The Road to London: Epee trio overcomes obstacles to reach Olympics
The Road to London is a series focusing on current and former Princeton athletes training for the 2012 Olympics. See the rest of the series here.
"It’s not the easiest thing to explain,” Soren Thompson ’05 said of his improbable return to the Olympics. Thompson, currently the ninth-ranked epeeist in the world, competed in the Athens games in 2004 but was essentially out of fencing entirely less than two years ago. Then, he decided he wanted to go to London.
“He basically quit his job, made this decision to kick butt and then did,” said junior Susie Scanlan, who will be joining Thompson on the biggest stage in the world in August. Scanlan, also an epeeist, is at an entirely different place in her career. She left school last year, halfway through her junior year, in order to chase her dream of becoming an Olympian, one that will soon be realized.
“I sort of tried to forget that I was trying to make the Olympic team when I was training,” she said. “I tried to forget about that and just work hard, practice, compete.”
Scanlan had an excellent World Cup season and knew by the time it ended that she was heading to the Olympics, but she was not officially a member of Team USA until late April. Scanlan said that the epeeists competing for spots on the Olympic team became close while training in New York. After developing such close bonds, learning who was going to London was a bittersweet moment.
“I knew when another fencer, the last American who was behind me, lost her match at the World Cup,” said Scanlan. “I know all the other girls who are trying for the team, so the worst thing is seeing everybody else’s disappointment.”
Still, learning that she would be an Olympian was a moment Scanlan will remember for the rest of her life.
“I still can’t believe I actually accomplished that,” she said.
The team will include another Princetonian, Maya Lawrence ’02, who will be competing in her first Olympics of a 10-year career and is currently ranked 47th in the world.
“As the senior member of the team, I try to remind everyone that staying calm is one of the most important things,” Lawrence said. “In general, I remind them of the little things they might forget when they’re caught up in the moment during a stressful situation.”
The training and qualification process is different for every athlete, but it is always a long, intense process that takes a fencer all over the world. After an upcoming tournament in Brazil, Scanlan’s schedule will include training in her home state of Minnesota and competing in the World Championships in Cancun and a World Cup team event in Leipzig, Germany. Thompson, meanwhile, is back in the U.S. after a World Cup event in Kiev. Facing world-class competition is a must for those wishing to compete in the Olympics.
“Europeans are just better,” Scanlan said. “Europeans and the Chinese. I think the top American fencers can really compete with them, but there are so many fencers in Europe who are really committed to training. They fence differently. With all the different styles, it’s good to keep fencing.”
In order to keep fencing, Scanlan had to put her academic career on hold. She said that, while it would have been physically possible to handle a Princeton workload and the schedule of an Olympic fencer, the toll would have been too much.
“There’s not enough emotional energy, if that makes sense,” she said.
She said that her family and friends, along with the University, recognized that taking time off was the right decision. She plans on returning for the second semester of next year and said it amuses her when people are surprised to learn she is coming back to college.
Thompson made a similar decision during his time at Princeton. The four-time All-Ivy fencer, who won an individual NCAA title as a freshman, put his senior year on hold to train for the 2004 games. For someone who started fencing at age seven and started preparing for the Olympics in 1999, it was the obvious choice.
“I was planning all along to take that year off so I could give everything I needed to,” he said.
As part of the qualifying process, Thompson went to the 2003 World Championships in Havana and finished eighth, setting a record for the highest rank achieved by a U.S. fencer. He followed up this impressive performance with an even better one in Athens. He placed seventh, the second-highest men’s individual rank ever for an American and the highest since 1956.
What he did on the way to this finish shocked the fencing world. He defeated the top-ranked epeeist in the world, Italy’s Alfredo Rota, eliminating the gold medal favorite in what Thompson said was “probably the biggest upset of the Olympics” for the U.S.
Thompson also helped Team USA to a sixth-place finish. The men’s epee team won the World Championships for the first time in U.S. history in Kiev last month, though there will be no Olympic team competition in the event.
“We had an historic result, and it was an incredible victory for us,” Thompson said. “In a way, it’s sad that the team won’t be able to compete at the Olympics.”
For Thompson, however, fencing has always been very much a personal experience. Though learning from coaches and older fencers was a large part of his upbringing in the sport, Thompson is different from almost every other world-class fencer in that he does not work regularly with a coach.
His ability to go it alone served him well when an injury nearly ended his career. Six weeks before the qualifier for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he fully tore his right hamstring while training in Colorado Springs.
“I tore it right off the bone, basically,” Thompson said.
He attempted to gut it out, participating in qualifying events despite barely being able to walk sometimes. Not surprisingly, he fell short of qualifying for the Olympics, and for a while, his career seemed to be over. Thompson took a job managing international business for a clean-tech company based in New Jersey.
“I started working and kind of fenced every now and then for fun,” he said.
When it came time to set the rosters for London, however, Thompson couldn’t keep himself away.
“I started doing a little bit of training on my own, coaching myself, around October of 2010,” he said. “I still wasn’t sure if I was going for it or not, but I knew I had to be prepared for it if I was.”
After seeing good results in early 2011, Thompson committed to a comeback attempt that April. He decided to rely on what he knew rather than working with a coach who might try to change the style which had worked so well earlier in his career.
“A lot of it came down to being very motivated and working extremely hard, and also training with a lot of intelligence, putting to practice some of the things that I’ve come to know after decades in the sport,” Thompson said. “I really took control of my training, and I really focused on the things that I thought would make me a better fencer.”
Just as he has trained as an individual, he will compete as one in London. Thompson will have one day in which to prove to the world that he is back; this spring, his world ranking has peaked at a career-high seventh.
“I’ve had the best year of my career,” Thompson said.
The fencers will learn their Olympic opponents sometime in July.
“You know who you’ll be fencing like a month before,” Scanlan said. “It’s kind of a weird mental thing. I don’t know if it’ll help or hurt me.”
Of course, when it comes to the Olympics, competition is only part of the spectacle. Though Scanlan called World Championships a “much larger and more difficult competition,” she said there is no stage like the Olympics. She said she is excited to see the opening ceremonies and happy that a large number of family members — about 12 — will be there to watch her, in addition to the millions of people watching from all over the world.
“People will be watching me on TV,” Scanlan said. “I find that kind of absurd.”
Thompson said that he expects the London Olympics to be very different from his experience in Athens.
“I come at this Olympics with a lot more experience,” he said.
Like Scanlan, Thompson and Lawrence acknowledged the intimidating nature of the world’s most illustrious sporting event.
“It’s very hard to be in the Olympics and not be intimidated,” Thompson said. “Some people try to view it as just another competition, but that’s very hard to do. The environment of the Olympics is just so above and beyond any other competition, even World Championships.”
“Everyone says the Olympics are different than all the other competitions,” Lawrence said. “They say there is nothing that compares. But I’m doing my best to prepare myself for the craziness.”
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