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A local Olympian: like father, like son

Olympic fencer Alexander Massialas

By Julia Irwin

NEIGHBORHOOD RESIDENT and fencing champion Alexander Massialas is realizing a dream — and continuing a family legacy — by competing in the summer Olympics in London.

His father and coach, Greg Massialas, also fenced in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games and qualified for the 1980 games in Moscow, which the U.S. boycotted.

“It’s a really special bond we have, so having my dad here at the Olympic village is kind of incredible, because this is something he’s gone through himself as an athlete,” Alex said in an interview from London shortly before the games began. “Walking through the opening ceremonies, it’s going to be something I probably won’t even have words for.”

Two days later, there he was — right at the front when Team USA marched in during the opening ceremonies.

Alex, who turned 18 in April, won his first round, but was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the individual men’s foil on July 31. He will compete again in the men’s team foil event on August 5.

As a child, Alex often watched his father give lessons at the fencing academy he owns, Massialas Foundation at Halberstadt, located in the Mission District.

“I loved it right from the get-go — even before I started fencing,” Alex said. “Some days I’d be ecstatic because I got to see the sport I wanted to do so badly. And other days I’d be crying on the sidelines because he wouldn’t let me join in.”

He still remembers his first introductory class, which he took when he was 7 years old.

“It really just hit me then that was the sport I’m going to follow for the rest of my life,” he said. “I love playing all sports, but I think fencing combines the best of athletic ability and mental capability. You have to be able to out-think your opponent and keep cool under high-pressure situations. Yet you have to be really athletic as well, just to keep up with the other fencer.”

Greg Massialas found that his son had the talent, drive and attitude to match his love for the sport.

“I saw that he had a passion; he worked really hard from the ages of 9, 10, 11 years old — and he didn’t fear anything,” Greg said. “He just believed. He’s a great athlete and a rather smart kid, and all those elements came together.”

Under his dad’s coaching, Alex began to succeed in competitions against older and more experienced opponents. Greg, who began fencing at 11, described Alex’s early success as a “completely different” pathway than his own.

“When I was 14 years old, I got my first electric foil for Christmas,” Greg said. “At 14 years old, Alex had already won a Division I national tournament.”

Among his many record-breaking achievements, at 16 Alex became the youngest fencer ever to win a men’s foil Division I national championship. At 17, he became the youngest to win a medal at the Seoul World Cup, earning a bronze. In this year’s Olympics, Alex is among the younger athletes at the Olympics, but both father and son see that as an advantage.

“There’s so much pressure,” Greg said. “It’s some people’s last games. Some have families, mortgages and kids.”

Alex wants to deliver at this year’s games, but said his youth gives him freedom.

“We’re out there trying to prove ourselves, and we have nothing to lose because we have so much longer to go,” he said. “As for the old guys, they don’t want to lose to the new guys, so the pressure’s on them, not me.”

It would be easy to attribute Alex’s success to genetics — his younger sister Sabrina is also an up-and-coming fencer well positioned for the 2016 Olympics — or to Greg’s unique dual role as father and coach.

“The fact that my father’s my coach, it’s a good bonus, but when I’m on the strip I’m just another kid and he’s just my coach,” Alex said. “He’s a coach on the strip and a father at home. Otherwise, I have a pretty decent body for fencing. I’m tall and long. I’m quick. But it’s really just a lot of hard work and dedication.”

Training for Alex meant four to five hours of training on an average school day, a portion of which might be devoted to other sports, or to cross-training in the pool or at the gym. After graduating from the neighborhood’s Drew School on May 31, he ramped it up even more, focusing full time on fencing. He will enter Stanford in the fall, with a four-year fencing scholarship.

“I want to achieve the goals I set for myself,” Alex said. “I want to be an Olympic champion one day. I want to achieve the goal I’ve been thinking of since way before I even started fencing. So I think that’s really what drives me — just the love of what I do. I do this because I love it, not because I’m good at it.”

Both father and son are optimistic about this year’s Olympics. “Alex has intensity, passion, athleticism and he thinks very quickly on his feet,” Greg said. “He actually has very legitimate opportunities. Once you get to the top eight, it’s anybody’s game.”

Shortly after he arrived in London, Alex was feeling confident.

“I think realistically I do have a shot at a medal this Olympics, because I’ve medaled at a couple senior world cups in the past few seasons,” he said. “It’s been pretty hard in the past year just to get to this moment. This is your time to shine, this is do or die, go out there, give it 100 percent, and hopefully I’m going to come back with some hardware for the U.S.”