American Fencing’s best shot at Gold

The New Yorker


Daryl Homer says that he lives in Harlem because “it’s halfway between Mom and practice.” Mom lives in Hudson Heights, near the Bronx, where Homer grew up; practice is at the Manhattan Fencing Center, on West Thirty-ninth Street, where, on a recent Friday night, he stretched while listening to the new Kanye West album on headphones. “ ‘Ultralight Beams’!” he said, a little too loudly. “This is excellence music. This is pump-up music.”

Homer, who is twenty-five, will need pumping up in August, when he fences in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. (He also competed in 2012, when he was a college sophomore; he finished sixth.) Peter Westbrook, a retired six-time Olympian, is considered the Michael Jordan of American fencing. Keeth Smart, a silver medallist, is probably second in the pantheon. Fencers tend to peak in their late twenties or early thirties. “Daryl is definitely on track to be one of the all-time great American fencers,” Smart said the other day. No American man has ever won an Olympic gold medal in fencing. In Rio, Homer might be our best shot.

Teddy Weller, a lanky redhead, entered the gym. Homer greeted him with a light punch. “He’s my boy,” Homer said. “We face each other a lot in competition, but we’re friends. The irony is my family is from St. Thomas, and I fence for Team U.S.A., and he’s from Rhode Island and fences for the Virgin Islands.” Homer changed out of his warmup gear and into a white lamé, which looks like a cross between a leotard and a bulletproof vest. Lamés are electrically conductive; a body cord, connected to a scoreboard by a wire, registers every touch of an opponent’s weapon.

“You wanna ref?” Homer asked Jeff Spear, another fencer on Team U.S.A. Weller and Homer put on their chainmail face masks, pointed their sabres at each other, and crouched in on-guard stances. “Ready, fence!” Spear said. Homer scuttled backward, parrying. When he spied an opening, he attacked, leaping through the air like a fighter in a kung-fu movie. Alex Dvorin, a fencer watching from the sidelines, said that the move is called a flunge: “Daryl has probably the best flunge in the world.” (One YouTube video, “Daryl Homer: Epic Sabre Compilation,” calls him the move’s “undisputed master.”)

There is not much “En garde!” or “Touché!” at the Manhattan Fencing Center, but there is a lot of nonsense-syllable celebration. “Bo-hai-oh!” Homer shouted, after winning a point with a deft flick of the wrist. “Fuck me,” Weller said under his breath. Homer won, 15–9. “Daryl’s faster than everyone else, and he’s incredibly precise, which allows him to be aggressive and yet still in control,” Spear said. He faced Homer next, and lost almost as quickly. Homer was just starting to break a sweat. “I’m moving O.K., not great,” he said.

Homer never met his father; his mother, a forensic scientist, works for the city, in the Office of Chief Medical Examiner. “When I was nine, I was flipping through an illustrated dictionary, in the ‘F’s, and I saw a guy in a white outfit with a sword,” Homer said. “ ‘Mom, this is cool! I wanna try this!’ She wasn’t against it, she was just—‘Where in Williamsbridge are you gonna find fencing?’ ” He persisted, and they came across the Peter Westbrook Foundation, which offers a free after-school program, in the Yellow Pages. Homer progressed quickly. “I started training with this Ukrainian coach, Yury Gelman, who’s kind of famous,” he said. “We couldn’t afford him, but, luckily, he believed in me and he waived his fee.”

Fencers compete using one of three weapons—foil, sabre, or épée. “At first, I fenced foil, the lightest one, but it felt too”—he made an Errol Flynn-ish gesture. “I switched to sabre, which is more ninja-ish. Now I take my weapon everywhere—restaurants, the subway. Most people ignore me. They’ve seen crazier shit. One time, at a subway station, a cop tried to stop me, and this lady says to the cop, ‘You know what that is, right?’ ”

Homer attended St. John’s University on a fencing scholarship and majored in advertising. After college, he worked at Anomaly, an ad firm in SoHo. “I was on the Budweiser account, pulling sixty-hour weeks, fencing at night,” he said. “I decided, If I’m gonna go for gold in Rio, I can’t do both.” He became the firm’s “athlete-in-residence,” a position that allows more flexibility for fencing.

After two hours, Homer took a break, having faced seven opponents and dispatched them all. “Post-Rio, Daryl is going to have fun,” he said. “The fall is about decompressing, seeing family in the Caribbean.”

He stepped onto the strip for a final match. He won a point, pumped his fist, and shouted, “Ha-yo-ba!”
“I knew you were going to counterattack,” his opponent, Andrew Mackiewicz, said.

“That’s like saying, ‘I knew you were gonna dunk on me,’ ” Homer said, pulling up his mask and smiling. “Maybe, but I dunked on you anyway.”

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