It’s taken more than 15 years, but Zoran Tulum can finally see the finished product taking shape before his eyes.
You’ll find him most days in a weathered brick building on South Main Street in the heart of Natick Center, two flights up from a bakery and a catering firm. His Zeta Fencing club has no advertising out front, but when you find it, you can feel Tulum’s passion for the sport.
An architect by training, if not by trade, Tulum has painstakingly rehabilitated the two-story space in the former Odd Fellows hall, hand-restoring an original ceiling mural and the wooden banister and railings that grace its balcony. More striking still, he’s adorned the walls with weapons, prints, and tapestries that pay homage to the storied art of fencing.
As he’s trained at the club over the last decade, Eli Dershwitz has seen the place transformed to a living shrine to the sport he loves. But in a more remarkable transformation, the 19-year-old Sherborn resident has emerged under Tulum’s guidance as one of the world’s best practitioners in fencing.
Earning individual and team gold medals in the men’s saber competition at last month’s Pan American Games in Toronto has lofted Dershwitz to new heights. Ranked No. 17 in the world, the rising Harvard sophomore is the youngest sabreur among the world’s top 25.
“It’s a very high position for somebody of his age,” said Tulum, a former Yugoslavian fencing champion who now lives in Natick and coaches the US men’s saber team.
“In fencing, most of the fencers mature in their late 20s, early 30s, because . . . experience counts a lot.”
The sport is often referred to as “physical chess,” one that challenges the mind as well as the body. It was that double-barreled emphasis that lured Dershwitz to follow his older brother, Philip, into the sport.
At the Junior and Cadet World Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in April, Dershwitz took the U-20 gold medal, giving Team USA its first individual men’s saber junior world title.
“It was an amazing feeling,” he said, “to have all these years of commitment and work solidify into one moment.”
His next target: the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a tough goal. Due to a scheduled off year in the Olympic rotation, there will be no men’s team saber at the Rio Games. Instead, two athletes will represent the USA in the individual competition.
American Daryl Homer, ranked sixth in the world, is likely to be one of them. That leaves Dershwitz and dozens of other Olympic dreamers vying for one golden ticket.
So Dershwitz will recuse himself from his studies at Harvard for the upcoming year (he was a first team All-American as a freshman), and focus on getting to Rio, with a great deal of his time spent training with Tulum.
“I really feel that I can keep improving, keep getting better, and eventually get that Olympic medal for Team USA,” he said.
Dershwitz is hardly the only young local athlete with lofty ambitions on the world stage. Darren Yang shares similar aspirations in badminton.
“Most people think that it’s just a backyard game, that it’s a slow, casual outdoor game,” said the 17-year-old Yang, who recently completed his junior year at Acton-Boxborough Regional High. “But they don’t see the competitive side, the fast side, the physically demanding side.’’
His fervor has lifted the 5-foot-10 Yang to the pinnacle of junior badminton. At the USA Junior National Championships in July, he placed first in doubles and in mixed doubles, and was runner-up at singles for the boys’ U-19 bracket.
The remarkable showing bumped Yang to No. 2 nationally in his bracket.
During the Junior International Trials in April, Yang was named one of four young men who will represent Team USA at the Pan American Junior Games, which start Sunday in Tijuana, Mexico, and the BWF World Junior Championships this fall in Lima, Peru.
Yang’s family recently relocated from Acton to Santa Clara, Calif., where he will attend Wilcox High, a school known for its strong badminton program.
With the Olympic Games and a world championship his ultimate dreams, he wouldn’t mind seeing a gold rush first.
“I just want to get as far as I can in the tournament,” Yang said of this week’s event. “I just want to go out there, try my best, and see where I end up.”
Weston High student Nick Cummings is taking a similar approach, but with two loves: golf and squash. Only 15, the rising sophomore has found success on the golf course, recently qualifying for the 2015 US Amateur golf championships at the end of this month.
Cummings first gained national recognition in squash, where he was top 10 in the 11-U age group and top 5 at 13-U. In 2012, he represented the United States at the U-13 level at the annual Ontario-American Challenge.
He sees many similarities between golf and squash. “There’s a lot of strategy to both sports,” Cumming said. “They don’t look too similar, but it kind of reminds me of match play in golf, squash does. You’re playing one opponent and you’re playing just them.”
During the winter, Cummings stays busy with national tournaments put on by US Squash. Last summer, he traveled to Harrogate, England, to train under David Pearson, who coached the country’s national team from 1995-2010.
He still has a few years before he must focus on a single sport, though part of him hopes he won’t have to.
“That would be my ultimate goal, to play both in college,” he said. “I definitely want to focus on golf. If squash happens, that would be awesome. I’d be really happy with that.”