U.S. fencer Jake Hoyle squares off with Sangyoung Park of South Korea at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
It all started in a middle school cafeteria.
It’s not the typical place for an athletic career to begin, but for Jake Hoyle (Columbia, fencing), it was as good a place as any.
Hoyle’s sixth grade physical education teacher, Pixie Roane, was a fencer and had her students at Strath Haven Middle School in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, try the sport as part of her curriculum.
“He came home one day all excited about fencing because Pixie (also) ran a club after school,” his father, Charlie Hoyle, said. “He's like ‘I really want to do it.’”
With a club fee of about $50 a year, Jake’s parents agreed.
Who would have guessed that about 15 years later, he would be competing for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics, where he just wrapped up competition in individual and team epee.
What a journey.
Back in middle school, a small group of kids would go down to the cafeteria, roll out the strips between the cafeteria tables, hook up the wires and then fence.
“I think that’s part of what (Jake) really liked. They did all the setup,” Charlie said. ”It wasn't like a basketball player where they would go to the gym and the basketball court was already there. … Even though it was an individual sport, it was a group effort to run this club. I think he really enjoyed that.”
When it was time to look at colleges, Jake reached out to numerous coaches but only heard from one: Michael Aufrichtig, who was recruiting his first class at Columbia University after being named head coach in 2011.
When Jake emailed Aufrichtig around September of his senior year, they were both late to the recruiting game. Aufritig was a new coach rapidly trying to secure commitments, while Jake was just unlucky with his efforts.
Soon Aufrichtig received a phone call from David Micahnik, an accomplished fencer and longtime University of Pennsylvania coach, who spoke highly of Jake.
“If it wasn't for some of these other people I might not have met with him, but once people told me I should meet with him, even though he wasn't so high on this recruiting points list, I started looking into his statistics,” Aufrichtig said.
What he discovered was Jake was a strong five touch fencer.
In a 2014 Ted Talk, Aufrichtig said that although Jake was not winning in direct elimination matches of 15 touches, he excelled in the preliminary rounds of five point matches.
So Aufrichtig decided to give him a chance. Although no official recruiting spots were left, if Jake could get into Columbia, he could walk on to the team.
“You just saw the potential in him, both in his movement, in his focus on the strip, his ability to change when things weren't going well (and) to adapt to his opponent,” Aufrichtig said.
At Columbia, he worked countless hours to develop his skills. He was determined to take advantage of the opportunity given.
He worked directly with assistant coach Aladar Kogler, who had a big impact on his game. Kogler, who was Jake’s technical coach, is compared to a jedi master by Aufrichtig and still works with Jake today.
After his freshman year, he chose not to come home so he could devote himself fully to training. He lived in New Jersey with his aunt and took the bus into the city every day.
And he thrived, becoming a two-time NCAA champion and two-time first team All-American at Columbia and proving he belonged on that roster.
“When he was winning the NCAA championships his junior and senior year, no one thought that would happen ... meaning every single NCAA coach,” Aufrichtig said. “But then, as he was rising to the top, everyone kind of said, `Wow, he does have some great action, some great points, great moves that maybe some other fencers don't have even when they practice it over and over again.’”
Jake and Kogler would work on goal-setting as a part of his training. Together they set three types: a realistic goal, a reach goal and a dream goal.
In college, Jake’s dream goal was to be the best college fencer, and he accomplished that. The next? Become an Olympian.
One day, he walked into Aufrichtig’s office and asked, “Do you think I can make the Olympics?”
Aufrichtig replied, “I’m probably costing you a lot of money right now, but yes, I do believe you can make it.”
Another goal crossed off the list.
“I don't think any Olympic athlete gets there without the support of a good number of people,” his mother, Suzy Holyle, said. “I mean, yeah, maybe some people don’t, (but) It’s always good to have a lot of people in your corner, And he had Michael Aufrichtig in his corner.”
When Jake watched sports with his family growing up, he would be glued to the television for the Olympics every four years. He always made a point to watch the Opening Ceremony.
This was the first year in a long time he didn’t watch with his family.
He had good reason.