Sabre Fencing Star Daryl Homer Talks Fencing Background, Tokyo Prep, Black Lives Matter & More

Team USA

When Daryl Homer was 10 years old he saw an image in a children’s dictionary of a fencer wearing a mask, a white outfit and standing in the “en garde” position. 

He was fascinated. 

“I ran to my mom and said, ‘I want to try it out,’ and she kind of laughed at me,” Homer said. “She was interested, but she kind of laughed.”

Over the next year he kept seeing the sport in everything from movies to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to finally a commercial featuring two Black men fencing for a New York City cab. After seeing that commercial, Homer’s mom pulled out the Yellow Pages and found the Peter Westbrook Foundation, the namesake organization of the Olympic bronze medalist. The program’s stated objective was to push diversity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of fencing. Not long after, the 11-year-old Homer had a sword in his hand. 

Westbrook’s unique program provided an environment through which Olympians and national team members (many of whom had come through the program) contributed as teachers and mentors to inner city youth. Many of these teachers and youth have created firsts for US Fencing, with names such as Keeth Smart, Erinn Smart, Ivan Lee, Akhi Spencer El, Nzingha Prescod, Ben Bratton, Kamara James and more having gone through the program

Now 29, Homer is a two-time Olympian whose 2016 silver medal made him the first American man to medal in sabre since Westbrook in 1984. caught up with the Team Toyota athlete to discuss his Olympic journey, the postponement of the Tokyo Games and his involvement giving back to both his sport and his community in honor of Olympic & Paralympic Day presented by Toyota.

So the men in the commercial turned out to be Westbrook, who’s a longtime mentor, and Akhi Spencer-El, a 2000 Olympian who’s currently your coach.

Did you understand back when you started what it meant to be around all these great athletes?
I was a kid, so it seemed normal. Even now, it sounds funny to say I was around so many Olympians as a child, but it all felt normal to me. We had all these people of African American descent who were Olympic athletes in fencing, so it wasn’t a reach for me to walk into the room and think one day that could be me.

It sounds like fencing was something you both immediately enjoyed and were really good at?
I definitely wasn’t good at it right away. There were a number of people within the program who were much better than I was. I was seen as talented, but it wasn’t the best person in my age category. I used to have crying fits and get really upset because I kept losing, but the foundation is a really loving place and everyone feels supported. One of the biggest things I’ve taken from Peter is that you can compete and still have kinship. 

What stands out now, four years later, from that journey to the medal stand, going through the competition and winning a silver medal?
Standing on the podium, all my training and all the struggles ran through my mind — I had reached a goal that I’d set for myself as a child. You work, but you never know if you’ll reach it. I grew into a man on that journey. I became more comfortable with who I was, channeled my focus and energy towards a goal, formed strong relationships with family and friends, and most importantly learned the importance of paying it forward. After an experience like that, you sit back and reflect on what’s next — how to continue to build and what does success looks like moving forward?

Did it feel like a full circle moment, winning the first men’s individual sabre medal since Peter when he was such an early influence? 
Yeah, I mean, it’s huge. Peter and I have a close personal relationship, but to also have our names etched in history next to each other is really humbling. I’ve probably read his book “Harnessing Anger” hundreds of times throughout my life. The six Olympic teams and 13 national championships were always in the back of my mind. I may not beat those, but it’s nice to know that there’s something iconic and transcendental that bonds us together.  

The men’s sabre team qualified for Tokyo in March right around the time when everything was starting to shut down. What was that like going from qualifying to all the uncertainty to finally the postponement of the Games until 2021?
We were still traveling and competing when the first wave hit. We were in Warsaw and suddenly we couldn’t go to Italy the next weekend, because they were beginning to lock it down. It was an unsettling experience. We kept training as things were changing day to day, because as an athlete, you always want to be prepared. I think the conversation around the Games being delayed came a couple of weeks after the borders started to close around the world.  It was a relief to hear the Games were delayed. It meant we no longer had the pressure of training day to day during a pandemic, but that quickly shifted to more logistical concerns. What does that mean for me financially? How do I shift my future? What does the next year and a half look like? My main takeaway from this entire experience is that you have to present where you are. I also thoroughly miss fencing. Just the physical experience of being able to go to the club with my friends and get some matches in. There’s nothing like being without something to show how valuable it really is to you. 

You live in Harlem and have recently posted on social media about racism in the fencing world, being part of protest following the murder of George Floyd and other current events. What’s it been like being part of that and having the Black Lives Matter movement coming back to the forefront?
Black Lives Matter has been at the forefront of our community for quite some time. I’m happy it’s getting the national spotlight and allies are starting to take part in it. I’ve been on calls where something along the lines of “we understand how difficult this time period is” is said, but none of this is new. This “current circumstance” is an everyday reality for many of the black athletes in the sporting world. Many of us hold our communities in our hearts alongside our accomplishments. COVID-19 has wreaked tremendous havoc on the world. It’s also given each of us time to pause and reflect. How do we want to leave this world to our children? How can we be more empathetic and supportive to those around us? How can we lift up and empower those who are disadvantaged? Black Lives Matter continues to elevate our national conversation around systemic racism. It’s important specifically in a sporting context to think about the role we can play, both symbolically and with action, in supporting this national dialogue. 

Does it seem different this time? Like maybe people are listening more and the message is getting out there in a way it hasn’t in the past?
COVID-19 stopped the world and that’s made it possible for us all to tune in. Individuals are pushing for increased representation and change across the entire nation. Organizations, spurred by those individuals, are starting to contribute to communities that have supported and enriched them. This is a time of grand reckoning and for massive change. 

How have you dealt with racism you’ve experienced in the fencing world?
I think there are a variety of experiences that I’ve had, none I’m willing to elaborate on. But personally, I try to drown them out by cultivating a strong community around myself, speaking out and supporting those who do, and committing myself to my craft. My goal is to make the sport a better place for the next generation of athletes of color. They need to know they’re supported and that we are all part of each other’s journey.

Brooke Raboutou Is Climbing The Walls At Home And The Olympic Qualifier Has Gained Fame From Of It

Team USA

With much of the nation staying at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic the past couple of months, it wouldn’t be unusual to hear a friend tell you over a Zoom or FaceTime call, “I’m climbing the walls over here by being inside all day.”

Yet, if that friend was Brooke Raboutou, the first rock climber in the U.S. to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, she would mean quite literally climbing the walls. In fact, the 19-year-old Boulder, Colorado, resident has taken to climbing around her entire house.

Anything she can get her hands—and feet—on, really.

“I’ve never been so grateful (to) have a little climbing wall in my basement,” Raboutou told in a phone interview. “I’ve been making the most of time at home by using that wall, and other resources in the house. It’s a very different style of training than I would be doing at the gym.”

In the midst of her at-home training, Raboutou has posted a series of videos on her Instagram showing her climbing around the house, from the kitchen counter to cupboards, along the wall and up and down the stairs. Even over a fireplace, which—for dramatic effect—was lit, of course.

The videos have made her an internet sensation, and also landed her on a recent episode of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

When daredevil star Johnny Knoxville posted Raboutou’s climbing on his Instagram, her phone started filling up with alerts. She saw that actress Jennifer Aniston had watched (and liked) the video. “Which was kind of the highlight of my life,” she said, laughing. 

The announcement that climbing would be added to the Olympic program starting in Tokyo came in 2016, when Raboutou was only 15. “My reaction was like, ‘Whoa, this is so crazy, so cool.’ (But) I wasn’t really thinking about myself. I was only thinking about how great it was to grow the sport. Maybe I was thinking about 2024 or later?”

But it was at the IFSC Climbing World Championships last August where Brooke would turn a dream for 2024 into more immediate reality. She placed high enough there to secure her Tokyo spot, making her the first American climber ever to qualify for the Games.

“It was a roller coaster,” Raboutou said. “I went into shock when I found out (at worlds). It’s taken until now for it to really sink in.” 

Climbing is in Raboutou’s blood, with both of her parents, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou and Didier Raboutou, being internationally acclaimed climbers in their day, and her older brother Shawn, 22, accomplished in outdoor bouldering himself.

Brooke began climbing at age 7, and before she was a teenager, she was already the holder of world records and headlines blaring her to be “the next big thing” for the sport. But also in that span was a Christmas gift that is paying dividends a decade later: The basement wall her dad surprised Brooke and Shawn with in 2010.

“I’m so lucky to have my wall so I’m able to train, even if it’s different. Sometimes different is good,” said Raboutou. “All the gyms are closed in Colorado. The last time I was on a gym wall was in the U.K., in (the middle of March). Most of the climbers, we’ve had a month away from the wall, and that is crazy for me. I’ve never spent more than three days (away) in my life.”

Armed with her at-home wall and the nooks, crannies and cervices of her parents’ Boulder digs, Raboutou is keeping things fresh for her training during this time. She’s mixed in runs (“I haven’t been much of a runner in the past”), core workouts, hangboard exercises (which builds her arm and shoulder muscles), and a lot of yoga and stretching.

“I don’t feel like I’m losing strength or anything,” she said. “I’ve been making the most of it. It’s a very different style of training than I would be doing if gyms were open, though.”

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With his sport set to debut in Tokyo, Colin Duffy is at home, climbing the walls

Washington Post

Under normal circumstances, sport climber Colin Duffy practices with Team ABC in Boulder, Colo., three times per week after his 10th-grade classes let out. He returns to the facility on the weekends for more time in the gym, and he occasionally climbs outdoors.

But just a few weeks after the 16-year-old secured the final climbing spot on the U.S. Olympic team with his March 1 performance at the Pan American Championships, the novel coronavirus pandemic upended his usual training regiment, closing gyms.

So now he’s confined to his home, and the nine-foot wall surrounded by mats and a mattress in his family’s basement is the new incubator for his dreams of Tokyo, where sport climbing will make its debut.

“I think I’ll look back at March, and just the craziness of it all will really stick out,” said Duffy, whose schoolwork and upcoming Advanced Placement exams have migrated online.

Athletes such as Duffy who have qualified for the 2020 Games will keep their spots, so he sees this as an extra year to grow and improve. For now, he maintains his muscle memory and finger strength on the wall his family added to the basement about five years ago. The wall has a few small panels with changing angles, which makes it a bit awkward, but Duffy still gets in workouts about four or five times per week.

“I try to follow as close to a routine as I would if I was at my home gym,” he said.

Duffy starts by warming up his fingers and body, beginning with simple movements and holds. He then works through specific drills — hanging with one arm or one-arm pullups, again starting with large holds, called jugs, and then progressing to more difficult ones. On a small hold, he’ll just try to hang as long as he can to improve his strength.

Duffy creates sequences in his head and then performs them on the wall. He can change and reset the holds, so even the small wall presents endless possibilities. Duffy works on his endurance by doing circuits, climbing up and down to simulate what it would feel like to hang for an extended period.

“The mental aspect of competitions is a lot different than just climbing outdoors or just a session at the gym, so keeping the mind strong during this time is also really important,” Duffy said. “Competitions have that extra level of pressure and stress that can’t really be replicated when just training.”

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