that chain of events, I guess you’d call it.”
Bravo joined the club when he was 8 years old. His older brother went to school with Alexander and had started fencing with the Massialases first.
“Greg is one of the best coaches out there,” Bravo said. “He’s extremely passionate and always wants the best for his students. I just can’t be grateful enough for having him.”