RIO DE JANEIRO — Enrico Garozzo of Italy sprinted off the strip at the fencing venue in Rio’s Olympic Park, wildly celebrating his gold medal win by playing to every fan in the arena.
On the other end of the strip, different emotions.
Sadness. Disappointment. Exhaustion. Alex Massialas would eventually come to terms with having earned a 2016 Olympic silver medal in the men’s individual foil, the first for an American male fencer since Peter Westbrook’s bronze in the epee back in 1984. But to do that, he had to feel every stabbing thrust of dissatisfaction in falling short of history – missing his chance to become the first American fencer ever to win gold in an individual men’s foil, sabre or epee tournament.
And so he crouched down, head hung low, motionless. He coach walked over to him, and spoke.
“He said ‘it’s OK.’ Those two words don’t sound like a lot, but they meant the world to me. That he was proud. To know that he knows I left it all on the strip,” said Massialas.
Words of encouragement you might hear, for example, from father to son. Which is why Alex Massialas heard them as he wept silently next to his coach, Greg Massialas.
“I told him, ‘I’m so proud of you,’” said his father.
“It meant the world to me, and I don’t know how I’d ever repay my dad,” said Alex.
While his father says he never outwardly encouraged Alex to take up the sport, it was imprinted on him early on. When Massialas would run around his childhood home, the subliminal messages were everywhere. The fencing photos and medals. The Olympic rings.
“To be honest, he almost pushed me away at certain points. Basically, once my dad started his own fencing club, I was five years old. I wanted to start immediately. ‘I want in, let me go in.’ But my dad said I was too young, and had to wait until I was seven years old, which he thinks is the perfect age to start,” said Alex Massialas, before the Rio 2016 fencing events began.
“That’s how I knew I wasn’t his son at the fencing club. I was a fencer first and a son second. I’m doing the same things everyone else is doing. If I’m messing up, I’m doing pushups on the side, too. If anything, he was a little bit harsher on the punishments.”
His father has coached him his entire career, and stood a few dozen feet away from Alex in Sunday night’s gold medal match, screaming instructions as Garozzo started piling up the points.
“Alexander had a couple of technical issues. I couldn’t really get to him to explain, to make the adjustment. At the end, he made the correction, and went on roll. Unfortunately, when you have 14 against you, you can only pull so many rabbits out of a hat,” said Greg Massialas, whose protégé rallied but fell short, 15-11.
In the quarterfinals, he had enough rabbits. Alex Massialas rallied with a 7-0 run of touches to survive against Giorgio Avola of Italy, who had match point during that comeback.
“I might have used up my luck earlier in the day,” he said.
So instead of gold, it was silver. Massialas stood on the podium, received his medal and was overcome by emotion, openly weeping as he stared out into the crowd – and saw his biggest fan.
“I had to fight back tears receiving the silver medal when I see my mom back in the stands trying to hug me from so far away,” he said of his mother Chwan-Hui Chen. “Obviously my mom has been the silent force behind everything I do. She hates being in the limelight, but this is the one chance I have to thank her for everything she’s ever done for me. Driving me to fencing practice every single day. Encouraging me every step of the way, even when things got tough. Just giving me unconditional love in the 22 years I’ve been alive.
“She’s the secret hero no one talks about and I couldn’t be prouder to bring this back for her.”
The silver medal is, as the saying goes, something only a mother could love.
It’s a symbol of both incredible achievement and inherent failure. You win gold. You win bronze. You settle for silver.
So there comes a point for athletes like Alex Massialas in which they either feel honored for having it hang around their necks or see it as an albatross. But his view of the silver medal was the view through the eyes of his parents. Hearing his father’s pride in his achievement. Seeing his mother’s love through tear-soaked eyes at the podium.
“Now, I’m elated. Now, if anything, it’ll be tears of emotion, tears of joy,” said Alex Massialas. “Hopefully I’ve inspired some kids to try fencing or dream big in whatever they do.”
It was here that Alex Massialas’s conversation with reporters was interrupted by an interloper in a Team USA jacket.
“Do I get to touch it?” asked his coach, pointing to the silver medal.
“It’s heavy,” said the Olympic fencer.
“The first one for the family!” said the father.
“We’re not done yet,” said the son.
Alex Massialas will get another shot at Olympic gold in the men’s team foil in four days, an event in which the Americans are serious contenders and haven’t medaled in since 1904.
But until then, and perhaps after it, he’s as proud a silver medalist as you’ll find at these Games.
“Obviously I wish I could have got the gold. Sad a little bit. But I couldn’t be prouder to bring back any medal to the United States. I stood up there, tried to keep my head held high. I’m at a loss for words. Couldn’t be a prouder son, couldn’t be a prouder brother, prouder friend or teammate,” he said.
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