San Francisco Chronicle

Massialas brings medal back to U.S. after helping save sport at Stanford


CHIBA, Japan — This is a tale about Olympic fencing.

But it is also a story about a pandemic Olympics. An ongoing game of risk. An alchemy that can make bronze feel like gold.

“Sports is a game of risk,” said San Francisco fencer Alexander Massialas, who spent 14 days of his Olympics quarantine­d in a hotel because of contact tracing.

He was finally fully released Sunday morning and arrived at the Makuhari fencing venue with all his luggage a few hours before competitio­n started. By evening, his foil team had won its second consecutiv­e bronze medal, defeating Japan.

It wasn’t the medal the world’s topranked team had sought. The American fencers had dreams of becoming the first U.S. fencing team to win an Olympic gold.

But given the circumstan­ces, they were thrilled not only to survive, but to be on the podium.

“At the beginning of this trip, I didn't even know if I was going be able to fence at all,” Stanford graduate Massialas said. “So, to be able to compete and get a medal, I'm just happy.”

It was his first moment of joy in a long time. Maybe since he was lucky enough to get upgraded to business class on the flight to Tokyo.

That piece of random “luck” almost completely derailed Massialas’ Olympics. He was seated behind Taylor Crabb, the beach volleyball player who tested positive for the coronaviru­s upon arriving in Japan. Passengers were detained while Japanese authoritie­s scrambled to analyze the plane’s seating chart.

“They almost took all of us,” said Greg Massialas, the foil coach and father to both Alexander and Sabrina, also a team member.

Instead, after being detained at the airport for 12 hours, Massialas and coach Misha Itkin, father of fencer Nick Itkin, were told they would have to quarantine away from the team, in a hotel outside the Olympic Village.

Massialas’ Olympic experience turned into one of isolation. Instead of fulfilling his dream of walking in the Opening Ceremonies with his little sister, and being able to train with his team, he led a separate existence.

“In the Olympics, it’s really all about stress,” said Greg Massialas, a former Olympic fencer. “And then you compound it with this situation, it’s very hard . ... The stress level just goes up.”

That stress showed in Massialas’ individual match last week. The isolation and inability to train showed, and he lost in the round of 32.

“I just wasn’t able to get in a rhythm,” he said. “I didn’t have as much training as I should have had. I never even had a chance to come see the venue.”

Things started better in the team competitio­n, though he still wasn’t allowed into the venue to see his sister compete in the women’s team foil. But Massialas’ quarantine had been modified enough to allow him to train with the team, in a separate room at the venue.

They needed the work. The U.S. team hadn’t competed together since a tournament in Cairo in February 2020 and had not trained together for most of the pandemic. San Francisco’s Gerek Meinhardt fenced with his wife, Lee Kiefer — who won an individual gold last week — in Kentucky where they attend medical school. Massialas could fence with his sister and father in San Francisco. The team finally came together for a training camp in Colorado Springs in May.

Other teams, like the Russian Olympic Committee (the name Russia is competing under because of a pattern of cheating), were able to train and compete throughout the pandemic.

The Americans, who looked good eliminatin­g Germany in the quarterfin­als, faced the Russian team in the semifinals. And it was rocky from the start. Massialas, anchoring the match, was handed a slim onepoint lead by Meinhardt. But he lost his bout to young Russian Kirill Bordachev, 61, ending the hopes of a gold medal.

Massialas fell to his knees and bowed his head.

“To regroup after that disappoint­ment is a really, really hard thing,” Greg Massialas said.

But after sitting with the defeat for 20 minutes, the team relaxed in the warmup room, played cards and listened to music, and got ready for the bronzemeda­l match. The United States handily defeated Japan, which had upended favored Italy to make the semifinals, for the medal.

The team also won bronze in Rio. That was the first U.S. team medal in foil fencing since the 1904 Olympics.

“We’ve gone from a long shot to make the top four to being upset we didn’t win gold,” Massialas said. “We grew up. I hope this is a springboar­d for fencers back home, to help them chase their dreams. U.S. fencing has come so far.”

Massialas’ work off the strip will help fuel those dreams. During the pandemic, he was instrument­al in the movement to save the 11 varsity sports his alma mater had decided to eliminate, including fencing.

So, what’s bigger? Saving Stanford fencing or winning an Olympic medal?

“I fought the whole year to try and save those sports,” Massialas said. “This feels really vindicatin­g. I’m glad I was able to prove a little today why fencing deserves to be there.

“I’m glad I got both.” And he was glad to be out of his quarantine hotel. Massialas was heading to the Olympic village to try and condense his entire Olympic experience into two nights, before heading to Hawaii for a break.

This was an Olympics of survival. And he had made it through.

 ?? Hassan Ammar / Associated Press ?? Alexander Massialas (right) duels with Tomohiro Shimamura of Japan in the men’s foil team bronze medal match.
Hassan Ammar / Associated Press Alexander Massialas (right) duels with Tomohiro Shimamura of Japan in the men’s foil team bronze medal match.
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 ?? Elsa / Getty Images ?? U.S. fencer Alexander Massialas exults during the men’s team foil bronzemeda­l match against Takahiro Shikine.
Elsa / Getty Images U.S. fencer Alexander Massialas exults during the men’s team foil bronzemeda­l match against Takahiro Shikine.

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