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Eli Dershwitz followed older brother into fencing

By Talia Massi, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication | July 25, 2021, 11:24 a.m. (ET)

U.S. fencer Eli Dershwitz reached the round of 16 in the men's sabre in Tokyo. 

Eli Dershwitz (Harvard Fencing) started out his athletic career in a taekwondo studio around the age of six. 

His instructor allowed the students to practice moves and demonstrate form but did not believe in the kids sparring with each other. 

“[Eli] found that to be ultimately unacceptable,” his father, Mark Dershwitz, said.

Eli moved on to fencing, following in his older brother Phil’s footsteps.

“Eli realized that fencing was an opportunity to hit other people with swords and not get yelled at.  That’s… why he followed Phil into fencing because he didn’t get satisfaction just learning the forms of taekwondo. He really wanted to hit someone. Not to hurt someone but to beat them,” Mark said.

Phil went on to be a four year varsity fencer at Princeton University. He started fencing at a summer camp, enjoying it so much that he asked his parents to find a club where he could practice at a higher level.

Eli began to tag along to pick-up his brother. He quickly fell in love with the sport and began to become a fencer himself, finding great success along the way. 

Eli competed in a number of Junior World Championships, winning a silver medal in 2012 and bronze in 2013.

In 2015, he walked away as the first U.S. Men’s Saber Fencer to ever win a world title in any age group. 

“It’s something that I hold on to as one of my greatest achievements. [It’s] something that I’m very proud of,” Eli said.

Eli went on to spend four years at Harvard, with one gap year, to focus on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

Harvard placed an emphasis on being a well-rounded student-athlete which helped Eli “absorb a deep level of discipline.”

He qualified for the Olympics at the Seoul Grand Prix in South Korea and was the youngest member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Fencing Team in Rio.

His entire family and extended family was there to support him in Brazil: his parents, his siblings, his aunt and uncle, and his cousins.

But, his 2016 Olympic run was short-lived. 

He lost in the first round. 

“I think that I was trying so hard not to let the moment in Rio and my first Olympics get the better of me and… overwhelm me that I actually was a little bit under-fired, a little bit under-energized,” Eli said. 

He returned to Harvard from Rio for and won back-to-back NCAA individual championships in men’s sabre in 2017 and 2018, his sophomore and junior years. He posted a perfect 32-0 record his senior year and won the individual Ivy League Championship title for men’s sabre.

Now, he is back at the Olympics, focused on finding success at the highest level.

“There hasn't been an hour of any day for as long as I can remember where the Olympics haven't been on my mind. It's something that encompasses almost all aspects of our lives as Olympic athletes training for this one moment,” Eli said.

In Tokyo, he won his first match against Kaito Streets of Japan (15-9), but lost the next match against Junghwan Kim of Korea (15-9). His loss in the round of sixteen eliminated him from possible medal contention for the individual men’s sabre event.

However, he has a chance to medal with the men’s sabre team that begins competition on Tuesday. Before the 2020 Games, Eli said he was looking forward to competing with his teammates and finishing what he started.

“I’m really excited to see how we can push each other,” Eli said. “These types of intangible things such as teamwork, camaraderie and the support system we have, those things are so meaningful, and the process is so meaningful that I'm just looking forward to being able to show the world all the hard work and all the preparation that I've done and that our team has done and hopefully do something special in Tokyo.” 

He is honored to represent Harvard on the strip and showcase the program that made him who he is today.

“It's often hard for me to put into words how much my college team played an impact (on) me ... as an athlete and as a person. … I really believe (it) helped me get to the next level in fencing,” Eli said.


Talia Massi, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Talia Massi is a journalism student at Arizona State University. This story is part of a collaboration between the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Eli Dershwitz