Zoran Tulum gestures around his wood-paneled and stained glass-filled Zeta Fencing facility in downtown Natick, home of what is considered one of the strongest programs not just on the East Coast but in all of North America. The setting seems very Ivy League — not surprising, since Tulum coached at Harvard and Stanford — and when Tulum explains the inner workings of fencing, it can sound more like an academic pursuit than a sporting one.
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“You have to be a good mathematician, a good psychologist, and you have to be in very good shape,” the Yugoslavian-born Tulum said. “They call it ‘physical chess.’ ”
Tulum is one of the best at teaching “physical chess,” and US Olympic team members Eli Dershwitz and Andrew Mackiewicz are examples of this. Dershwitz, a Sherborn native, and Mackiewicz, from Westwood, followed older siblings to Zeta Fencing in 2005 and didn’t leave until college. They are homegrown athletes in a sport where promising youngsters are often encouraged to move to larger training centers.
Both are college graduates back training in Natick, and now headed to Tokyo, where they will compete in the individual and team sabre events.
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This will be the second Olympics for Dershwitz, 25, who was the youngest member of the US fencing team in Rio in 2016. In the years since his appearance at those Games, he has been ranked first in the world and captured eight medals on the World Cup circuit and the silver medal at the 2018 World Championships. The Harvard grad is currently the second-ranked sabre fencer globally and is a medal contender in Tokyo.
Dershwitz has competed internationally since his pre-teen years, winning the 2015 World Junior Championships. After the last few years of senior success, he brought his training in the three elements of fencing Tulum emphasizes — psychology, geometry, and physiology — to entirely new levels. He built a dedicated team of coaches, trainers, and medical staff, including Tulum, who has coached at four Olympics.
“Once you get to a certain level where you’re consistently doing very well internationally, then people start preparing for you, then it becomes much, much more difficult to stay consistent,” said Dershwitz. “That’s really where most of my physical and mental energy at this time is.
“I’m trying to put my body and my mind through so much hell every day at practice. I push through the pain, push through the adversity, push through the stress so that when I get to the Olympics, I’m mentally and physically ready to handle anything.”
Part of putting himself “through hell” is regularly training with Mackiewicz, 25, the third-ranked sabre fencer in the US. Only 2016 Olympic silver medalist Daryl Homer separates them.
“There’s days where we get super-competitive and get into each other’s faces and stuff, and we’re really trying to push each other and really trying to win,” Dershwitz said. “Sometimes practice does get very intense, because it’s a combat sport. But we know deep down that we’re both in it to make ourselves better.”
While Dershwitz is intensely focused because of the expectations of him, Mackiewicz is a bit looser. Ask him why he picked sabre instead of foil or epee — where touches can be scored only with the tip of the weapon and therefore require much more detail — and he laughs.
“I just like to run forward and cut people down,” he said. “I guess I don’t have patience for the other two.”
‘I push through the pain, push through the adversity, push through the stress so that when I get to the Olympics, I’m mentally and physically ready to handle anything.’
The bronze medalist at the 2018 Pan American Championships and a two-time NCAA champion at Penn State, he earned the final sabre spot on the US Olympic team in early May. There may be less expectations on him, but that doesn’t mean he is happy just to be there.
“My goal wasn’t just to qualify for the Olympics, but to succeed and do well and have the possibility of medaling,” said Mackiewicz. “I’m pretty nonchalant right now, but I think once I get there, the emotions are going to kick in.”
Mackiewicz and Dershwitz both thrive at keeping calm, even in emotional circumstances like reaching the Olympics. It’s a trait a fencer must pick up quickly, and it is one of the first things their longtime coach teaches to newcomers.
“You have to have extremely good control of your emotions because you have to act with ice in your head and fire in your heart,” said Tulum. “If you lose that balance, the fire will melt the ice or the ice will kill the fire. You have to be in perfect balance of desire and calmness, like a good general.”
It’s one of many lessons Dershwitz and Mackiewicz have picked up over their 16 years training with Tulum. But while their coach likes to boil fencing down to “psychology, geometry, and physiology,” he might be missing one aspect: family. Everyone who steps into Zeta Fencing becomes part of a family.
“It’s been amazing having somebody from such a young age that is not only a friend, not only a teammate, but also someone that we consider family to be there every day at practice,” said Dershwitz.
“Fencing is very personal,” said Tulum. “So we always hug after the lesson. That’s how close we are. We, you know, pow-pow-pow for hours and hours, and then we end like brothers. And then we go on.”
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