Drenched with sweat and nearly out of breath, exhilarated American fencer Gerek Meinhardt tried to explain how his men’s foil team won an Olympic medal for the first time in 84 years.
“We feel like we belong here,” Meinhardt said.
Before Meinhardt could utter another word, teammate Alexander Massialas cut him off.
“We don’t think. We do belong here,” Massialas said.
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It was hard to argue otherwise after the Americans won bronze Friday, the third medal for the U.S. men at the Rio de Janeiro Games. Massialas and Meinhardt led the way as the U.S. defeated Italy 45-31 following a tough loss in the semifinals.
Penn State graduate Miles Chamley-Watson also played a key role in the win in earning the first medal of the Rio games for a former Nittany Lion.
Russia won the men’s team foil gold, its sixth fencing medal of the Rio Games. Russia rallied from five points down to beat France 45-41, capturing its third gold medal in fencing so far.
Massialas and Meinhardt dominated the Italians with a three-match stretch in which they outscored their opponents 20-1. The win was especially sweet for Massialas, whose poor performance in the final moments of his previous match kept his team from fighting for a gold medal.
The U.S. began its day with a 45-37 win over Egypt, putting it just a win over Russia away from the final.
The Americans had the Russians right where they wanted them, too, up 40-39 and with the top-ranked Massialas set to close the bout.
But Alexey Cheremisinov stunned Massialas with a series of quick blows, and the U.S. fell 45-41.
“I only have my teammates to thank because I was down after that match. It was probably one of the worst team matches I’ve ever fenced and I felt like I let my whole team down,” Massialas said. “There were no droopy heads except for mine. All they did was try to pick my head up.”
With roughly four hours to kill between bouts, the Americans went on their phones and discovered what they called a series of “mean tweets” about their performance against the Russians.
Instead of bringing them down, Chamley-Watson said the criticism brought the team closer together — even joking that “the haters were motivators.”
The effort that ultimately led to a medal truly was a team effort.
Chamley-Watson fenced about as well as he ever has in the preliminary rounds. Race Imboden’s only bout in the Olympics was a win over individual champion Daniele Garozzo in the bronze medal match, and Meinhardt outscored his opponents 13-1 in his final two bouts.
And it was only fitting that Massialas, just hours after losing to Russia, would score the 45th and final point.
“It’s more than a medal at this point,” Massialas said.
While the U.S. women’s fencing team broke through in 2004 when Mariel Zagunis won the first of two individual gold medals, the men had yet to do so until the Rio Olympics. The foil team finished fourth four years ago at the London Games.
This time, the Americans were able to finally celebrate.
They made the most of it, too, jumping into the stands and wrapping themselves in American flags on the piste.
“For the first time, the U.S.A. is a powerhouse in fencing. It never has been before,” Imboden said. “For us to come together and have each other’s backs, it just proves that it’s not a fluke anymore.”