As you may have heard, the Columbia fencing team is pretty freaking baller. This summer, four of our own fencers will be going to London to compete in the 2012 Olympics. James Williams, CC ’07, was an alternate in Beijing in 2008, where he was called in to help the US win silver. He is part of the US team this year. Jeff Spear, CC ’10, will be an alternate. Bwog giddily talked to these two sabre fencers about their journey, America, and James Bond.
Bwog: How long have you been fencing? When did the dream of going to the Olympics start to become a realistic possibility?
James: 17 years! My junior year (2005) at Columbia, I made it onto the U.S. National team and realized that if I could do that again in 3 years time, I could go to the Olympics.
Jeff: I have been fencing for 11 years. The best answer to when the dream became a realistic possibility is probably when I decided to ‘go for it’ in 2008. At the time the goal was still unreachable—I had recently dropped off the national senior rankings—but it really was a conscious decision to try to go that made all the difference in the world.
B: James, how does it feel to be the “first Ivy League male to win an Olympics fencing medal in 60 years and the first to finish as high as second since 1904”?
JW: It feels fine. If you use that many qualifiers, you can be first or second in almost anything!
B: Has being involved in the Olympics made you more patriotic?
JW: Yes! Wow. It made me really proud to be an American.
JS: Yes and no. I am very proud to represent my country, but I think an even more important lesson I have learned is how similar people are all across the world. Every tournament there are 200 of us from 30 countries united by a common dream. I spend weeks at training camps with people from different teams, and we tell stories, share experiences, and talk about life. The Olympics unites countries but I think, even more importantly, it unites the world.
B: Do people make a lot of obnoxious pirate jokes re: swords? Is that annoying?
JW: Much more so before I made it to the Beijing Games. I mostly hear fencing related puns now. The humor has been exhausted, but I admit that were it someone else, I would be making the jokes, so I take it in stride.
JS: Mostly people make comments about my name, which I guess is tangentially related to fencing.
B: When you watch movies with sword fighting/fencing, do you critique their form? Does it irritate you when they’re doing it wrong? (i.e. this)
JW: Yes, I can’t help it. I get really annoyed when two actors advance and retreat at one another touching alternating sides of their blades. Poorly choreographed scenes cause a visceral reaction. I get agitated and say something along the lines of “I could totally house them,” either ironically or not. I also want to say that some of the best choreographed fencing I’ve seen was in the movie “I Love You Man.”
JS: The most annoying thing about Hollywood sword fights is that no one is actually trying to hit each other and that tends to be painfully obvious. It can be funny, though, because they often hire real fencers to teach the actors how to fence, so underneath all of the nonsense you get basic form and actions that we use in real bouts (even in that James Bond clip). I like to find the evidence for that form, and if I’m being really dorky I try to guess which weapon the original teachers fence.
B: Which of these commercials most relates to your experience: Best Job, NBC Sports, Come Together, IBM, Brian Clay
JS: They all make important points (well, except maybe the IBM one), but I think my favorite is Proctor and Gamble. My mom has been a rockstar—she is every one of those moms in the commercial and so much more. Everything from fundamentals like time and money and logistics to even more essential love and support—there to hold me when I lose or cry when I win. Also, I have a soft spot in my heart for those commercials because she IS a P&G mom. They sent her to Singapore as part of their ‘Thank You, Mom’ program to watch my brother compete at the Youth Olympic Games in 2010.
B: James, is preparation different the second time around? Are you more or less nervous than in ’08?
JW: Yes, my approach seems less frenetic and more methodical this time. I am more nervous than I was in ’08.
B: Will you be competing against any of the same faces from Beijing?
JW: Approximately 65% of the competitors in London will be repeat offenders from China. We have an international competition once every two weeks so I am very familiar with every competitor that will be there.
B: Do you see any of the core Greek values, as detailed in LitHum texts, instilled in the Olympics/other athletes you’ve met?
JS: At a superficial level, everything from the skill and prowess of the competitors to the hospitality shown by the host country can be said to be embodiments of Greek values. But there is a lot more to it than that, I think. The Olympic motto is ‘swifter, higher, stronger’; it could have been ‘swiftest, highest, strongest’ but it isn’t. To succeed at sport you must push boundaries, not create them. You compete with yourself as much as with your opponents. I have seen sport bring out the best and the worst in people, but overall I think it has made me, and most athletes I have met, better people. If we happen to acquire some Greek values along the way, so much the better.
B: Jeff—Will Spear, CC ’15, is your brother. Do you help each other train? Are arguments decided by fencing each other?
JS: Will and I have trained together for as long as we’ve been fencing. We don’t settle our arguments with duels, as it were, but we do fence each other frequently, both at practice and at competitions. We represent different clubs, so we have been on opposite teams in the finals of multiple national championships, and this year, at Olympic qualifying tournaments. I love fencing Will, he is a very smart and gutsy fencer, which make each bout exciting and novel despite the fact that we have probably fenced each other a thousand-plus times. These bouts are always close—typically decided by one or two touches.
B: Is sabre the best weapon?
JW: Yes. Without a doubt. Foil and Epee are not bad, though.
JS: Of course.
B: What will you do in London? Will you have time for sightseeing?
JW: I’d like to go clothing shopping. I may visit a couple pubs. I hope I win another medal. I want to develop a passable British accent by the time I return home on August 13th.
James Williams via Columbia Athletics