The Face of Fencing: Olympian Race Imboden On Bringing the Sport Into a New Era

From, by Mila Pantovich
The Face of Fencing: Olympian Race Imboden On Bringing the Sport Into a New Era

Many of us grew up playing with wooden or plastic swords, fantasizing of being the next Dread Pirate Roberts (or Captain Jack Sparrow, depending on your frame of reference), but it’s not often that childhood play to truly leads to one’s calling in life. For Race Imboden though, a day flinging a toy lightsaber around in a park put him on his amazing path to being the No. 2-ranked male foil fencer in the world.

Born in Tampa, Florida in 1993, 22-year-old Imboden is an American foil fencer, three-time Pan American champion, participated in the 2012 Summer Olympics, and along with his team, was awarded the silver medal in the 2013 World Fencing Championships. Fencing since he was around 10 years old (and traveling in tournaments since he was 15), Imboden has risen through the ranks remarkably fast. During his downtime from fencing (which he rarely has), he also moonlights as a menswear fashion model with Wilhelmina Models and has worked with the likes of Louis Vuitton. To say he’s impressive would be an understatement, especially considering how humble and open he is in conversation (“I feel like I wear my emotions […] on my sleeve”).

Coming off the World Cup in St. Petersburg (in which he “lost to a strong fencer”), New York-based Imboden took the time to chat with me on the phone about how playing in the park led to his becoming the face of fencing, giving back to the sport by teaching, finding time to have a personal life (i.e. he’s not single—sorry ladies), why he wasn’t as prepared for the 2012 Olympics as he had thought he was, and auditioning for Star Wars: Episode VII.

Mila Pantovich: You have a pretty interesting story as to how you got into fencing; can you tell me about that?

Race Imboden: I was just in the park, like any other kid. I was playing around with like a toy lightsaber […] and someone walked over and was like, "Have you ever tried fencing?” We went out to this “middle of nowhere" club, [to] this Russian guy who was actually born with no neck—so it was very “Princess Bride-y.” I walked in and he basically was like, "Too young!” And he wouldn't talk to us—just left us there—so we turned around, after driving all the way out there. I was obsessed with it after seeing it in the club, and I asked to go back for my next birthday. And it kind of just piled on from there, and the next thing I knew I was doing it all the time.

MP: You’ve spoken about fencing being a rarity in sports in terms of the mental aspect being just as important as physical strength; can you explain that a little?

RI: So the interesting thing about it, and actually I would say that I realize this the more I look into sports now, is that the better you get at a sport, the more and more necessary it is to be at a much higher place mentally. I needed to get stronger, I needed to get faster, I needed to do all these things to keep up with these guys. I think the interesting thing about fencing is that there so many different types of athletes, and you have people who are big dudes and they want to overpower you and that's their tactic. Then you have guys who are smaller and faster.

race imboden, fencing, olympicsPhoto Credit: Race Imboden

MP: What is it like fencing as part of the team, as opposed to fencing solo? Do you treat each competition exactly the same?

RI: Honestly, it's difficult. We fence our team events right after we fence our individual events, so we spend the first day competing against everyone on our team. A lot of the time we’ll fence each other or something will happen where we draw each other. Then the very next day, we're sitting on a team together and we have to align ourselves to make this one team goal more important. It's difficult in the sense that we are a single sport in every aspect, except the fact that we're trying to work together in this larger goal. So it's [hard], but it's something that takes time and as you grow older with the guys that you're on the team with, and as you grow closer with them, it gets easier and easier. 

MP: How did you choose foil for your technique? Did you ever try out others?

RI: I started in foil—when I walked in the club, they put a foil in my hand and they were like, “This is the one you should start with: the most technical.” And then I got older with it and I kept doing it. I tried saber and I tried epee once or twice. But […] I guess you could say that I just kinda had it put it in my hand and I felt comfortable. I never wanted to switch [and] I never had a desire to do anything else.

race imboden, fencing, olympicsPhoto Credit: Rag & Bone/Andreas Laszlo Konrath

MP: You also teach fencing; where do you teach and how do you like it?

RI: I love it! I teach through my old high school—it's a private school on the Upper West Side called Dwight, and I go back there and teach little kids, like, third-graders. [...] It’s really great. I think you learn so much from trying to teach other people the sport and through kind of committing to your sport in that way. Because, the sport’s given so much to me—it’s my entire life—and to give back to it, to help it grow, I think is a big part of being a fencer—of being any kind of athlete. And if I can pass it on to other kids and help them realize their passion for it, that makes me really happy. 

MP: Fencing definitely sounds like a full-time job; do you ever find time off?

RI: We have our off-season, which is a month almost after World [Cup], but then you start physical preparation right away after that, and then you dive right into the season. I chose to do it professionally like this, because it’s all I wanted to do and it took me a long time to build up to where I'm at now. But now I feel like I have a really […] great team. 

MP: How do you find time to have a personal life though?

RI: I just started dating another fencer recently. She's on the Hungarian saber team, her name’s Kata [Várhelyi], and she’s the first fencing girl I've ever dated. [...] It's nice to have someone who understands the ins-and-outs of traveling and being on a team. It was [long distance] for a little bit. She moved to New York, we live together, and she’s going back and forth though, because she still goes there for training camps and stuff. So she's away right now, and she'll be away probably until about when World Champ; I'll see her the first time in, like, three months. 

race imboden, fencing, olympics Photo Credit: Franck Foucha Master de Fleuret 2015

MP: Back to the Olympics; I know a lot of hijinks go on in the Olympic Village, but what is it like to live so closely with so many athletes whom you may be competing against? Is it ever awkward?

RI: We all understand that that’s our job to be there. You see it as work and if you can't separate yourself from being on-the-strip and off-the-strip, then you're not going to have any friends. So we're all really good at doing our thing while were out there, and then separating ourselves from it […], and I would say we’re all pretty close when we’re out of the competition. 

The funniest thing about the Olympic Village is that everything is so tense for the first couple of weeks, because everyone's competing; there's no one who's done. And then you slowly start to see a trickle of people [and] all of the sudden there's people hanging around outside and riding bikes around and everyone's kind of boozed up afterwards, and it's just, you know, a big party. So it's funny to see it completely shift from everyone [with their] heads down—going to get food and going to do their routine, getting ready for the competition—to just being relaxed and being a spectator.

race imboden, fencing, olympics Photo Credit: Loran Dherines Master de Fleuret 2015

MP: Fencing isn’t as well-known in the United States as it is in Europe, but there always seems to be a tie-in regarding the media and what’s going on in television and film (especially in regards to films like The Princess Bride and the Star Wars franchise); do you see fencing making more of a comeback of late?

RI: Oh, yeah, absolutely! I think the interesting thing is that we’re doing better in fencing as a country, so before when you saw something on television—and for me, I was playing with Star Wars stuff—we didn't have those athletes coming up at that point. They were doing so well internationally, and it just wasn’t as cool [in the U.S.]. I think the combination of social media and people being able to present themselves, and athletes from smaller sports being able to present themselves, is doing wonders for the sport. I think we’ll definitely I see a boost with some kids getting into it from Star Wars and I have no problem jumping on board with that.

Actually, strangely enough—you'll be the first person I told this to—but I did a casting for Star Wars. I asked to come in [for] try-outs to do a role. [Laughs]

MP: How did it go?

RI: It was fine! It was my first time—obviously I’m not doing the Star Wars movie—but I kinda just went in for fun and to be able to go and it was great, it was a lot of fun.

MP: Are you interested in pursuing film in the future? As an actor or a consultant?

RI: There's a big difference between theatrical fencing and real fencing. But I mean, […] I might go into cinema after my career is done, but that's a long way off. I think I would rather be an athlete than an actor.

race imboden, fencing, olympicsPhoto Credit: Race Imboden

MP: How long does a professional fencing career usually last?

RI: It can go pretty long. I would say the interesting thing about it is you hit your prime usually in your […] mid-20s/early 30s. Even in most sports—other than gymnastics—that's kind of the nice area where our body is able to finally stop growing and stop adjusting and you're really settled into your prime. So it's about late 20s and early 30s. But some fencers go on, […] there are a couple people on the circuit who've been going for a really long time, and obviously they are the exceptions.

MP: You’re also a model; how did that happen and how in the world do you find time for that?

RI: We had a really snazzy, little Ralph Lauren suit for opening ceremony, and I guess I got on television a few times, and someone saw me on television, and the next thing I knew I had some calls and messages from this modeling agency. I kind of blew it off until after the games. I got back and I was like, "Okay, I'll look into it.” And, you know, three weeks later, I was walking runways. It was a shock for me. I didn't expect that to happen at all.

MP: How would you describe your personal style? It definitely seems like a throwback to the golden era of Hollywood with some classic English countryside thrown in.

RI: That’s it! I would love to pretend that I’m that good, that I could be described as that, but I would say that 90 percent of the time I’m in sports clothes […]. I've always loved old British gent fashion, like Prince Charles—who I think is the coolest guy ever; how can you be cooler than British royalty? It's very hard to do. But yes, how they dress is awesome. If I could, I would wear suits all the time.

race imboden, fencing, olympicsPhoto Credit: Rag & Bone/Andreas Laszlo Konrath

MP: In the 2012 Olympics you were eliminated by Andrea Baldini, but now you’re ranked higher than him, correct? Was there anything in particular that you took from that experience?

RI: I am! I actually hadn’t even thought about that! I think that it's less about that fight, than my whole experience at the games. I think you try so hard to prepare yourself for the games, and then you get there and all of a sudden it just happens and it's over in a flash. Suddenly it’s like, “Oh, we were one shot from a team medal.” 

We were all young guys. We were all expecting the world and suddenly it was done, and […] you have to pull yourself back and really take a look at what you're doing. I look [at] myself now as a 22-year-old and look at myself then as a 19-year-old, and go, “I was such a young kid.” I would actually be honest and say that I wasn't prepared. I was amped, I was excited to be there and I put everything into it, but the training I'm doing now and the commitment I have to the sport now is obviously different then when [I was] a high school kid. [...] Now I’ve been on the circuit, now people know who I am. [I'm] a different fencer. And I'm older and I'm more mature in a lot of ways—I can't believe I'm saying that line, everybody would laugh at me—but I am mentally and physically a different person than I was in 2012.

MP: Do you feel more pressure this time because more attention is directed at you? You’re called the “Face of Fencing" after all...

RI: Yeah, it’s different. I prefer that. For me, being called the “Face of Fencing” or being the guy with the pressure on him means that you're consistent. It means that you’re doing something right in order to have that pressure on you. Having no pressure is a luxury, but at the same time it means that you're not that guy, and […] I would much rather be the guy with the pressure on him than the guy without any at all.

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