Led by 2012 Olympian Daryl Homer, the team won gold and silver medals in the first two FIE World Cups of the 2015-16 season.
It’s the first back-to-back world cup medals for the U.S. men’s saber team in recent memory, if ever.
In the first world cup, held in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early October, Homer, Eli Dershwitz, Jeff Spear and Peter Souders defeated France for the gold medal — the first win for the U.S. men’s saber team since 2004. Then, over Halloween weekend, they battled world silver medalist Russia in the second world cup in Budapest, Hungary, and took the silver medal.
The team is now ranked fourth in the world, its highest ranking since the U.S. took the silver medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
These world cup medals come on the heels of Homer’s silver medal in individual saber at the 2015 FIE World Fencing Championships in July. Homer is the first U.S. man ever to win a saber medal at worlds — and his silver was one of five medals won by U.S. Fencing at the 2015 worlds, its most ever at a single world championships.
In men’s team saber at worlds, the U.S. finished fifth.
Also in 2015, Dershwitz, 20, won the gold medal in individual saber at the junior world championships in April. He also won gold at the Pan American Games in July.
So what’s fueling this sabreur medal haul?
Homer points to two reasons.
“One, everyone got a lot of confidence after the world championships,” he said via FaceTime from France, where he’s resting after the Budapest World Cup. “That showed everyone we could all really do it.”
Second, the men’s saber team is meshing as a group.
“Everyone is kind of on the same page, and everyone is working to win medals,” said Homer.
In an essay that Homer wrote for The Player’s Tribune on Sept. 30, he also credited “the lunch pail mentality that American fencers possess.”
“I never feel discouraged by the fact that the guys I’m facing have every single possible resource at their disposal,” he wrote, referring to fencers from other nations. “Everything I’ve gotten from this sport has come from hard work. That underdog mentality makes winning feel that much better.”
Tim Morehouse — a member of the men’s saber team that won silver in Beijing — said that “no one should be surprised that we’re winning medals right now in fencing at any level.”
“It’s really a new day, where 10 years ago, if we won a medal here or there, it was amazing,” said Morehouse, as he walked to the Tim Morehouse Fencing Club in New York City last week. He is also founder and CEO of Fencing in the Schools.
The current generation of fencers, including Homer and Dershwitz, grew up watching what Morehouse called “the breakthrough generation.” Mariel Zagunis and Sada Jacobson (now Jacobson Bâby) broke through in Athens, Greece, winning gold and bronze medals, respectively, in women’s saber’s Olympic debut. Four years later in Beijing, Zagunis, Jacobson and Rebecca Ward swept the Olympic podium in women’s individual saber, then won the team bronze.
“In the last 10 years, the U.S. has become one of the best teams in the world,” said Morehouse. “We have a lot of young athletes coming up. They have respect for their opponents but not the sort of reverence, like ‘We can’t beat Italy, we can’t beat Russia.’”
At the second world cup in late October, the men beat Russia — with Russia’s A team out there, pointed out Morehouse.
“On any weekend, one of our teams is going to be able to win medals,” he added.
For his part, Homer, now 25, says he has matured as an athlete — and as Morehouse noticed, is “putting all the pieces together this season.”
Matches last an intense 11 minutes, and the successful fencer balances aggression with calm so that he or she can achieve a zen-like focus.
“To control that balance between aggression and calm takes a tremendous amount of training,” wrote Homer in his Player’s Tribune essay. “But when it all comes together, man, it’s an adrenaline rush unlike anything else.”
To achieve this balance, Homer has built a solid support team, with his coach, sports psychologist, friends and family.
He also has the right processes in place, and now does the same routine to prepare for each opponent.
“If you told me, ‘Hey Daryl, there’s going to be a bout for $1, a bout for an Olympic gold medal, or a bout for $1 million, I’m preparing for it exactly the same way,” he explained. “Whereas before, I prepared for different matches in completely different ways. I was all over the place.”
With no men’s team saber on the Olympic program in Rio, Homer has been focused on qualifying for the 2016 Games in individual saber since London. Up to two men per nation can qualify for the individual fencing events in Rio.
“I told my teammates that I wanted to come back to the next Games as a medal contender,” he said, “and luckily, I think I am that now.”
Once back from France, Homer will set his sights on winning a medal at the Boston Grand Prix in mid-December. This tournament serves as another qualifier for Rio.
Olympic qualification began April 3, 2015, and ends on April 4, 2016. At that date, the top 14 men’s saber fencers in FIE rankings will automatically earn a spot to compete in Rio, with a maximum of two per nation (although technically, the men will know after the Moscow Grand Prix in March). Homer is currently ranked fifth, Dershwitz 20th. Two per geographic zone will qualify, and then there’s a last chance qualifier for nations in each zone that have not already qualified a fencer for that weapon.
After Rio, Homer has no plans to retire. Team saber will return for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. And Homer would like to become only the fifth man in history to defend an Olympic gold medal in men’s individual saber.
Jenő Fuchs (Hungary), Rudolf Kárpáti (Hungary), Viktor Krovopuskov (Soviet Union) and Jean-François Lamour (France) all won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in individual saber at the 1908 and 1912, 1956 and 1960, 1976 and 1980, and 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, respectively.
The U.S. won silver and bronze medals in men’s individual saber in 1904, and another bronze in 1984, but has never won gold.
“I want to retire as the best saber fencer of all time,” stated Homer. “If that means getting a couple gold medals and repeating them back to back, that’s what I’d like to do.”
The 416 number called three times. Angela Ruggiero recognized that the area code was originating from Toronto but she was busy in her San Francisco hotel room preparing for a U.S. Olympic Committee board meeting and decided to wait for a voicemail. Despite the trio of calls, no voicemail arrived, leaving Ruggiero confused. “[I] kept thinking, ‘Why won’t this person leave a message?’” she said.
The call was from the Hockey Hall of Fame trying to notify Ruggiero that she would be one of the inductees in the 2015 class.
It wasn’t until Kelly Masse, the Hall’s director of media relations, sent Ruggiero a text asking her to call back. “And then I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the Hall of Fame calling!” said Ruggiero, who was unaware that the 2015 class was being announced that day.
On Monday night in Toronto, Ruggiero, along with Sergei Fedorov, Phil Housley, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, Bill Hay, and Peter Karmanos Jr. will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. The former standout American defenseman will become the fourth woman inducted, joining Cammi Granato, Angela James and Geraldine Heaney.
Ruggiero will also be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in December.
What makes Ruggiero smile a bit more is that she’s one of four blueliners entering the Hall next week.
“Nothing against Sergei because he’s on the Athlete’s Commission with me with the IIHF, but being with all these great defensemen is cool,” she said. “For me, at least, obviously there’s so many amazing legends that came before, but our class, I think it’s extra special to me being the defensemen class.”
It wasn’t until 2010, while Ruggiero was still an active player, that Granato and James were given hockey’s highest individual honor. That was a key moment in moving the women’s game forward.
“It was a huge monumental step for the women’s game and for hockey in general,” Ruggiero said. “I think that they’re just demonstrating the openness and acceptance of this growing piece of hockey.”
Ruggiero was born in California and played on boys’ teams before moving to Michigan at age 16. There she would train with her brother, Bill, and eventually make the U.S. Olympic team for the first women’s tournament at 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
“The biggest thing is growing up I never dreamed of being in the Hall of Fame because that wasn’t a reality at the time,” she said. “Women’s hockey wasn’t declared an Olympic sport until I was 12, so that was my target. I wanted to play in the Olympics and wanted to go play in college.”
The U.S. would win gold over Canada in 1998, and that experience would help mold Ruggiero into the player she later became over the following three Olympics, where she would win two silvers and a bronze and be named top defenseman twice. She credits teammates Cammi Granato, Chris Bailey, Alana Blahoski and Sue Merz as the biggest influences on her career.
“Those four helped me when I was then the veteran of the team and had all these rookies,” she said. “Put myself in their shoes and recognized the importance of having more senior teammates and what a couple words here and there checking in once in a while how far that would go.”
Ruggiero would end her career in 2011 as one of the most decorated American players ever. With Team USA, she would win the four Olympic medals and four golds and six silvers at the IIHF World Championships. Collegiately she was a four-time NCAA All-American at Harvard and remains the only defenseman to win the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as the top women’s player.
During the 2006 Olympics Ruggiero was outspoken about the Canadian team running up the score against opponents, saying that such lopsided results could put the women’s game in jeopardy for future tournaments. Nearly a decade later the gap is slowly shrinking between the U.S. and Canada and the rest of the world, but there’s still more that needs to be done to continue growth.
“I think a lot of national federations need to step up to the plate and support their women’s teams,” Ruggiero said. “Ideally you would look at the traditionally dominant hockey countries like the U.S. and Canada, like Russia, like a lot of these European countries that have wonderful men’s teams should equally all have wonderful women’s teams; because what that signifies to me is that they have the history, the tradition, they understand the game. They can easily open up the doors and transfer that knowledge and put financial backing behind their women because that’s what it takes. That, to me, would really show that the sport is truly growing.
“If you look at somewhere like China, which doesn’t have a history of hockey, they still year after year are investing in the women’s game and trying to make it better, but it’s a lot harder for them to figure out to have strategic decisions on the ice because they don’t grow up with hockey like we did. That would be the best case. We are getting better, but the tricky thing is the U.S. and Canada is never going to stop improving, so the other players have to improve at the same rate, but even more to catch up.”
The women’s game in North American took another big step in strengthening itself with the NWHL dropping the puck this year. Ruggiero is happy with the league’s start so far and hopes the model developed by Dani Rylan is able to be sustainable long-term.
These days Ruggiero keeps herself busy on five different commissions within the International Olympic Committee, along with being part of the USOC board and the IIHF Athlete’s Commission. But she hasn’t closed the door on getting back involved in hockey.
“I think if the timing’s right, if the opportunity is there I would certainly love to get back into the women’s game more on the league side than the coaching side for now,” she said. “I had girls camps for years, I absolutely loved coaching the youth level, but coaching at the collegiate level is a whole different ballgame.”
Ruggiero’s time away from hockey has allowed her to get involved in a number of different ventures, but since it was announced she would be a Hockey Hall of Famer, the journey toward Monday’s induction ceremony — thinking about those who helped her along the way, reliving her career — has been a fun experience. She said she needed a break from hockey to be able to get away and retire, but the last five months have rekindled her memories of the game.
Once she’s inducted and her plaque goes up in the Great Hall at the corner of Front and Yonge Streets, Ruggiero will forever be a part of a special community in the hockey world.
“That, to me, is really one of the most special things about this, is recognizing that I’ve retired,” she said, “but there will be this place once a year that I’ll get to go to and relive being a player and be a part of this amazing group of fellow hockey players.”
The 26-year-old American finished Sunday in 1 hour, 43 minutes, 4 seconds. She again completed the Grand Slam of winning in London, Boston, Chicago and New York, extending her record streak.
The previous record of 1:50:24 was set by Amanda McGrory in 2011.
Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa won his second NYC Marathon title and first since 2005 in the men’s race after finishing runner-up the last two years. He beat American Josh George by a second.