NATICK — The first time Eli Dershwitz walked into Zeta Fencing, he watched his older brother Philip finish a lesson and thought, “That’s cool. I can hit people over the head with a sword and not get in trouble.” Exactly what you would expect from a 5-year-old.
A few years later, Dershwitz started taking lessons at Zeta, a magical space across the street from the Natick town common. Zeta Fencing is all old world, European charm, a wood-paneled throwback to the sport’s golden age.
These days, Dershwitz, 20, calls Zeta “my second home.” He spends more waking hours there than anywhere else, perfecting his saber technique. That includes afternoons filled with fencing lessons from his longtime coach Zoran Tulum. Then for nearly three hours at night, he practices his footwork, goes through drills, and fences top-level opponents, including competitors on the US national team.
The goal: A medal at the Rio Olympics in August.
Since Dershwitz took a year off from Harvard and dedicated himself to full-time training, he has climbed into medal contention. He will enter the competition as the No. 12-ranked saber fencer in the world and No. 1 in the United States.
“At the beginning of the year, I probably would have said the same thing as now, that my goal is to leave with a medal,” said Dershwitz. “But I’m not sure how much of it I would have actually believed until a few months ago when I won my first World Cup in South Korea and that gave me a great confidence boost. Now, I really think I have a shot to leave with a medal.”
But one year ago, Dershwitz’s focus was on simply making the US Olympic team in a sport where age and experience typically provide an advantage. Most fencers peak in their mid-to-late 20s.
Fresh from winning the 2015 Junior World Championships (following a silver in 2012 and bronze in 2013), he knew that it would be difficult to balance his college studies and his training for an Olympic berth. To make the jump from junior level success to senior level success, he needed to “be a professional athlete for at least a year,” even if it meant time away from Harvard.
Debating whether to take a year off from school, Dershwitz heard from “doubters” who told him, “You’re young. You have time.” But he was eager to embrace the challenge of living as a full-time fencer and chasing an Olympic spot. And he understood he would have to live with the consequences.
“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how, ‘Oh, even if you don’t make it you still tried hard and that’s valuable life experience that you got this year,’ ” said Dershwitz, a 2014 graduate of Dover-Sherborn High School. “That’s a nice way to think about it and something to tell yourself so you’re not upset.
“But after all the work you put in, after all the years, I do think it would be a big letdown to have all the work, not go to waste, but not to have . . . this end goal to show for it, it would definitely take its toll on me or anyone else.”
After a yearlong qualification process that involved nine major international tournaments in eight countries, from Russia to Chile to Hungary to South Korea, Dershwitz secured his spot on the Olympic team in early April.
Passion sets him apart
Overlooking six fencing strips laid across a wood floor at Zeta Fencing, Dershwitz and Tulum repeatedly referred to fencing as “physical chess.” And of the three fencing disciplines, saber is the most fast-paced and explosive form of physical chess.
In saber, fencers can score points when the tip or side of the blade hits any part of the upper body, including the torso, head, and arms, but not the hands. Typically, saber fencers score points quicker than in foil or epee. In foil or epee, competitors score with only the tip of the weapon, often leading to points taking longer and involving more patience.
The 6-foot-1-inch Dershwitz comments that saber fencing is “a perfect fit for me and my personality type” because of the quicker pace and intense bursts of action. Taking on opponents, he is an impressive combination of long-limbed grace, precision, and aggressiveness. But his greatest strength as a fencer may be his mental toughness and his fearlessness.
“I’ve never been scared of anybody, whether I was a young kid coming up to the older levels or where I am now,” said Dershwitz. “I don’t care if someone is ranked ahead of me or if they’re faster than me or if they’re taller than me. If I’m smart enough, I can find ways to beat them. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with this sport.”
Dershwitz grew up fencing with Westwood’s Andrew Mackiewicz at Zeta. And the two continue to train together whenever Mackiewicz returns home from Penn State, where he recently finished his sophomore year with his second consecutive NCAA men’s fencing title in saber.
When asked what sets Dershwitz apart, Mackiewicz, who competes on the US national team, said, “It’s his passion for the sport. I don’t think I’ve met anyone, in my career so far in fencing, that’s as passionate. He’s very quick at catching [onto] other people’s skills and their way of fencing. Technique-wise, he’s a very clean saber fencer. He’s kind of like a Roger Federer where he wants to make every move perfect and crisp.”
Tulum agrees that Dershwitz shows plenty of fearlessness and exhibits near flawless technique. But the coach also praises another quality in his Rio-bound fencer: emotional control.
“Whatever happens during the lesson or if he loses at a tournament, he rebounds,” said Tulum. “He bounces back like a Ping-Pong ball. This is very important because you have to train to be emotionally strong so things cannot disturb you. . . . He’s so balanced emotionally that he doesn’t feel the butterflies the way that the other people do. I can see that on his face.”
Feeding a dream
Four years ago, Dershwitz and his parents gathered around a computer at their Sherborn home and watched live streaming coverage of fencing at the London Olympics. And Dershwitz spoke about his desire to compete in the Rio Olympics. Exactly what you would expect from a 16-year-old who didn’t shy away from tough competition.
“The US coach said something about up-and-coming fencers in the wings [for the next Olympics] and Eli looked at me and said something like, ‘That could be me. I would love to be the person he’s talking about. I could work to that,’ ” said his mother, Renee Goetzler. “That was when I thought this is something he really, really wants.”
Added his father, Mark Dershwitz: “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone personally who was an Olympian. So, to have one in the family is nothing short of incredible.”
When it gets to the highest level of the sport, Tulum says exterior physical differences such as height and reach don’t matter as much as “the internal organs, heart and brain.” Technically, Tulum doesn’t see much for Dershwitz to work on. Tactically, there’s always opportunity for instruction with different opponents. But Tulum believes the most important part of preparation for the Olympics is training under different levels of stress to replicate what Dershwitz will experience in Rio.
“He can win and he can lose in the first round,” says Tulum, a former Yugoslavian national champion fencer who coached the US men’s foil team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and will fill the same position for the saber team in Rio. “Everything is possible. . . . Mentality is everything. How we’re going to live the two days before. No distractions. We have to find a way to put him in a bubble from the outside world, as much as possible, so he doesn’t have any bad input.”
Between now and when the Olympic men’s saber competition starts on Aug. 10, Dershwitz is focused on staying healthy and “practicing smart.” The Olympian wants to be “as fast and strong as I’ve ever been in my life,” but make sure he doesn’t peak too soon.
“A large part of my life has been dedicated to training for this one tournament,” said Dershwitz. “When it comes down to one day, that’s a lot of pressure. But my goal is to try and enjoy the moment, enjoy the process and enjoy the whole competition.”
And he hopes that will lead to a medal.