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|The silver-medalist fencer is a former Teach for America worker.|
This is an extended interview from the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to the Mag today!
Why did you decide to pose for the Body Issue?
TM: People don't realize how athletic fencers are. There's a misconception that we are not great athletes, so the opportunity to show the world we are was too good to pass up.
What makes fencing so athletic?
TM: When people watch fencing, the first thing they say is, "Wow, that's so fast!" because we move at an incredible rate. Blocking someone who is lunging at you with a saber requires incredibly fast movement.
Part of fencing is having a strong left leg. For righthanded fencers, the left leg is the pushing leg. The right side of a fencer's body is larger than the left side. It might not be evident in pictures, but we have really strong muscles in the right side, while the left side is a lot more explosive and filled with more fast-twitch muscles.
Many fencers can do full-out splits or come pretty close. I'm not super flexible, but some fencers are pretty amazing. Some can drop down into a full split to duck away, plus they are strong enough to pull themselves up without their hands. I'm amazed when I see it.
Why do you want to be the best?
TM: I love what I do. I love the sport of fencing. I'm constantly driven to push myself to my limit, to see how far I can take it. If you tell me something can't be done, I'm going to try to do it. When we heard people say, "The U.S. can never win a medal in fencing," my teammates were all of the same mindset: "Oh yeah? We are going to make it happen!" And we won a silver medal in Beijing -- the first medal in men's saber team since 1948. I've been fencing for 20 years, and I'm still finding ways to improve. I have always been a slow starter at things. Ever since I was young I had to fight to get good at stuff because things didn't come naturally to me. At a young age, I developed the attitude that if I wanted to be as good as other people, I had to work twice as hard and maybe more. I made my first Olympic team in 2004, at 26 years old; people are usually much younger.
The right side of a fencer's body is larger than the left side. We have really strong muscles in the right side, while the left side is more explosive and filled with fast-twitch muscles.”
Which muscles are essential for fencing?
TM: Seventy percent of our sport is lower body. You need a really strong lower body and really strong glutes because you are in a squat position the whole time. Our points are very short -- three to eight seconds. Basically it's a sprint, except you are in a crouched stance. And my fingers are strong on my right hand, and my forearm is very developed -- similar to a pitcher's. You have to send the saber at a really high speed toward the target, so you learn to move your right arm really quickly. Our sport is all about movement. Fencers have to move their legs the same as a boxer. You can have incredibly fast hands, but if you aren't in the right position, you can't execute and score the point. One time my coach asked me, "If you are at a party and you see a beautiful girl, what's the most important thing to pick her up?" "A line?" "No! You have to be the right distance from her." Meaning that even if you have the perfect move, if you are across the room, you have no chance. And in fencing, if you are going to do a move, even though it might not be a perfect move, you have a chance if you are attacking from the right distance.
What are some misconceptions about your sport?
TM: There just aren't many opportunities for people to see high-level fencing. If you went to a baseball game for the first time in your life, you wouldn't know what was going on, but you'd appreciate it after a while. It's the same with fencing; it's a matter of exposure. If people saw us a few times and got to know the athletes, they'd really enjoy it.
Describe your toughest day of training.
TM: My teammates and I have morning practice for two or three hours. Then I'll spend an hour in physical therapy stretching and working on flexibility. Then an hour of strength training doing squats, plyometrics and working fast-twitch muscles. Then afternoon practice that includes one-on-one work with the coach to perfect technique and tactics. We are going all day.
What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train anymore?
TM: I remind myself why I'm doing this. Training is similar to doing homework. No one really likes homework, and I don't like doing fencing footwork for an hour a day, but I know I'm trying to win an Olympic medal. Rewards come from the hard work you put in over time. That's what separates people who really achieve from people who don't: sacrifice and time even when it's not fun. So I visualize what I'm trying to achieve and remind myself why I am there. I do it almost daily. If you can't visualize it, you won't be able to do it. So I picture my teammates and me in London, on the podium with the national anthem playing.
When you hit the wall, how do you get through it?
TM: Recovery time is really important. In Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he writes about sharpening your saw. If you have a dull saw, you can't cut down a tree. You can keep sawing, but you won't get anywhere. Meaning that if you are super tired, you won't get anything out of your effort, so it's better to step back and rest. You have to take time to recover.
What is the one exercise you can't live without?
TM: Squats. The legs are so important, and you can do so many variations of squats -- it's not just about weights. You can work on explosiveness and flexibility, and you can increase your range of motion. It's the bread-and-butter exercise for anyone, including fencers.
A fencing stance is the reverse of boxing, but the principles are very similar: You measure distance from you opponent, you are constantly in balance and you can't expose yourself to your opponent.”
Was there any point when you thought this wasn't going to work out?
TM: I was a long shot. I wasn't recruited by a top school. I went to Brandeis University, which is D3. I was just a high school fencer who improved every year until I started beating D1 scholarship athletes and made first-team All-American senior year. So when I graduated from college, I thought, Why not go at this with everything I have? I had never been to a World Cup or traveled internationally, but I'm a hard worker, so I slowly climbed my way up.
Which body part do you work out for mostly aesthetic purposes?
TM: Probably abs. Abs are a big thing in our society. There is a lot of pressure: You are an athlete, you go to the Olympics, you see all of these ridiculous athletes and you want to feel like you can hold your own in that group.
Which other Olympic sport do you think you'd be most successful in?
TM: Bobsledders use their leg muscles to drive the sled, so it seems like that would be transferable. Or a martial arts sport because of my lower body strength and quick reaction time. A fencing stance is the reverse of boxing, but the principles are very similar: You measure distance from you opponent, you are constantly in balance and you can't expose yourself to your opponent.
In which sport would you embarrass yourself?
TM: I'm pretty awful at soccer. I'm the guy kicking someone in the leg or wandering around not understanding the rules. But I would be most mortified of diving off a high platform. I can't imagine standing up that high and performing a dive with pinpoint precision.
What characteristic of your body would surprise us?
TM: Fencers have this weird muscle between their thumbs and forefingers. If you squeeze your thumb next to your pointer, you might notice it. We have a huge muscle there -- probably 10 times larger than anyone else's. It's just from holding the saber with two fingers. It's kind of bizarre. Unfortunately it isn't useful for anything but fencing.
What's the biggest challenge you face with your body?
TM: I get stiff and tight from the amount I train. That leads to injuries and pulled muscles, so it's a constant battle to stay flexible and loose. You can have a lot of muscle, but if you aren't flexible, you can't use what you have, so I'm constantly trying to stay fluid. I stretch 30 to 40 minutes a day.
What are you looking forward to once London is over?
TM: Just spending time with friends and family. When you do something like this, you sacrifice a lot. I've missed so many of my friends' weddings, and when my friends go out, I can't; I have to sleep. Four years go by quickly when you're living this monastic life training and traveling and seeing just a few people. I'm fortunate to have friends and family who understand, but a lot of the time you just can't be there. But I love fencing, and I'm trying to accomplish something big, so it's part of the process.
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