San Francisco teen Alexander Massialas makes mark on U.S. Olympic fencing team

Posted by the San Jose Mercury News June 21, 2012.

By David Pollack

SAN FRANCISCO — Alexander Massialas’s journey to the 2012 London Olympics as the youngest member of the U.S. men’s fencing team did not begin watching Hollywood swashbucklers.

“I was a little kid and people would say ‘Zorro’ or ‘Princess Bride?’ Massialas said. “And I would be, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

Pop culture didn’t draw the 18-year-old to fencing. Credit for that goes to both genetics and his San Francisco surroundings as the son of a two-time Olympian in the sport.

“My dad never actually pushed me to start fencing,” he said, “but my earliest memories are from walking around the house and seeing the Olympic rings and my dad’s trophies and my dad’s old foils. You get immersed in it.”

And that is fine with Greg Massialas, who is in London both as Alexander’s father and coach of the U.S. men’s foil team.

The elder Massialas runs the Halberstadt Fencers Club out of a former auto repair shop in San Francisco’s Mission District. He has coached his son since second grade — starting him a year late as if to be certain the choice was Alexander’s.

The payoff goes beyond London. This fall, Alexander enrolls at Stanford on a four-year fencing scholarship — supporting evidence for his father’s contention that fencing success is often matched by academic success.

“Fencing requires a lot of athleticism,” he said, “but also in combination with high intelligence, being able to think quickly.”

Alexander refines the concept.

“You don’t over-think the game, you don’t under-think the game,” he said. “You just find that perfect spot where you’re thinking one step ahead of your opponent.”

To bolster his case, Greg Massialas notes that the top collegiate fencing programs are in the Ivy League as well as schools such as Stanford and Duke.

Fencing consists of three separate events — foil, epee (pronounced eh-PAY) and saber, all played out on a wooden strip similar to a shortened, slightly wider bowling alley. Each event has its own weapon, scoring system and designated target area.

Matches are divided into three periods — three-minute rounds separated by a minute of rest. The first person to record 15 touches wins and if neither reaches 15, the one ahead wins; ties are resolved in sudden-death.

Alexander competes in foil, and London is far from his first international stage. He participated in more than a dozen events over the past year alone in countries such as Japan, South Korea, Cuba, France and Italy. An arrangement with the private Drew School he attends near his lower Pacific Heights home enabled him to maintain grades strong enough to impress Stanford.

Qualifying for the Olympics has always been part of the dream, but Alexander said he did not expect to be going in 2012.

At 6-foot-3, Alexander has a height and reach advantage over many opponents that works in his favor. But his size can be a drawback, too.

“It also makes your target area bigger,” said Alexander, who is not considered a medal favorite.

There likely will be another Olympic fencer in the household as well. Alexander’s sister Sabrina is only 15, but came close to qualifying for the women’s foil team in London. That has her well-positioned for the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro.

The Massialas children grew up in a fencing household, but their 56-year-old father practically stumbled into the sport. Born in Greece, he was 10 when his family moved to the United States. An uncle was a professor at the University of Michigan, so the family ended up in Ann Arbor, where Greg became a competitive swimmer.

When his father suggested he find another sport during the off-season, Greg discovered a fencing class offered by the Ann Arbor recreation department. Things took off from there.

After graduating from Cornell, Massialas moved to the Bay Area to train with the late Mike D’Asaro, an instructor at San Jose State who was the U.S. men’s fencing coach at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

His work paid off as Massialas qualified for the next three Olympics. He never earned a medal, but felt he lost his best shot when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow games because the Soviets invaded of Afghanistan.

“I had won a couple tournaments and was in my prime,” said Massialas, who was 24 at the time. “But that’s life and we go on.”

Now the next generation in the Massialas family gets his chance to reach the podium.