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.”