It was a classic matchup: young vs. old, underdog vs. favorite, senior worlds first-timer vs. four-time world champion. The U.S.'s Race Imboden vs. Germany's Peter Joppich, facing off in the table of 16 at the 2011 fencing senior world championships.
Imboden, only 18 years old at the time, was in the biggest bout of his career, facing his most difficult opponent -- a fencer in his 30s who was very small, quick and difficult to hit. Joppich jumped out to a quick lead, hoping to quickly eliminate the American teenager, but Imboden was relentless. He tied the bout up at 13-13, needing only two touches (fencing terminology for points) to win. Imboden, fueled by the crowd which was "extremely loud," scored two quick points and leaped into the air. However, a reversed call halted Imboden's celebration and tied the bout up at 14.
A few seconds later, Imboden achieved sports' pinnacle: the upset. He won the touch and the bout, toppling the favored fencer to win the match.
Everyone in sports can relate to Imboden's upset, even though fencing is one of the lesser-known Olympic sports. Fencing is not a spectator sport. It's not a sport kids learn in gym class. It's not a sport offered at the local YMCA. It's not won with power, strength and fitness, instead favoring technique, mental sharpness and wit.
But Imboden is determined to change fencing's place on the national stage. He has a goal, a dream of helping the sport grow in the United States, of making fencing as popular as it is in other countries across the world. He's said that he plans to be with this sport for the long run, and he wants to show that fencing is athletic, accessible and exciting, just like every other sport out there. As his upset of Joppich at the 2011 world championships showed, Imboden has the potential to be the next face for U.S. fencing.
And he'll get that opportunity at the 2012 London Games. On April 15 he was officially named a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team for the men's foil event.
"I definitely think fencing draws in many people who are very intelligent but don't quite pick up on the idea that this is a sport," Imboden says. "Usually the guys that you see who are very big and fit would be good at whatever sport they do. ... Once you start competing, the guys who are going to shine are the ones who have the best balance between physical and mental."
When Imboden was young, he started fencing in the most organic of ways.
"I loved to play with swords when I was little, so some parent mentioned it to my mother on the playground," Imboden said. "She took me to this club, but they said I was too young to fence -- I was 9 at the time. A year later I asked to go back for my birthday for a couple lessons."
Imboden played other sports as well, but eventually realized that all he wanted to do was fence. He started competing in local competitions, and the rest is history.
"I saw my peers making [national] teams, and I wanted to do that," Imboden said. "I started traveling and competing internationally, and then everything just kind of took off from there."
Competing in any sport at the national and international level is especially difficult for a teenager still in high school. Luckily, Imboden attended a small private school in New York City which was supportive of his fencing.
"I learned to do my work on the train and in between tournaments," Imboden said.
Imboden says qualifying for world championship and Olympic teams is a "very long process." During the year, fencers earn points based on their finishes at national and international tournaments; first place receives a certain number of points, second place receives a fewer number of points, and down from there. Fencers are ranked by the number of points they have, and the top three in each division are sent to the world championships.
He qualified for his first cadet (under 17 years old) world championship team in 2010 and went on to win the bronze medal. But in 2011, Imboden had a breakout year, qualifying for both the U.S.'s junior and senior world championship teams and for the U.S. Pan American team. He finished 10th at the junior world championships and eighth at the senior world championships, when he upset the favored Peter Joppich. Then, he took gold in both the individual and team events at the Pan Am Games.
2012 has unfolded in a similar manner. At the World Cup event in Paris, Imboden and his teammate Alex Massialas both won bronze medals, marking the first time two American fencers have ever medaled at a World Cup event. At the World Junior Fencing Championships in Moscow, Imboden placed 13th overall and contributed to the U.S.'s team gold medal-winning performance. And of course, he's now headed to London as part of Team USA. Currently, Imboden is ranked no. 6 in the fencing World Senior Rankings, no. 2 in the USA Fencing senior division and no. 2 in the USA Fencing junior division.
Imboden's Olympic push couldn't have come at a better time. After graduating from high school in spring 2011, he decided take the next year to focus strictly on fencing. He'll head to the University of Notre Dame, where he will join the nation's best collegiate fencing team, in fall 2012, but right now, he's training nearly every day, twice a day, and taking every opportunity to ensure he'll be among the best on the world's biggest stage in London.
"Fencing has always been a European thing and the European guys have dominated," Imboden says. "But now the U.S. is starting to be in the mix of guys who are top competitors in the world. Being so young, I want to show people that Americans can mix with these guys, individually and [as] a team."
After the Olympics, Imboden plans on fencing all four years at Notre Dame, and then he hopes to obtain sponsorship so he can continue fencing professionally. Right now, there's no professional circuit for fencing; the highest level at which a fencer can compete is on the national team, which limits publicity for fencers in the U.S. However, Imboden really hopes to change that one day.
"It's hard in the U.S. to get paid for fencing," Imboden says. "One of my personal goals is to change that. Personally I would love to see fencing at a level where fencers can be paid and have it televised like in European countries. When I was [in Europe], the first thing I saw when I turned the news on in the morning was fencers' faces. It's awesome to see that, but I want to be in that environment. Hopefully for me, if I can achieve goals that I have, maybe it will shift my sport in that direction."
Imboden's goals for himself and the sport of fencing are numerous. Luckily, he's already achieved one of those by qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team.
"I want to do this for as long as I can," he says. "I think a lot of people in our country don't do that because it's hard to make a living from it, but I think it's possible. If I go for it and I achieve what I want to achieve, I can do it."