Olympic Fencer Race Imboden on Pressure, Purpose and Protest

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By Jessica Schiffer

Fencer Race Imboden is taking a much-needed break when he Zooms in from Guadeloupe, where he and his girlfriend (and fellow fencer) Ysaora Thibus are vacationing after the longest Olympic training period in recent history. On the heels of the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where he won a bronze medal in the men’s foil competition and protested the International Olympic Committee’s ban on political gestures with an X drawn on his hand to show solidarity with the oppressed, Imboden is reflecting on what he calls the loneliest Olympics Games to date (a fencer for most of his life, the 28-year-old first went to the games in 2012).

“The road up to it was so lonely, we were separated from everyone,” he says, noting that he was separated from his girlfriend, who was restricted to training in France, and his family. “Usually, as the Games get closer, it revs your engine – it’s euphoric and you are so in it, but this time, the extra year with so much going on in the world made it hard to maintain that focus.” Once he got to Tokyo, where the village was abnormally empty, the usual camaraderie and celebration of the Olympics were replaced with an eerie quiet. 

“It was a very stark Olympics, our families weren’t with us, and the stadiums were empty,” he explains. “I think that was hard on all of us and you saw people like Simone [Biles], who is an incredible champion, struggling with it.”

For Imboden, who is ranked 4th in both the U.S. and the World for men’s foil fencing, the experience served as another reminder that there is more to life than the Games. “The Olympics aren't necessarily as life-changing as [people sometimes] think they are,” he says. Though fencing continues to be a central part of his life, he’s expanded his focus into storytelling across different mediums: he recently directed a short for Reigning Champ and is the sports editor for the culture publication Cero Magazine. No stranger to protest or speaking up for what’s right, Imboden is also focused on social justice work, sitting on the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice and the Everytown for Gun Safety Athlete Council.

We caught up with Imboden to talk about getting through the weirdest Olympics in history, how he handles the pressures of being an Olympic athlete, and his thoughts on the dated rules set by the IOC.

How did you first get into fencing?

One day I was in a park in Atlanta playing with a toy lightsaber, and someone came up to my parents and suggested that I take up fencing. I took a few lessons there and then when we moved to New York, I joined a fencing club. I had a fascination with anything involving swordplay from a young age – I grew up on Samurai stories and Star Wars. I had a lot of fun with it, so when someone mentioned that I could do it as a sport, it was exactly what you want to hear as a kid. 

When did you realize that it would essentially become your life?

It happened progressively. I played a lot of sports at first, I played soccer, I was skating, and dabbling in all these different activities, but eventually, fencing started to swallow up all of my time. Funnily enough, it didn't come too easily to me at first. Fencing is very foreign, there is nothing like it – you go into a fencing club, and there are old Russian coaches around, and it feels very strange. It was very unfamiliar but also fascinating and, as I got older, it gathered my interest most because there was so much to learn. It wasn't so much about competing and trying to be the best in my little pocket of Brooklyn, it was more about time spent in the club learning new moves and positions, studying discipline, and then practicing for so much longer than any other sport. I think that's the thing that I fell in love with. 

You’ve spoken before about the mental strength and discipline that it takes to be good at fencing. How do you hone something like that? 

A lot of it comes from trial and error. As a kid, I was always crying after matches – I really wanted to win, and it was always important for me to be competitive. I wanted to be in those spaces, but it was hard. I remember having one coach that finally gave me free rein and told me that I could fence the way I wanted to fence and that it didn't have to be so strict and technical. That mentality is what has taken me to the next level and allowed me to progress so far. 

Do you think that focusing too much on winning can hurt an athlete?

Absolutely. They say that the thing that you chase is always the thing that gets further and further away. I think there have been parts of my career where I have been so focused [on winning] and put the blinders on so much that that lack of balance has hurt me in the long run. There's an old quote from the Samurai that says, "the easiest way to beat your component is to outlast them." I think that [is also true of] athletes’ careers. There are people that make it and continue on and that comes from a mix of focus, luck, having family support, and sheer belief [in yourself]. That stuff is constantly changing in your life, so trying to find a good balance is one of the main things athletes have to do. 

As you have gotten more and more successful, how have you handled the pressure to live up to that success?

I think it comes from experience. You believe that you are ready for your first Olympic Games, and you show up, and it’s daunting. You believe that you are ready to have your first World Cup win, and then you win one, and then you want to win the next one, and it’s hard. You are constantly learning to carry the weight of these pressures and live up to some of them and not succeed in others. Essentially those failures, and learning from those failures, is what allows you to continue and to become better. It’s also about learning what your strengths and weaknesses are, as well as maturity: we are kids for a lot of our careers. You think that by 21 or 22, when you’re achieving things that you have always dreamed of, like going to the Olympics, that you’ve become a man, but what you realize looking back on your career is like, "man, I was such a kid. I didn't prepare the way that I would now. I wasn't as disciplined in these sections. Maybe I had success, but it didn't come from what I thought it did." Getting to know yourself better, reflecting on your skills and who you are as a person, and constantly trying to grow can help you deal with the pressure.

Recently, we have seen more Olympians speak out about the impact of the Games on their mental health and overall well-being. What do you think has shifted that narrative over the last few years, so people feel more comfortable opening up about it?

I think it has always been there but now we’ve seen some of these massive celebrity athletes speak up. If you had seen athletes from other sports that weren't as well-known speak up, there wouldn't have been the same recognition. There's a difference between having a really huge fan base that is loving and loyal to you and just being a niche person in sports. There are a lot of sports where that same attitude would bring you ridicule, or your coaches would drop you, or you wouldn't get selected for a team. Someone like Simone or Naomi [speaking out] is so powerful because they are the very best, and it’s unquestionable. On top of that, you have them saying, "look, we are weak as well," and that’s not what we’ve learned to see from champions, especially in the US. There's this belief around sports that is like, the hardest working, the first one in and last one out, those are the people that succeed, and that is just not true. 

The Games were also kicked off with a lot of controversy surrounding the rulings against Black female athletes. As viewers, we were wondering if we should even be watching the Games, but how did that impact you?

To make no consideration, no changes, at a time when there was the largest call for change we’ve ever seen [with BLM], I think they just wanted to wait for it to fizzle out and, unfortunately, it did. We saw very little protest this year, very few athletes were willing to speak up because they were worried about people’s reactions. The Olympic Games is based on this idea that we are champions, that we are able to achieve this thing that only .0001% of people can and, yet, we come home, and nothing changes. We still go back to the same communities with the same issues. 

There is a common depression that comes after the Olympic Games. My first time, when I was a kid coming back, I was like, "Oh, I am an Olympian now! I got the Olympic Rings tattooed on me. My life is changing. People talk to me differently." And then you go your second time, and you get a medal, and it's what you dreamed of, but when you come home, it doesn't feel the same. The medal goes away, and the only time I really take it out is to show it to kids to help them see that a lot of doors can be opened by partaking in sports. But, that's not what the IOC does: they hold a competition, and don’t give people the right to speak up at that competition or allow them to wear non-IOC sponsors. Everyone is getting paid for everything except the athletes. We get outraged by the NCAA [for similar treatment], and yet we're fine with the IOC? It's very clear that the Games are not for us, they’re for the IOC to make money off of us. It's a reflection of a lot of the sports organizations that we have seen, whether it’s the NFL or the NBA – there is a reason that athletes are speaking up. We are in an organization and people think that we are the leaders of it, that we have all this power, but we don’t, and that goes for even the most successful athletes in the world. We are all in one place, not getting paid [our worth], to be part of the biggest show on earth. 

You mentioned the fear that other athletes feel when it comes to speaking out. What has allowed you to make it such a large part of your platform as an athlete?

I don’t think I have necessarily made it a part of my platform, but hopefully, just something that’s part of who I am. Having a platform has given me a chance to vocalize and influence people. I think that is what athletes do, we lead by example. We lead on the field, and we try to be good people off the field because how we act can influence people who are fans. I also think that not having that fear, especially in my position as a white guy who fences, is important because if my only repercussion is that I have my sport taken away from me, when people are being shot by police, being labeled a certain way, not getting jobs, not getting equal pay, it is a very little price for me to pay. 

Do you think we will see that evolve to a point where a lot more athletes are speaking up? Do you have faith that these organizations will change their ways?

I actually think it will be a lot harder to see actual change than I thought it was going into this. I was naive, which comes from my privilege. I think that anybody who has tried to have a voice in this last decade, especially people who haven't been directly affected [by oppression], we’re learning to use our voices and seeing for the first time where it does and doesn’t go. I’m part of Everytown’s Athlete Council, I joined the Olympic social justice groups, and I’ve spoken with people at different foundations and called people for advice, only to realize how quickly people dampen what you're really trying to do and how muddled it gets. We have this social justice council, but Rule 50 still exists. So, where do we go from here? The reality is that the organizations have the power and the only way that athletes can really make an impact is by not participating and demanding better pay or change, but a lot of athletes can’t afford to protest because we only have one opportunity every four years to [succeed at our sport], and it is a lot to give up. 

You mentioned the depression that some athletes can experience when they're coming off the games. Have you ever experienced that?

When the Games got postponed, and I had committed so much time already, I started to feel depressed, wondering "What am I doing?" The Olympics are on a 4-year cycle, and once that was snatched away, I lost a sense of structure. I am in this race to get to the Olympics, and if I get there, my life [feels like it] has a purpose, so when that got pushed, my girlfriend and I were flip-flopping on what it means to be a fencer: Is it really worth it to do this sport that we love and are very good at? What happens if we win the Olympic Games? It is not like we are high-level celebrities, yet we are committed to this like we are NFL quarterbacks. It's a strange game to play, and you are playing it for this honor to come home and hold a medal and show it to your family, to feel successful. But the truth is that achievement [doesn’t always satisfy you in the way you expect] and when that journey is zapped away, and the goal is zapped away, I think it leaves many people feeling like they wasted their life. The same way that, when you come home after the competition and don't have something in your hand, you wonder why you did it. There are a lot of athletes that are so deserving of winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games that trip, get injured the day before, or fail a Covid test. You think you are prepared, and then life throws these curveballs at you, and it’s hard – it’s hard to understand how on that one day where you had planned everything to go right, it didn't. Even as bronze or silver medalists, we are having that conversation weeks and weeks after the games. It just comes back, you're sitting around, enjoying the beach with your family, but there's a part of you thinking, "Man, if only I had done it this way, maybe my life would be different, maybe I would have had a little more money in my bank or some sponsor would have picked me up."  We always feel like there is somebody out there with more. You win one gold medal, but there is somebody who won two. That has been ingrained in us but it's a reality that needs to be checked.

We all constantly compare ourselves to other people and think someone has it better, even though there’s always a more complex reality. How do you reconcile that or try to remind yourself of that truth? 

I go to therapy. I have a sports psychologist who also acts as a regular psychologist. I think I tricked myself into going to therapy by saying it was for sports. There was a voice inside of me that was like, "as long as it’s to win, it is okay," but then it broke down that boundary for me. A lot of our conversations are not about sports: they are about life and dealing with things that allow me to get to a place where I can compete well. I think that the truth of the matter is that there is a part of us that – and this is going to sound really dark – gives up little pieces of ourselves every time we go to these games, and we never get them back. Whether you win or lose, you give something up when you go to the Olympics. It's a lot of time and effort. As a kid, I told myself, "Oh, that's ridiculous. How can Andre Agassi say he hates tennis?” Because I wanted to be a champion so bad, but then you achieve it, and you aren't really sure what to do with it. I am still figuring that out but I find a lot of solace in the people I love and in my family. Last season I was struggling and I asked my parents to come out to a training center, which I have never done in my life – I always wanted to be alone. I told them, "I can't be alone right now and I need you to come out. It's been a really tough year, and I need someone here who understands me beyond this sports thing."

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414

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