June 5, 2014
Pete LaFleur –
Transformative athletes, by definition, don’t come along all that often. That rarity is what makes them so unique, so truly impactful. They are game-changers, and all who come in contact with them can sense that special quality.
Two-time Olympic fencer Gerek Meinhardt is just such a game-changer, a trailblazer of the highest degree. The 2013 Notre Dame graduate and current MBA student recently completed his stellar collegiate career by winning the NCAA men’s foil title for the second time.
A fencing prodigy when he qualified for the 2008 Olympics as a 17-year-old, Meinhardt ascended to the world’s No. 1 men’s foil ranking earlier this year. Only four previous American fencers – including former Notre Dame women’s sabre standout Mariel Zagunis – have achieved that rarified air. In terms of being world No. 1 while still competing on the collegiate level, well, that’s happened only once: Meinhardt, in January of 2014.
Meinhardt’s transcendental impact on American fencing has resonated on three levels: initially in San Francisco at his home club, the Massialas Foundation; then, with Notre Dame, in particular the men’s foil squad; and as captain of the U.S. men’s foil team, which stands to be a medal favorite at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
A deconstruction of Meinhardt’s fencing life reveals an excellence well beyond athletic achievements.
“Around the fencing circles, everybody will speak about how humble, graceful, honest and honorable Gerek is,” says Notre Dame associate head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia, the program’s highly-regarded foil coach.
“Gerek is not afraid to show love for friends, teammates and coaches. In return, people don’t simply like Gerek, they love him – that is really special and rare.”
Notre Dame recognized Meinhardt’s all-around excellence at its recent 2013-14 athletics awards banquet. The veteran fencer was one of seven student-athletes to receive the prestigious Byron V. Kanaley Award, recognizing those “most exemplary as students and leaders.” Currently a candidate for Academic All-America honors and an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship, Meinhardt graduated cum laude, with a degree in information technology management last May. He completed his first year of MBA studies with a 3.83 cumulative grade-point average to end the 2013-14 schoolyear.
The 23-year-old Meinhardt – only the second men’s fencer to receive the Kanaley Award during the past 17 years – has found the inner discipline to maintain his multi-dimensional excellence, despite an exhaustive travel schedule that easily could have derailed his academic pursuits and strong interpersonal relationships.
Case in point: Meinhardt was unable to accept the Kanaley Award in person. Trust us, there was a good reason. On back-to-back weekends in late April/early May, he was fencing in Asia at World Cup-level events, first in Seoul and then Tokyo.
So, that makes sense, right? Meinhardt – whose prerecorded video comments were aired for the banquet crowd – was halfway around the world throughout that 10-day period, nowhere near Notre Dame.
Well, that’s partly true.
Meinhardt actually flew back from Seoul to South Bend in order to take a couple MBA finals – then jetted all the way back to Tokyo, where, by the way, he impressively won that Grand Prix. His total time back in the South Bend area was less than 60 hours (an intense, pressure-packed “stopover,” to be sure), before boomeranging all the way back to Asia.
The direct flight from Seoul to Tokyo is 782 miles. Meinhardt took the considerably less direct route, with that “minor stop” in northern Indiana. His elongated journey from Korea to Japan spanned nearly 13,000 miles, with a couple MBA finals in between to add further mental fatigue.
“Gerek did that same crazy travel last year: Seoul to Notre Dame, then to Tokyo,” notes Kvaratskhelia. “A year ago, he was runner-up in Tokyo, so it worked out both times. It takes a special individual to pull that off.”
As he enters the next stage in his fencing career, Meinhardt’s place in history is already secure. For nearly 10 years now, he has ranked as one of the world’s top foilists for his age group, continually evolving to the cusp of historical greatness.
“Gerek’s early domination was due largely to speed, agility and working angles all over the strip,” explains Kvaratskhelia. “Now, he has the full package, a growing arsenal of classical techniques to go along with his unparalleled physical skillset and lightning-quick decision making. Every step in becoming a complete fencer has been accelerated by Gerek’s tremendous emotional maturity.”
An in-depth career retrospective follows below, illuminating Meinhardt’s three-tiered impact – on the club, collegiate and national-team level – that has helped to forever change the face of American fencing.
At first glance, Gerek Meinhardt’s parents are a unique pairing: 6-foot-8 Kurt towers over 5-foot-3 Jane, an Asian-American who spent her childhood in Taiwan. Gerek, at six-foot, naturally fell somewhere in the middle.
Despite their considerable height difference, Kurt and Jane Meinhardt always have seen eye-to-eye when it comes to supporting their children’s endeavors. The longtime Bay Area residents and University of California graduates have spent their professional lives as architects, designing physical structures with the same care that they used while parenting Gerek and older sister Katie.
“Gerek’s parents have committed significantly to his fencing and are delightful people. That has rubbed off on Gerek’s easy-going, likable personality,” notes Kvaratskhelia.
When young Gerek first envisioned his future as an elite athlete, it involved basketball, especially when factoring in his sister’s excellence on the hardwood. Six years older than her tag-along brother, Katie Meinhardt was a star basketball player at Boston University and still holds the BU record for points in a game (43).
Little brother Gerek spent a good chunk of his childhood hanging around basketball gyms, often helping rebound for his sister or enduring her day-long AAU tournaments. Years later, Katie gladly took her turn as supportive sibling.
“It has been really fun to reciprocate and watch Gerek develop as an athlete,” says Katie Meinhardt, who even has coordinated personal vacations around her brother’s tournaments.
“I was struck by Gerek’s knack for fencing and how quickly he improved. I came from a team sport where you can have an off day but the team still wins, so I was impressed with Gerek’s ability to excel in such a mentally and physically challenging individual sport.”
When his sister headed off to college, 12-year-old Gerek still was at an impressionable age. “Gerek saw what it took for Katie to excel, the personal sacrifices to balance athletics with academics. He also saw the opportunities afforded through athletics,” observes Kurt Meinhardt.
From a young age, brother looked up to sister as his role model. “Katie was a great example of determination and resiliency,” says an appreciative Gerek. “She says jokingly that she is my number-one `stalker,’ which exemplifies her endless support. I wouldn’t be where I am without that support and our extremely close relationship.”
From Piano to the (Fencing) Piste
During his elementary and middle schools days at Saints Peter & Paul Salesian School, Meinhardt played basketball, baseball and soccer. His other pursuits included piano lessons, beginning at the age of eight.
A couple decades earlier, on the other side of the world, the future Jane Meinhardt and Vivian Massialas were primary school classmates in Taiwan. Both women relocated to America, settling in San Francisco, and Vivian later became Gerek’s piano teacher, guiding him in Friday afternoon lessons.
As part of San Francisco’s long-range bid to be the 2012 Olympic host city, Greg Massialas, Vivian’s husband, founded a youth fencing program in 1998. His novice fencers became living examples of the “Bridge to the Future” theme championed by the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee.
The club, dubbed the Massialas Foundation at Halberstadt, leased space and time in an already existing fencing facility, near the intersection of South Van Ness and 17th in San Francisco’s Mission District. That area does not exactly scream “Beware, world-class athletes at work.” The Halberstadt building sits next to an auto shop on one side, an apartment complex on the other. Inside, the floors are wooden and the ceilings are high – matching the lofty aspirations of the Massialas Foundation’s founding father.
Less than two years into its existence, the club added the boy who ultimately would lead an American renaissance in men’s foil fencing. “From the start, Gerek was my hardest-working and most focused fencer,” notes Massialas, who earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic men’s foil team in 1980, ’84 and ’88.
After piano lessons, Vivian Massialas often would drive Gerek and her own children Alexander and Sabrina to fencing practice. Gerek was very musical and would learn piano pieces mostly by ear, “so fencing turned out to be a nice way to blend his creative and athletic sides,” notes Jane Meinhardt.
The eager young fencer took an early interest in the Olympic Games. “I had mentioned the Olympics and Gerek asked if I could sign him up,” laughs coach Massialas. “He was only 10 but already had his eye on the Olympics. I told Gerek extensive effort and hard work go into becoming an Olympian. He obviously took that to heart.”
Meinhardt honed his craft at area Bay Cups, later competing around the country and worldwide, a couple years before he even obtained his driver’s permit. Massialas primarily coached foil, but that did not prevent go-getters such as Meinhardt from competing in epee and sabre as well.
“Greg loves coaching foil because it is the most fundamental weapon,” explains Meinhardt. “In foil, you hit with the tip of the blade, making it easier to move over to epee. You also learn right-of-way principles, similar to what goes into being a competent sabre fencer.”
Meinhardt’s first national title actually came in epee, at the Y12 nationals. Massialas typically would offer a few epee and sabre tips, but Meinhardt’s tremendous athleticism and instinctive competitiveness did the rest.
“Fencing was fencing and it’s always been fun for me, regardless of what weapon I might have been competing in,” adds Meinhardt.
Man with a Plan
Greg Massialas always has charted a clear path for his fencers. “When Gerek started, we would have never thought that he would go to multiple Olympics and be ranked No. 1 in the world while also working on his MBA at Notre Dame,” admits Kurt Meinhardt.
“For Greg, I’m sure it all was just part of the plan.”
Massialas Foundation product Doris Willette remembers Massialas predicting that his top 16-year-old fencer was going to be in the next Olympics. “Lo and behold, two years later, there Gerek was, fencing in the Olympics,” adds Willette.
“Greg has a great business mindset and is not afraid to make tough decisions. He is a strong and caring coach while guiding his fencers, and you trust him. Gerek and Greg obviously have been an amazing combination for 15 years.”
Massialas notes that Meinhardt’s “work ethic and focus on goals allowed him to reach our benchmarks way ahead of schedule. Since his parents were architects, they helped Gerek maintain such a clear drive and strong time management.”
At the time when Greg Massialas received a transformative referral from his wife, nobody in the fencing world had any clue who Gerek Meinhardt was. In less than 10 years, he would be competing in the Olympics Games and would emerge as a household name within the worldwide fencing subculture.
Growth of the M Team
One simple suggestion, from Vivian Massialas to Jane Meinhardt, ended up making all the difference: why not have Gerek join the fencing club? It was the first domino to fall, but a big one at that.
Meinhardt’s early club teammates included future collegiate All-Americans Alex Simmons (University of Pennsylvania) and Allison Henvick (Ohio State), plus other young foilists such as Emilio Zand, Anthony Vella and Brandon Glick. Alexander and Sabrina Massialas were several years younger but they quickly developed under their father’s tutelage, as did current Stanford senior Turner Caldwell (the 2012 NCAA runner-up).
This collection of young fencers, later known as the M Team, grew steadily in terms of quantity – but the growth in quality often was staggering, led by Meinhardt’s meteoric rise.
Bay Area kids from other clubs – such as Doris and David Willette, and Sam Perkins (all three ended up at Penn State) – became friends and respectful competitors with the M Team. Later, in the 2008 Olympic year, the east-bay Willette siblings migrated over to the Massialas Foundation, further strengthening an already strong club.
Starting in 2004, the International Olympic Committee decided that each Olympiad would feature a total of only 10 fencing competitions: all six weapons individually (three men’s, three women’s), but only four (rotating) team events. Men’s foil suffered the misfortune of not being a team event at the 2008 Olympiad. As the only American men’s foilist going to Beijing, Meinhardt did not have built-in, high-level training partners – a luxury he enjoyed four years later preparing for London. What he did have in 2008 was the benefit of the U.S. men’s foil coach tutoring him at the local club, and Massialas adopted some creative methods.
Meinhardt, then 17, trained against a pair of elite 13-year-olds: Nobuo Bravo and the coach’s son Alexander, a duo who six years later would join Meinhardt and Willette in the 2014 NCAA men’s foil medal round. Older fencers, such as future Yale All-American Shiv Kachru, also helped prepare their club teammate for his Olympic experience. Coach Massialas even set up a makeshift gauntlet to provide continuous bouting against a diversity of opponents.
“The fencers rotated in to face Gerek,” explains Massialas. “What we could not do with top international sparing partners, we could do with Gerek’s nonstop work ethic. He ended up placing 10th in Beijing – remarkable considering his age.”
Massialas instilled a code of not only “working hard in practice, but also working effectively as a group. Gerek was a great teammate, fencing everyone and always helping the group. Despite limited sparring partners, he always looked for ways to challenge himself.”
Four years later, the now-acclaimed fencing club at Van Ness and 17th was home base for three 2012 Olympians: Meinhardt, Doris Willette and Alexander Massialas. Plenty of others – David Willette, Caldwell, Bravo, even 15-year-old Sabrina Massialas – helped sharpen the skills of their Olympic teammates.
“We all trained together – myself and Sabrina, along with all those boys,” laughs Doris Willette, who teamed with current Notre Dame fencer Lee Kiefer plus Columbia University products Nicole Ross and Nzingha Prescod on the women’s foil team that placed sixth in London.
“It was inspiring to train at the club with such elite fencers. They push each other but also laugh together and don’t take everything so seriously, because when you do it all gets even harder. They are such a strong, cohesive group – it’s amazing they all came from our club.”
Meinhardt’s pre-Olympic preparation was slowed by a 2011 knee surgery, but he captained the 2012 U.S. Olympic men’s foil team that reached the bronze-medal match.
Fifteen years after first picking up a foil, Meinhardt has gone from Massialas Foundation poster child to living legend. There is a new generation of M Team youngsters, numbering more than 60, brimming with the promising talent and limitless ambition that propelled Meinhardt into fencing’s international consciousness.
“It’s quite a moment when Gerek comes back to the club,” adds coach Massialas. “Not only is he a legend who the kids look up to – but he is such a wonderful and caring person, giving kind words of support and advice to this next generation.”
Meinhardt was back at his hometown club in mid-May, but at its new, exclusive location in San Francisco’s Sunset District. The Massialas Fencing Center now operates out of its own impressive facility, situated on Taravel Street near the intersection with Sunset Boulevard, roughly two miles south of Golden Gate Park, with the Pacific Ocean a mile or so to the west.
During the May 18 opening-day dedication, Meinhardt and British Olympian James-Andrew Davis engaged in a fencing exhibition. Their bout formally christened the state-of-the-art facility, one which includes 16 imbedded electrical strips within an open floor plan, plus locker rooms, a kitchen area and more amenities befitting a club of such stature.
A sign on the wall reads: “From beginner to Olympian. Join the team.” Back in 1999, Meinhardt did indeed join the M Team. His accomplishments over the past 15 years – guided by the incomparable Greg Massialas – helped bring about the new facility, and an exciting new era for Massialas Foundation fencing.
Rising Up the Rankings
Meinhardt competed in his first national events before his 11th birthday, as a youth-10 and Y-12 competitor at the 2000 North American Cup in Colorado Springs. He soon rose to the top of the USFA national rankings, a position he has held virtually every year since 2002, spanning five age classifications.
The USFA’s top-ranked Y-12 foil fencer in 2002-03, Meinhardt already was 42nd on the cadet-level (u-17). He also was ranked as high as sixth in epee and won the Y-12 epee national title – a trivia footnote, representing his first national title of any kind. Meinhardt later was a four-time U.S. foil champ on the junior/U-20 level (2006-09) to go along with U.S. senior (overall) titles in 2007, ’08 and ’12.
Meinhardt embarked on his first international competition in November of 2004, placing sixth at a Junior World Cup in Madrid. Fourteen months later, it was his first senior World Cup: the Paris Grand Prix. During a busy 2005-06, Meinhardt ranked as high as eighth among all U.S. men’s foilists, reached the medal round at the Junior World Cup in Madrid, competed on the cadet/junior national teams at the World Championships in Korea – and even posted a top-eight finish at the senior Grand Prix in Cuba.
It all became complete in 2006-07, when the 16-year-old Meinhardt truly arrived on the international fencing scene, via the following accomplishments:
– First male fencer, in any weapon, to earn a spot on the U.S. senior, U-20 and U-17 national teams during the same season, in Belek, Turkey (cadet/jr.) and St. Petersburg, Russia (sr.)
– Youngest men’s foil national champion in U.S. history, outdueling 19-year-old Kurt Getz at the 2007 Nationals
– Simultaneously ranked No. 1 at the U.S. senior, junior and cadet levels
– Returned to medal round at the Junior World Cup in Madrid (where he won), adding silver-medal finishes in Slovakia and Germany
Shortly before he signed with Notre Dame, Meinhardt’s ascension was complete – as the nation’s No. 1-ranked men’s foilist. The 17-year-old ranked above the likes of 28-year-old veterans Jon Tiomkin and Jed Dupree, both 2004 Olympians. On a global scale, Meinhardt checked in at No. 2 in the FIE world u-20 rankings and held an overall world ranking of 18th, with the 17 fencers above him averaging 26 years of age.
Spanning the Globe
Prior to the 2004 Madrid Junior World Cup, Meinhardt had never competed internationally. Of course, he was only 14 at the time. Over the past 10 years, he has jet-setted around the globe at a dizzying pace, competing in these 26 countries (many multiple times):
– traditional European fencing nations Italy, France and Germany, plus Spain, Portugal and Austria
– Eastern Europe: Slovakia, Hungary, Russia and Azerbaijan
– Asia: China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore
– Egypt and Turkey … England and Northern Ireland
– the Americas: Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia
– even Scandinavia: Denmark
During the early days, Kurt Meinhardt often accompanied his son on long trips. That father-son bonding makes for lifelong memories, whether it be wandering through Germany’s elaborate holiday fairs, or seeking their favorite “go-to” foods – jamon serrano (dry-cured ham) in Spain, bratwurst and marzipan in Germany, gorgonzola cheese in Italy, Nutella crepes in France, and xiao-long-bao dumplings in China (anyone else suddenly get hungry?).
With an overly-stamped passport that resembles a child’s jam-packed PokÃƒÆ’Â©mon sticker collection, Meinhardt truly has become a young man of the world. Most of that travel in recent years has been done entirely on his own.
“The travel has forced me to become very task-oriented in all aspects of my life,” concedes Meinhardt. “Sometimes that involves sacrifices, but it’s obviously worth it.”
In mid-March, Meinhardt was competing at a World Cup in Italy. He departed his hotel at 3:00 a.m. and did not reach his South Bend apartment until 24 hours later. The very next evening, he was on the Notre Dame bus – heading to Ohio State for the NCAAs.
Massialas notes that the crazy travel easily can lead to burnout, but it’s a structure where Meinhardt has thrived: “Gerek had to manage his time while keeping his grades up to his own lofty standards. The travel demands and need for intense personal organization helped Gerek accomplish his amazing fencing career.”
Not in Kansas Anymore
Salina, Kansas – of all places – ended up being a pivotal stop in Meinhardt’s career, while attending camps at the Kanza Fencing Club. Little did Meinhardt know it at the time, but seven others associated with Kanza would become key figures in his collegiate life.
Kvaratskhelia, the current Notre Dame associate coach, shaped Kanza into one of the nation’s top foil centers. Originally from the Republic of Georgia, he had immigrated to the United States in 1994 and ultimately was hired by Dr. Merle “Boo” Hodges to coach the new Salina club, then known as Coyote Fencing.
While in Salina, Kvaratskhelia grew close to the Hodges family: Boo, wife Melissa and sons Teddy and Grant, who both later fenced for Notre Dame. Over those 10 years, four other Kanza Fencing participants also joined the Irish: Meinhardt, and the Kubik brothers (Mark, Steve and Nick) from San Antonio. While in Salina, Meinhardt even stayed with the Hodges family as their houseguest.
The former Kanza coach fondly remembers his early impressions of the foil prodigy. “I was struck by Gerek’s maturity and sense of accountability,” recalls Kvaratskhelia. “Most 14-year-olds don’t operate on that level. I told Gerek he was going to be something very special, due to his high personal character. I knew I was in the presence of greatness.”
Meinhardt and Kvaratskhelia also interacted at fencing camps in San Francisco and West Chester, N.Y., where Getz used to train, as did Meinhardt’s future Notre Dame teammate Zach Schirtz. It all was just the beginning of a great fencing partnership between the future Notre Dame associate coach and the foil prodigy.
Leaving the West Coast
Most interested observers assumed that Meinhardt would remain in the Bay Area, opting to sign at Stanford. As things turned out, Notre Dame was firmly in the mix and Meinhardt was interested in a campus visit. But during the fall of 2007, entrenched in Olympic qualifying, there were few scheduling windows.
During a three-day gap between Olympic qualifying, Meinhardt spent a couple September days at Notre Dame. He attended classes, met with professors, toured campus and became further acquainted with the fencing program. Things progressed quickly from there. A couple days after his visit, Meinhardt essentially made a verbal commitment to Notre Dame.
“Gerek’s life was constantly in motion, everything happening on the fly,” notes Kvaratskhelia. In fact, for the next six weeks, Notre Dame’s prized recruit was hopscotching around Europe, from one tournament to another.
Meinhardt was an accomplished student, having registered one of the highest SAT scores ever among fencing recruits at Notre Dame. His education had included two years at Lick-Wilmerding High School before travel demands required completing his studies via the University of Miami Online Global Academy.
During two years of “distance-study,” Meinhardt hunkered down – tackling AP and other college preparatory courses, all while averaging 15-20 days per month on the road. Yearning for daily interaction with kids his age, he often walked to Lick-Wilmerding during lunch breaks to catch up with friends, maybe even play some pick-up basketball.
“Gerek was very social, so he missed that camaraderie,” explains older sister Katie. “At Notre Dame, he was looking forward not only to the fencing and academic opportunities, but also the sense of community and school spirit Notre Dame is so well known for.”
When Meinhardt made the deal-clinching visit in September of 2007, the foil team already was stocked with faces familiar to him: Teddy Hodges, Mark and Steve Kubik, Schirtz – and, of course, their foil coach.
“I always had loved Gia as a friend and a coach, and I was attracted to becoming part of Notre Dame’s strong academic and athletic tradition,” says Meinhardt. “The veteran fencers told me how much they enjoyed NCAA competition and being part of a strong program like Notre Dame’s.”
The collaborative efforts of Massialas and Kvaratskhelia have proven to be a subtle but vital factor in Meinhardt’s recent success.
“You don’t take someone of Gerek’s caliber and change anything major,” notes the coach known simply as Gia. “I focused on cooperating with Greg Massialas to develop a training program that benefitted Gerek within the big picture.”
Meinhardt knew that attending college in northern Indiana – some 2,200 miles from his home club – would require a strong working relationship between the two coaches: “Greg is very passionate about fencing and cares greatly for his students, so it was going to be different not being under his tutelage. Things obviously turned out pretty well, a tribute to how well Greg and Gia worked together.”
Massialas is convinced that attending Notre Dame was the best choice, saying “Gia’s family-oriented approach and environment has allowed Gerek to blossom at Notre Dame.”
Meinhardt’s verbal commitment made both instantaneous and wide-reaching reverberations. Kvaratskhelia minces no words when assessing that impact.
“In one day, Gerek changed the culture of our team,” says the Notre Dame foil coach. “He was a game-changer. We became a perennial foil power in one day, with Gerek as the foundation. It created the perfect storm, a destiny.”
Two other top-ranked foilists, Enzo Castellani and Reggie Bentley, also had signed on to join the Irish. It was the beginning of an impressive, dominant six-year run for foil fencing at Notre Dame.
The lanky lefthander Castellani – who Kvaratskhelia describes as “fearless, relentless, toughest competitor I’ve ever seen” – trained at the same Texas club that produced Ohio State’s Zain Shaito, a former junior national team member and the 2012 NCAA men’s foil champion.
“I was weighing my options when Gerek committed,” recalls Castellani. “The chance to train with a fencer of his caliber, plus the other strong foilists already there, played a big role in my decision. It became a no-brainer.”
The triumvirate of Meinhardt, Castellani and Bentley arrived in the fall of 2008, joining a foil squad that already included Mark and Steve Kubik, Schirtz and the elder Hodges brother Teddy. Grant Hodges joined the next season, followed by future NCAA champion Ariel DeSmet and Nick Kubik in 2010-11.
At the end of the 2011 season, Notre Dame’s ridiculous men’s foil depth was plain to see. Six different foilists already had competed in the NCAAs during their careers: Schirtz, Steve Kubik, Meinhardt, Castellani, Bentley and DeSmet. “Gerek’s ability to consistently win big matches is one way he thrives as a leader – that winning becomes infectious, lifting the team,” notes Schirtz.
Meinhardt and his teammates are quick to credit Kvaratskhelia. “Gia has a great ability for grouping recruits in the right combinations, producing great team chemistry,” observes Bentley. “Gerek was the crown jewel, elevating us from a very good group to the best foil squad in collegiate fencing.”
Future generations may assume that Meinhardt and Castellani formed the men’s foil duo among the 12 Notre Dame fencers who combined to win the 2011 NCAA team title. In reality, it was DeSmet and Bentley. The 5-foot-10 DeSmet won a memorable 2011 NCAA title bout against the considerably taller (6-4) Miles Chamley-Watson of Penn State, while Bentley placed fifth.
Meinhardt had been sidelined following knee surgery, and Castellani’s qualification results simply did not stack up. If he had fenced at any other school, Castellani would have been in that 2011 NCAA field – that’s how strong Notre Dame foil had become (even with Meinhardt out of action).
Notre Dame’s foil surge carried over to the women’s side, including the cornerstone duo of Kiefer and current senior Madison Zeiss, a 2013 NCAA semifinalist before losing to Kiefer in the 2014 final. In 2012, Grace Hartman (fifth) and Zeiss (eighth) both collected foil second team All-America honors.
“Gerek helped bring the rest of the stars here – a lot of people wanted to be a part of it,” notes Kvaratskhelia. “The other foilists have similar personality traits to Gerek: great human beings; people you enjoy working with and learning from; teammates who push each other while having fun being around each other.”
The Notre Dame foil powerhouse is not so much about specific individuals, as it is about depth, and the power of a true team.
In the six-year time frame spanning Meinhardt’s career, Notre Dame fencers combined to grab eight of the 24 spots in NCAA foil title bouts (men’s and women’s). Penn State had seven foil finalists in that 2009-14 span, followed by Columbia and Stanford with two each.
Five Notre Dame foilists – Meinhardt, Hayley Reese (’09 women’s runner-up), DeSmet, Kiefer and Zeiss – have fenced in at least one NCAA final over the past six seasons. Notre Dame qualified the maximum of two men’s foil fencers every year from 2009-14, and each placed in the top-10, led by seven medal-round finishes. Three-time NCAA participant Castellani reached the NCAA semifinals in 2010 and ’12, while Bentley – dubbed by one opposing coach as “the hunter who always lays the traps” – placed fifth in both 2011 and ’12.
Bentley puts it best when proclaiming: “Notre Dame foil fencing now is a brand, and Gerek deservedly became the face of that brand. When you have a brand, you have to maintain high standards, and we’ve been fortunate to continue that dominance under Gia’s leadership.”
Record Book Regular
Status as one of the nation’s top fencers at USFA-sponsored events does not always translate to success within the framework of the NCAA Championships. Solving that uniquely tricky and challenging format is no easy task.
The grueling two-day NCAA schedule requires a fencer to battle all 23 of the other entrants in that weapon, during five-touch bouts. Not only does each result have a bearing on the individual finish, each victory also counts one point to the team score.
“You have to focus more in five-touch bouts and can’t be as creative or take as many risks,” explains Meinhardt. “Fine tuning my concentration in those situations has helped me in 15-touch bouts, when you have to buckle down and do the same thing.”
Here’s a brief historical perspective of Meinhardt’s accomplishments within collegiate fencing and Notre Dame history:
– From 1998-2014, he was one of only nine fencers (one of three men’s foilists) to reach an NCAA individual final three or more times, with that group including his club teammates Doris and David Willette. Notre Dame legendary women’s foilist Alicja Kryczalo (’05) is one of only three NCAA fencers since 1998 to reach four title bouts. Meinhardt also is one of 17 fencers since ’98 to reach the NCAA medal round all four years and one of 21 since ’98 to repeat as an NCAA champion (he is one of four men’s fencers on that list to win titles in non-sequential years).
– Meinhardt’s only two losses in NCAA medal-round action – versus Penn State’s Nick Chinman in 2009 and Stanford’s Massialas in ’13 – came on the final touch, 15-14. If one point against Chinman had gone the other way, Meinhardt would be one of 15 fencers in collegiate fencing history (since 1941) to win three or more NCAA titles. Four men’s foilists have pulled off the triple NCAA title feat. Only two collegiate fencers have attained four-time NCAA champ status.
– Meinhardt reached 20-plus wins in a single NCAA round-robin twice: 22-1 in 2013 and 20-3 a year later. Since 1998, only five fencers – none since 2003, and no men’s foilists – have rattled off a 23-0 mark, including Kryczalo in 2002.
– A select group of 54 former Notre Dame student-athletes have won an NCAA individual competition or major national player-of-the-year award. Meinhardt is one of only 10 from Notre Dame to be a national champion/player of the year in multiple seasons. Kryczalo is one of two Notre Dame student-athletes ever to be a three-time NCAA champion.
– Meinhardt became the fifth Notre Dame fencer to reach the NCAA medal round all four years, following sabre great Mike Sullivan (’79), foilist Charles Higgs-Coulthard (’87), Kryczalo (’05) and Courtney Hurley (’13). He joined Sullivan, Kryczalo and Patrick Ghattas (men’s sabre runner-up 2005-07) as Notre Dame fencers to reach three or four NCAA title bouts. Meinhardt won 85 percent of his NCAA round-robin bouts (78-14; .848), joining Sullivan (95-9; .913) as Notre Dame’s unquestioned top men’s fencers in NCAA competition.
A College Fencing Star
Meinhardt lived up to the hype during his first college season, coming one touch shy of claiming the NCAA Championship. After going 19-3 in the 2009 NCAA round-robin, the prized rookie beat one of the great collegiate veterans, Kurt Getz of Columbia, in a 15-9 semifinal. Meinhardt led 11-7 in the final, but Chinman – buoyed by the Penn State crowd – won the 15-14 thriller.
One year later at Harvard, Meinhardt closed the deal, besting Penn State’s Chamley-Watson (15-11) and Willette (15-9) to become the 2010 NCAA Champion. He then took a two-year hiatus from NCAA competition – initially not by choice (2011 injury), but later out of necessity (2012 Olympic qualification). Meinhardt endured three surgeries on his right knee, two in 2008, followed by a surgical repair early in 2011.
During his frustrating 2011 season, Meinhardt’s role was reduced to supportive teammate. Sparked by inspired performances from fencers such as DeSmet, Notre Dame held off Penn State by six points to win the 2011 NCAA Men’s and Women’s Combined Fencing Championship. DeSmet parlayed his strength-based background, tremendous athleticism and a calculated, patient approach to win the foil final in stunning fashion against Chamley-Watson.
“It was a different experience not being able to fence, but it showed how tight-knit the team was because we knew others would step up,” recalls Meinhardt. “It was a huge adrenaline rush cheering on my teammates, as they pulled together with the national title on the line.”
For one highly-invested observer, it always will be a “bummer” that Meinhardt never fenced on a title-winning squad.
“Things just never aligned for Gerek to fence on a championship team” admits Kvaratskhelia. “This is a world-class athlete who truly cared about his teammates and our program. In three of those years, the depth of talented teams was very strong.”
In 2009, runner-up Notre Dame finished 13 points behind Penn State. One year later, the Irish placed third but only 11 back of the repeat champs. In 2013, it was Princeton’s turn to eke out a seven-point margin over runner-up Notre Dame.
Speaking of the 2013 NCAAs, the venue was a new one: San Antonio, known for the historical battle cry: “Remember the Alamo.” The theme that week could have been: “Remember Gerek Meinhardt?” The foil phenom indeed was back, scorching the field to the tune of 22-1 during the round-robin, with a 5-4 loss to Chamley-Watson all that separated him from a perfect 23-0.
Meinhardt was the top seed in the 2013 NCAA medal round, where a familiar foe (and friend) awaited: Alexander Massialas. “Alex was like the younger brother who had been closing the gap,” recalls Kvaratskhelia. “We knew it was going to be a very close bout.”
The veteran Meinhardt – who had edged Massialas in the round-robin – jumped ahead 6-3 and later 12-6. Many observers began shifting their attention, as it seemed certain that Meinhardt was on his way to victory. Of course, Massialas had been trained by his father never to give up. The Stanford freshman rattled off seven touches to stunningly claim a 13-12 lead. Meinhardt countered with two points, but the 6-foot-3 Massialas delivered the final salvo for the epic 15-14 victory.
“We could have been more aggressive and closed it out,” concedes Kvaratskhelia. “It was a tough loss. Gerek had been so strong and dominating those two days.”
Massialas went on to beat Willette in the 2013 NCAA final. One year later at Ohio State, they both were back in the medal round, as were Meinhardt and Bravo – completing the 2014 “Foil Fantastic Final Four,” the pride of South Van Ness and 17th back in San Francisco. Massialas (20-3; +64) narrowly earned the top seed, while Meinhardt had the same record but was +56. Bravo finished third (19-4; +54) and Willette fourth (18-5; +52).
In the semifinal round, Bravo simply would not go away, but a final surge sent Meinhardt to his third NCAA final, 15-11. Bravo, who had defeated Meinhardt in the round-robin, noted that his elder “started slow in the medal round, trying to analyze me more.” Meinhardt admittedly was concerned with Bravo running him down the strip, so he “tried to put more pressure on Nobuo, as opposed to running away.”
If you can locate video of the Meinhardt-vs.-Bravo semifinal, be sure to check out the classic move that the Notre Dame champion executed late in the bout, after being pushed to the back of the strip. With Bravo on the brink of cutting the deficit to 13-11, Meinhardt suddenly parried while leaping straight up, before snapping down for his own touch – completing a rare, intangible reaction, essentially a “jump riposte” (riposte is French for “retort”).
Definitely a “let’s rewind that one and watch it again, maybe one more time” type of moment.
“I’ve done that move one other time in a tournament,” revealed Meinhardt, a few days later. “My legs weren’t in great shape, so I didn’t get much air – just enough to land the touch.”
USFA president Don Anthony, part of the online announcing crew, summed it up: “Gerek Meinhardt is one of the smoothest, most beautiful fencers in the world right now.”
One bout remained, fittingly between foilists who had known each other from their early days. Both had fenced in two previous NCAA title bouts, including Meinhardt’s 2010 win over Willette. Both were four-time medal-round fencers and three-time finalists. They would end their college careers facing one another, one more time.
With Willette leading 9-5, Kvaratskhelia dropped his head into his hands, showing clear concern. “I was able to keep Gerek at a slow pace, which is good for me,” Willette later said.
Meinhardt pushed to an 11-10 lead and surged to the 15-12 win. “I fenced really smart, but Gerek buckled down and made the adjustments he needed to win,” added Willette.
After the bout, Meinhardt noted that his four-inch height advantage often plays a key role against Willette: “I try to break distance and get away from David, but he was doing a great job countering that. I had to change up my tactics, try to not let him hit me on the way in.”
Katie Meinhardt was in the stands, cheering on her brother in his collegiate farewell. Her presence rounded out a memorable last hurrah. The M Team reunion even included the presence of another sister supporter, Doris Willette.
“I’m so grateful to my family, friends, coaches, and teammates for sticking with me through my injury-ridden college career,” concluded Meinhardt. “It’s been a wonderful experience representing Notre Dame, a school I love and appreciate for so many reasons beyond fencing. I’m so glad I was able to make people from the Notre Dame family proud.”
Stars Before They Were Stars
It’s rare for any athlete to compete in the Olympics prior to college. At Notre Dame, that rarity has played itself out with three recent fencers: Zagunis, Meinhardt and Kiefer.
Zagunis won the 2004 women’s sabre gold, a few months in advance of starting her freshman year. Many observers were amused when hearing about the first “class” she had to attend: the physical education basic swim test. Here was this recently minted Olympic gold medalist, having to prove that she could complete a few laps in order to avoid the university’s swimming preparedness requirement.
Four years later, Meinhardt started college shortly after his Olympic experience. The diminutive Kiefer competed in London shortly before beginning her own Notre Dame journey.
Zagunis and Meinhardt have been on two Olympic teams together, while traversing similar career paths over the past decade.
“Gerek is hardworking and dedicated in every facet of his life, and I admire him for always facing challenges head on,” notes Zagunis. “Gerek was incredibly optimistic, even nonchalant, about facing his major surgery. Dealing with a stressful situation like that with such mental toughness says a lot about his character.
“I also admire how Gerek has balanced being a successful fencer and top student. He is a great role model for the next generation, a terrific representative of both Notre Dame and Team USA.”
Not only did Meinhardt head to Beijing as the youngest Olympic fencer in U.S. history, the 18-year-old was the youngest fencer from any country at the 2008 Olympics. His appearance gained additional fanfare, due to Meinhardt’s Chinese-American heritage.
“I was pretty wide-eyed and treated the 2008 Olympics as a learning experience,” recalls Meinhardt. “Fortunately, my second Olympics allowed for more time exploring the Olympic Village and seeing different sports.”
Meinhardt dominated Egypt’s Mostafa Nagaty, 15-3, in his first Olympic bout before losing 15-9 to China’s Zhu Jun (who lost 15-14 in the bronze-medal bout). Zagunis repeated as the women’s sabre gold medalist in 2008, while the Americans medaled in three of the four team events. Meinhardt’s future Notre Dame teammate Kelley Hurley was the only U.S. women’s epee participant, while his club teammate Doris Willette was the women’s foil alternate in Beijing.
Four years later, Meinhardt captained a 2012 Olympic foil team that included Chamley-Watson along with youngsters Alexander Massialas and Race Imboden. In London, Meinhardt fenced in some key bouts – highlighted by his 11-1 performance against 2011 World Championship bronze medalist Victor Sintes, turning around the U.S. team’s quarterfinal versus France.
The U.S. beat France 45-39, after trailing 24-30 before Meinhardt’s 11-point blitz. Germany outlasted the Americans for the bronze, while Italy – which had beaten the U.S. in the semifinals – defeated Japan for the gold.
International fencing glory is a tough nut to crack, but there’s no questioning that Meinhardt and the rest of Team USA are on the doorstep. Other 2012 London headlines involving Notre Dame products included: Kelley and Courtney Hurley being part of the bronze medal-winning women’s epee team; Zagunis returning to the women’s sabre medal round; and Kiefer ending one win shy of fencing for a women’s foil medal. U.S. fencers also turned in top-eight finishes in men’s epee and sabre.
Meinhardt is one of only 11 athletes with Notre Dame connections ever to compete in multiple Olympic Games, as are four other fencers. Zagunis is one of only three with a connection to Notre Dame who have been three-time Olympians, as is former epeeist Mike Gostigian, a modern pentathlon Olympian in 1988-’92-’96. Kelley Hurley and foilist Molly Sullivan (’88, ’92) are Notre Dame fencing’s other repeat Olympians.
Paced by flagbearer Zagunis, the American fencers had the added thrill of entering the 2012 Opening Ceremonies marching in the front row. The U.S. men’s foilists shared an apartment in the Olympic Village, furthering their strong team bond. After the foil fencing had concluded, Meinhardt soaked in the full Olympic experience – cheering on Team USA in the men’s basketball final, while also seeing the U.S. women’s soccer team play and attending an assortment of other Olympic events, alongside Kiefer.
It’s common knowledge by now that Meinhardt and Kiefer are a couple, having enjoyed their 2012 Olympic experience together while most recently supporting each other en route to their respective 2014 NCAA titles. Their commonalities are many: both fence foil; pre-ND Olympic experiences; college teammates; and both two-time NCAA champions (of course, Kiefer still has two collegiate seasons remaining).
World Number One
Three years removed from his January 2011 knee surgery, Meinhardt added yet another unique accomplishment to his ever-growing resume. A semifinal finish at the Paris World Cup sealed the deal, moving the San Francisco native from No. 2 in the men’s foil world rankings to No. 1, unseating 2011 world champion Andrea Cassara of Italy.
Meinhardt became the fifth U.S. fencer ever to hold an FIE world No. 1 ranking. He is the only American foilist ever to be No. 1 and joined former St. John’s sabre standout Keeth Smart as the only U.S. men’s fencers ever to sit atop the world rankings. Three U.S. women’s sabre fencers have been world No. 1: Zagunis at the end of the 2005-06 World Cup cycle; two-time NCAA champion Sada Jacobson, at the end of 2002-03 and ’03-’04; and Becca Ward briefly in 2007, prior to her collegiate career at Duke.
To date, no U.S. men’s epeeist, women’s foilist or women’s epeeist has risen to world No. 1.
One week after ascending to No. 1 on Jan. 18, Meinhardt opened the 2014 collegiate season at the NYU and St. John’s Invitationals. It was the first time any U.S. fencer was ranked No. 1 in the world while competing in a collegiate event. Smart’s No. 1, in 2003, came after his final college season (2001). Zagunis (2005-06) and Jacobson (2002-03), who fenced at Yale, both competed during only two collegiate seasons, before becoming No. 1.
Meinhardt’s climb to the top spot included three other World Cup medalist finishes – in Tokyo (silver), Venice, and La Coruna, Spain – in addition to winning the Pan American Championship.
“I wish I had known Gerek was one day going to be No. 1 – I could say I called it,” joked Doris Willette, while at Ohio State for the 2014 NCAAs.
Meinhardt’s arrival atop the world rankings followed three surgical procedures on his right knee, from 2008-11. There also was a grueling travel schedule, trekking around the globe, often to face top Europeans near their home turf. Throw in the added pressure of juggling his studies with all of the fencing responsibilities, including as a Notre Dame team captain.
After emerging from such a gauntlet – challenge after challenge, one medical setback after another, bleary-eyed studying on cross-Atlantic flights – Meinhardt certainly could be excused for basking in the glory. But that’s not how he is wired.
“A lot of work went into this process, not just by me but by my family, coaches and teammates,” says the appreciative elite performer. “I needed that support to help me over the hump, particularly while recovering from my surgery.”
The magnitude of the No. 1 accomplishment didn’t hit Meinhardt until he had returned to campus, conceding that he was “truly humbled” by the flood of congratulatory support.
“One of the things I will miss most about Notre Dame is the tight-knit community. It was cool receiving messages from so many ND athletes and people affiliated with the school. Notre Dame provides great support to its athletes and the student body as a whole.”
In the five years leading up to his historic No. 1, Meinhardt had medaled twice at the Junior World Championship (’09 bronze; ’10 silver). He also became the first U.S. men’s fencer ever to reach the medal round at a World Championship, in Paris during 2010.
At the recent 2014 NCAAs, an hour removed from losing an NCAA men’s foil final for the third time in his own career, Willette summed up Meinhardt’s top-level essence.
“For being No. 1 in the world, Gerek is the most humble guy out there,” stated Willette. “He’s one of the most athletic fencers on the world stage, and he deserves all of his amazing accomplishments.”
A Selfless Champion
Fencers of any age experience some disconnect with those around them. Many believe such tunnel vision is required to achieve high-level success, and ultimately elite status.
Sportsmanship and decorum on the strip are one thing, since bad behavior can lead to lost points and even disqualification. The more defining revelation is this: how do individual fencers conduct themselves off the strip, when nobody is watching and seemingly nothing is to be gained.
“Gerek’s fencing accolades speak for themselves. But you are dealing with a very special human being when it comes to the whole picture,” says Kvaratskhelia, who has known Meinhardt for 12 years.
“The way Gerek goes about things – it is never just about him. He does everything with grace, honesty, maturity and compassion.”
Steve Kubik – middle brother of the three San Antonio natives who have fenced at Notre Dame – initially had known Meinhardt from the Kanza Fencing camps. “Gerek is tremendously focused when competing, but off the strip he is about as far from being self-obsessed as you can be. I can assure you that nobody ever has accused him of being a prima donna,” says the second Kubik brother.
“In our training, I sometimes didn’t bring my `A game’ and he would kick my butt on the strip. But he always was willing to work with me, tell me what he was noticing. He lets you inside the mind of a champion. That type of perspective into his fencing intelligence was invaluable.”
As Steve Kubik was entering his senior year of high school, Meinhardt was in San Antonio for the 2006 Junior Pan American Games, an exhausting tournament with team and individual events (Meinhardt won, as did his U.S. men’s foil team). Mark Kubik already was off at Notre Dame, leaving little brother yearning for some quality sparring.
After an entire day of competing, Meinhardt understandably could have called it a day and headed off to the River Walk. Instead, the elite foilist took time to fence with a friend.
“Those tournaments tire out any fencer, but Gerek still was willing to suit up and fence with me,” adds Kubik. “Gerek always has been selfless like that. It’s what makes him truly great.”
Even in recent years, Meinhardt has continued to place friendship over selfish interests. The foil team for the London Olympics was to include three individual competitors, plus a fourth/alternate. It was simple math, as one of the five – Meinhardt, Chamley-Watson, Massialas, Imboden or Willette – would be left off the team entirely, while another would fence only in the Olympic team competition.
Imboden and Massialas had locked up their spots. Chamley-Watson had been struggling. Meinhardt was trying to rediscover his form post-surgery. Willette also was in the mix, as the calendar flipped to April 2012. USFA Nationals in Virginia Beach would decide the final two spots for the Olympic team.
“Even though Gerek and I were competing for a spot, it always felt as if we were best friends living out the dream – that’s a credit to the type of person he is,” says Chamley-Watson, who placed fifth in Virginia Beach to clinch his Olympic position.
Meinhardt and Willette were set to meet in the semifinals. If Willette won that bout and won the final, he would edge out Meinhardt for the final spot on the Olympic team. There was high drama, with eight lead changes, before Meinhardt prevailed 15-13.
Olympic teammates Meinhardt and Chamley-Watson are an intriguing pair, close friends seemingly as different as they are alike. At 6-foot-4, the wiry Chamley-Watson dwarfs even the six-foot Meinhardt. After completing his college eligibility in 2013, Chamley-Watson hired an agent and already has booked several modeling gigs. Maybe Meinhardt will do some of the same in the future, but that doesn’t really seem to be his style.
Even on Twitter, the differences are stark. At a certain threshold, Twitter abbreviates the raw total of followers – Chamley-Watson has “26.4 K” who follow him. Meinhardt’s Twitter followers are much easier to count: 1,230 (one for every 22 who follow his buddy Miles). Meinhardt’s Twitter profile includes the text: “Notre Dame MBA Candidate, Business Analytics, Marketing,” words given equal weight to mention of his Olympic participation.
The pair have been longtime roommates while competing around the globe. “Each trip, I learn something different about Gerek, and that knowledge helps me become a better person,” adds the appreciative Chamley-Watson, who won the men’s foil title at the 2013 World Championship.
“You would think someone with Gerek’s elite stature would be standoffish or pompous, but he is always there to help. Gerek is a friend who never judges, and he has gotten me out of trouble numerous times. I have come to Gerek for advice so often – too many times to count.
“Gerek is the one person in my life that I know I can call at any hour of the day, and he will always be there to pick up. Such a friend is impossible to come by.”
Inside the Layers of Excellence
Back when Notre Dame announced the signing of Meinhardt, coach Janusz Bednardski aptly dubbed the prodigy a “complete winning machine, with superb technique and intelligent tactical abilities.”
A complete winning machine. The perfect meshing of athleticism and technique, with tactics and mental acuity. The raw power and precision of a sabre fencer, fused with the chess-like deliberation and mental fortitude of an elite-level epeeist. Such a description, boiled down, provides one succinct summary of Gerek Meinhardt the fencer.
Zooming out, of course, there is so much more.
Any foil fencer worth his salt must be able to quickly maneuver into position, then withdraw in the blink of an eye. The footwork has to be fast, the speed of the blade even faster. Meinhardt often will, literally and figuratively, run his opponent off the strip.
“Gerek has become very committed to his footwork and that makes him so dangerous – opponents rarely catch him,” explains Kvaratskhelia. “Opponents often are completely gassed, because he presents the rhythm and the other fencer is obligated to follow – or be overrun.
“When the opponent does follow that pace, he will be out of breath. Gerek has the perfect combination of speed and creativity.”
The Chess Master
“Tactics flow from a superior position.”
It is “delicate judgment, knowing when to punch and how to duck.”
He had the “ability to make what was in fact so difficult look easy to us.”
The endeavor “is everything: art, science, sport.”
The above quotes refer to key elements of chess – but they just as easily could be discussing the art of fencing, in particular the way in which Meinhardt has come to master his craft.
(The first two quotes are from American grandmaster Bobby Fischer; the third from Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, in reference to Fisher; the fourth from legendary Russian Antoly Karpov).
Anyone who has played even a little chess knows that one central aspect is thinking several moves ahead. Meinhardt attacks the fencing strip in similar fashion – utilizing a calculated, multi-step approach.
Those closest to Meinhardt try their best to put his excellence into the proper wording. It proves to be a difficult task, a similar progression in futility, usually with some form of apology: “I can’t really put it in the proper words” or “I can picture what I’m wanting to tell you, but it’s just hard to explain.”
At one point, Kvaratskhelia even exclaimed: “I don’t know what Gerek has, but it’s nothing I’ve ever seen before.” When pressed, he mentions an “ability to calculate two moves ahead, but done 10 times faster than anybody I’ve ever seen. Gerek’s actions and mind work at high RPMs, and he still is able to make better decisions despite operating at such a high speed.”
Earlier in Meinhardt’s career, coach Massialas praised him for being able to “figure out the puzzle of his opponent.” Of course, that puzzle is different than working on a 2,000-piece jigsaw over several days. Solving a fencing opponent must be done quickly and repeatedly, with a scoreboard, and a time limit.
Schirtz notes that Meinhardt has the ability to “dissect the bout, then use intuition and speed to close matches quickly.” He compares this ability to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who nearly set the NFL single-season rushing record in 2012.
“Adrian Peterson has unparalleled quickness and can see gaps in the defense before they open. Gerek similarly predicts opponent moves and capitalizes on that anticipation,” adds Schirtz.
Anticipating several moves ahead is one thing – ostensibly half the “battle” – but executing the correct move and actually registering a point are required to win. Many foes soon learn an important lesson: Meinhardt’s elite combination of calculation and athleticism allow him to strike seemingly from anywhere.
“No distance is safe from Gerek’s point,” explains Kvaratskhelia. “He can deliver a touch from any angle, any time – regardless of where his hand or body are located.”
The term “infighting” refers to when the distance collapses and fencers draw close together. Arms are contorted in unusual angles: above the neck pointing down, below the waist aiming up, thrust back for a quick poke forward – anything to score a touch in such constrained quarters.
Kvaratskhelia describes infighting “like two trains running into each other. It is very chaotic, but Gerek usually delivers two touches before the opponent can even blink. The angles he creates in that cramped space are unbelievable – top to bottom, front to back. You name it, he can reach it.”
Grant Hodges notes that most elite fencers have plenty of tendencies, but Meinhardt “is always changing and innovating. Shifting on the fly is no easy feat. Gerek can do things so incredibly difficult, yet make them look so effortless.”
Schirtz sees a further complexity – or is it a simplification? (in a way, it’s both).
“It’s a misperception that Gerek’s all about complicated moves,” explains Schirtz. “The truth is that some of his most successful actions are less complicated moves that he has spent years perfecting: quick attacks or small, well-timed actions – moves his opponents cannot react to in time.”
Bentley offers the following succinct conclusion: “A lot of fencers have the speed to get there, but Gerek has the insight to finish the attack. What takes it to another level is that he does those moves with tremendous accuracy.”
Or, as Kvaratskhelia words it: “Gerek’s combination of speed and precision is impossible to defend. It’s a hurricane coming at you but hitting you like a perfect lightning strike.”
A book by Bob Rice, Three Moves Ahead: What Chess Can Teach You About Business, details “how to move quickly in the face of incalculable complexities and unexpected change.” Maybe someday Meinhardt will author a similar book comparing fencing to business – although “incalculable complexities” and “unexpected change” don’t necessarily apply to his higher-plane fencing existence.
He is the one who calculates. He is the one who expects change. He is that rare breed of fencer.
Cool, Calm & Collected
Plenty of athletes boast the unique combination of physical tools to be truly elite. Another subset, a smaller grouping to be sure, possess the mental acumen of a world-class champion. Few are able to fuse that physical and mental excellence. It’s simply too daunting of a challenge.
At the end of this dissection of Gerek Meinhardt the fencer, we have arrived at one, fundamental factor: emotional maturity. The runaway train, or the whirling hurricane – those forces end in disaster, unless a calming or mature entity intercedes (i.e. a veteran conductor, or Mother Nature).
When the metaphorical “runaway trains” collide on the fencing strip, what exactly has to happen for one to survive the impact (i.e. win the point)? For the fencer who at first resembles a forceful hurricane, what is it that brings about the seemingly instantaneous transformation for the execution of that lightning strike?
It is a prevailing sense of maturity. An unmistakable composure. The essence of a “cool customer.”
Wendell Kubik – yes, another Kubik (father of Mark, Steve and Nick) – knows a little about elite-level fencing. An All-America foilist at Air Force, he later was head coach at his alma mater, from 1986-91.
Back in 2005, Meinhardt was fencing at a North American Cup and Wendell Kubik was an interested observer. With a spot in the medal round on the line, Meinhardt was facing brash 23-year-old Israeli Boaz Ellis. A standout at Ohio State, Ellis would become a rare three-time NCAA champion as a senior in 2006.
“Boaz was trying to intimidate Gerek, yelling and using rough actions,” recalls Kubik. “That steamroller approach was Boaz’s strategy, and he won, but not by much.”
Moments after the fiercely-contested bout, the masks came off. “Boaz was drenched in sweat, looking like he just got out of a pressure cooker,” continues Kubik. “Gerek looked cool and calm, not at all like a deer in the headlights – which you’d expect from a 14-year-old fencing a multiple-time NCAA champ.
“That’s when I knew Gerek would develop into a great champion. He had the temperament that only the truly elite display.”
Over the past 10 years, Kubik adds that he has “rarely seen Gerek make the same mistake several times in a row. One of his greatest qualities is changing actions to meet the situation.”
Meinhardt regularly has avenged losses in the pool round by dominating that opponent in direct-elimination. “Gerek can be extremely calm but also very aggressive – he will come up with whatever he needs to win, and always will be in control,” notes Kvaratskhelia.
Bentley can count on one hand the number of times his star teammate ever appeared to be angry at an opponent, “but it was never to his detriment – Gerek has `alligator blood.’ “
“Emotional maturity, that’s what make the difference for Gerek,” concludes Bentley. “It’s the glue that binds together all of his other great fencing qualities, harnessing all that excellence to create one elite fencer.”
Excellence in Evolution
Most opponents remember it well: the first time they went toe-to-toe against Gerek Meinhardt. For Bentley, it was during a Y-10 national tournament. A relative veteran on the youth circuit, Bentley had started fencing when he was six. Meinhardt was a newcomer, seemingly a nobody – or so Bentley thought.
“I came out of the pools one of the top seeds, thinking I was awesome. In the round-of-32, I ended up fencing this kid Gerek Meinhardt – never heard of him – and he beat me decisively,” recalls Bentley.
“Usually you can relive the bout, rationalizing how you were better and recalculating the score. It’s universally accepted that Gerek is the only fencer where you can’t do that – you can’t convince yourself that you’re better than him.
“In my entire fencing life, Gerek is the only fencer who was on a different level. It’s intangible, something I wish non-fencers could fully appreciate. His degree of mastery, the confidence but also the ability to bring it all together – it’s something you simply don’t see a lot, in any sport.”
Recently, Kvaratskhelia was reviewing 2008 bouting footage. “Gerek six years ago versus today, it’s like a baseball pitcher who started out as just a very talented thrower but gradually developed the fine aspects of pitching, an expert of his craft,” explains Kvaratskhelia.
Schirtz earlier compared Meinhardt to NFL great Adrian Peterson, while Kvaratskhelia draws analogies to a crafty veteran pitcher – or even basketball legend Larry Bird: “People initially viewed Larry Bird as just some unorthodox basketball player. But in time it became clear that Bird developed his own style, grounded in fundamental technique but also amazing creativity.”
In the early days, Meinhardt utilized a rare “third gear” to overrun opponents, using bold motions that were a departure from classical technique. His bouts ended quickly, well before the maximum time allotment. Lately, more and more, Meinhardt bouts are slowing down, by choice. Some even extend to overtime – previously unheard of when he was on the strip.
“Now, Gerek can slow down the action if needed. He can shape any bout as he sees fit, for the optimal chance to win,” adds Kvaratskhelia. “What’s scary is that Gerek will continue to learn while becoming even more crafty, and virtually unbeatable.”
Rio and Beyond …
Meinhardt will remain associated with Notre Dame as a student and athlete over the next 12 months. Currently at the midpoint of a two-year MBA curriculum, he also will stay sharp while training at Notre Dame and serving as a volunteer assistant coach. When he receives his MBA in 2015, the Olympic hopeful will have kept up with his fencing while remaining on track for a career in business.
Speaking of life after graduate school, Meinhardt does not have to worry about the hassle of job interviews. That’s because he already has signed a contract with one of the “Big Four” professional services firms, Deloitte, which conveniently has a major hub in San Francisco.
Meinhardt initially will become a part-time employee before transitioning to full-time after 2016 Olympic qualification/competition. During the summer of 2011, he interned at Deloitte in the information technology management area and will serve a 2014 summer internship, in business analytics.
“The people at Deloitte have been very supportive of my fencing and business career goals,” says Meinhardt, who was recently named a first team Capital One Academic All-American in the men’s at-large program. “They are flexible working around my competition demands, and they obviously want to see me qualify for Rio.”
The U.S. men’s foil team ended the 2012-13 World Cup season with the No. 1 world ranking, after taking silver at the World Championships. Back when he was competing in under-20 competitions, Meinhardt was part of two U.S. men’s foil teams that won Junior World Championship titles (2008 and ’10).
Since 1948, U.S. men have won Olympic medals only three times: foilist Albert Axelrod (1960 bronze), sabre pioneer Peter Westbrook (1984 bronze), and the 2008 silver-medal men’s sabre team. Only one other American men’s foilist has won an Olympic medal: Joseph Levis in 1932 (silver) – and no American men’s fencer has captured Olympic gold. U.S. fencing also has yet to produce an Olympic medalist in women’s foil. Kiefer was on the doorstop in 2012, losing a 15-10 quarterfinal to runner-up Arianna Errigo of Italy.
On the heels of the recent Tokyo Grand Prix, Americans at that point held down four of the top-11 spots in the foil world rankings: (2) Imboden, (3) Meinhardt, (5) Chamley-Watson and (11) Massialas. China’s Jianjel Ma was No. 1. Italy is the world’s top-ranked foil team, followed by the U.S., Russia and France. Team USA and Italy could be on a 2016 Olympic gold-medal collision course. Of the top-12 in the world men’s foil rankings, Americans (4) and Italians (3) held down seven of those spots, with no other country appearing more than once.
“Our foilists have their ups and downs, but they push each other and take turns stepping forward – quite a sight to see,” notes proud coach Massialas.
Over the past three years, Chamley-Watson, Meinhardt and Imboden each have been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world. Meinhardt owns the highest season-ending ranking in U.S. men’s foil history, finishing tied for first with Italy’s Cassara for 2012-13 (Cassara was declared World Cup champion, based on tiebreakers).
The relationship between Meinhardt and Alexander Massialas is an interesting case study, as the youngster has matched or bested many of the elder’s historic accomplishments. Plenty of sports tales – fictional and fact-based – have featured that scenario: young star nipping at the heels of established veteran.
“Many would be threatened by that change, and it would affect their friendship with the younger, hard-charging fencer,” observes Kvaratskhelia. “Gerek is about as opposite as you can be from that kind of pettiness.”
From Meinhardt’s vantage point, the U.S. foil team success goes beyond raw talent. “We have a lot going on in our lives other than fencing – we aren’t professionals,” explains the U.S. captain. “We share a bond as college student-athletes, and in some cases longtime club teammates. We have faced similar challenges, overcoming them individually and as a group.”
Schoolwork on the side. College exams wedged between international tournaments. A seemingly never-ending travel schedule. It all lays the foundation for a tremendous brotherhood.
“I would love to win an individual Olympic medal, but doing it as a team with these friends would be special and a testament to our coach Greg Massialas, who has elevated USA men’s foil to world prominence,” adds Meinhardt.
Staying Tender, Strong and True
Even though he is bidding to make his third Olympics, Meinhardt still is relatively young in the fencing world. He may continue fencing on an Olympic level beyond 2016. Or he may not.
One thing is for certain: the 23-year-old has options, and great promise – beyond the world of fencing.
“Gerek may come across as quiet and serious, but he actually has an incredible sense of humor, far from being one-dimensional or boring,” concludes Kvaratskhelia.
“I truly believe Gerek can be anything he wants in his life. He could be a great humanitarian, because he has that compassion, loyalty and integrity needed for doing great things.”
Adds Grant Hodges: “Gerek does it all, without calling attention to himself, and without anything slipping through the cracks. That dedication is so rare. It’s what makes the difference.”
Nearly six years removed from the start of his freshman year, Meinhardt knows he has “matured a lot – it has been six years, so I hope that would have happened,” he jokes.
“I see things quite differently, thanks to being part of the Notre Dame family. I have benefitted from so much support and selfless acts from coaches, faculty and friends at the university. It is such a great community, with everyone looking out for everyone else.
“I appreciate how Notre Dame student-athletes mix into the regular student body. Some of my best friends have not been on the fencing team. At the same time, everyone on the team is close and we love hanging out together.”
Katie Meinhardt has watched her little brother grow up in front of her eyes. The precocious boy – who used to chase down basketballs during her practice sessions – has evolved into one of the world’s elite fencing talents.
“What I love best about Gerek is how down to earth he has remained,” says the proud older sister. “He is still my little brother who will rest his head on my shoulder in the back seat of a long car ride, and he looks forward to spending an hour shooting hoops with me the minute I step off the plane for a visit.
“Gerek has stayed true to his roots and family values, and he is never too cool for his big sister or embarrassed to show his goofy side.”
What more can you ask for than that?
Other Pete LaFleur Profile Features for 2013-14
Jay Louderback: The Family That Plays Together, Stays Together (women’s tennis)
Brian Barnes: Building Notre Dame Women’s Swimming’s Foundation for Success (women’s swimming)
Randy Waldrum era: A Success by any Account (women’s soccer)
Bobby Clark: Teaching To Win, And Hurrying Slowly (men’s soccer)
Harry Shipp: The Wandering Wizard of Notre Dame Soccer (men’s soccer)
Dougie Barnard: Truly One of a Kind (men’s tennis)
Debbie Brown: A Volleyball Life, Then And Now (volleyball)
Tim Connelly: In For The Long Haul (women’s cross country)
Grant Van De Casteele: A Domer By Chance (men’s soccer)
Elizabeth Tucker: Accounting For Greatness (women’s soccer)