FACES: A League of His Own

Race Imboden, Photo by Jasmin Romero

World Champion, Race Imboden, talks about his journey to the Olympics.

Sounds of shuffling feet and metal quickly colliding echo off the dimly lit walls of the Golubitsky Fencing Center. My presence blends into the shadows, as Olympian Race Imboden and Coach Sergei Golubitsky, three time world fencing champion, get lost in their practice.

A loud cry surges through the room. As if breaking the fourth wall, Golubitsky looks at me in pain.

“Are you recording this? He’s trying to kill me. ‘World Champion Kills His Coach’ it will make headlines,” he says holding his chest.

Practice continues as quickly as before, and ends a couple minutes later. Imboden throws his blood stained gloves on the counter, and I quickly gather that injuries are a common occurrence. Ones that usually make for the best jokes.

They begin to strip off their gear, and with each layer a sense of seriousness washes away. In the span of two minutes Golubitsky goes from reminding Imboden about his form to telling me a crude joke.

“Have you heard the one about the red and black worm? Well, he says, there’s an experienced fisherman and a boy who is just learning. One day the boy notices the wise man using a red worm to hook all the fish. The next day the boy notices the man using a black worm to catch the fish. The boy finally asks how he knows what color worm will attract the greatest amount of fish. The man answers by saying, ‘It all depends on how I wake up. If I wake up and my penis is to the right I use a red worm. If I wake up and my penis is to the left I use a black worm.’ ‘Well what if your penis is erect?” the boy asks. ‘Then I stay home with my wife’” he falls back in his chair with a fit of laughter.

“That’s all he teaches me,” Imboden jokes. He’s teaching me more about sex than about fencing” laughing with his coach.

Imboden, 23-year-old, 2015 world fencing champion and model, has quickly made his way into the public eye. He is set to fence for his second time at the Olympics this upcoming summer in Brazil for the USA Men’s Foil Team.

With a little time off, Imboden finds time to grab lunch and talk about his craft.

“I have a new coach who is one of the best fencers of all time” he says, “to finally work with someone who has the ability to call themselves great, is an honor. It’s something that no one else has had in the United States. I mean I moved across the fucking country to train with him.”

Imboden stresses how influential the help from international fencers has been. “Golubitsky and as well as many other big time fencers has helped our country become good at fencing. It’s helped us gain traction.”

When I ask how he began fencing, he opens up with a story from his childhood. “It’s always the same question” he laughs, “I was eight years old playing with a light saber in the park, and this guy came up to my parents and told them I should start fencing. We ended up driving to the middle of nowhere to meet this guy at a club. As soon as he walks out he tells me I’m too young, and to come back when I’m older. I mean we came all this way so I stay and watch and become obsessed. I go back for my tenth birthday.”

Fiddling with his straw, Imboden recalls growing up in New York. He was an active child, and like any other kid, played several sports at once. Anytime he got too serious with a sport he began noticing he didn’t want to play anymore. With fencing, he realized he was not getting to where he wanted to be.

“Suddenly I had this emotional connection to the sport where it was like winning or losing was what it was all about, and when that happens the work part and the discipline kind of falls along with it. You do anything to succeed.”

This “do anything to succeed” mentality peaks into his every answer. Growing up, Imboden gave up a big part of his social life to fence.

“I would wake up every morning at 4 to go fence, and then after school I was the first one to leave to go practice again. I missed my prom. I missed a lot of things, but I mean I never really thought about it. It was never like ‘Wow I really want to go to prom’ It was like ‘Holy shit I can go to Korea and fence. I’m going.”

Despite the absence at school, Imboden strongly believes fencing has allowed him to be a student.
“You are a student of your craft. You become so passionate about it that you dive so deeply into it,” he says, “when you see someone who’s really good athletics, its not just like ‘oh he knows how to play basketball’ It’s that he knows every minute detail of the court and every step he takes. When you see someone play any sport in the highest level, you’re seeing two high level doctors how to debate about a surgery, it becomes personal. An in-depth personal connection to something.”

Imboden stops eating to reflect on his words.

“I mean you see kids at school studying an acing tests and I was always like ‘how do you spend so much time doing that? But you know they would say the same thing to me, ‘how do you spend so much time in the gym poking people?’ Theres so much more to it. It’s your own utopia.”

The expression on Imboden’s face changes as he begins to talk about what he want’s fencing to be in the future. His light tone, is now serious and his arms are crossed against his chest.

“It’s not necessarily about changing the perception. A sport is a sport, it can’t change. I just want people to look at it and understand what went into it. I just want more people to have the opportunity and be given a platform to play the sport when they might not have been able to play the sport before. To be able to teach other people about this thing that has taught me more than anything else in my entire life. It’s not about me. It’s about if this sport becomes big other people can partake in it, and I can then give back.”

With a few final words Imboden goes back to his motto of doing all that you can to be your best.

“Fencing is life, sometimes it’s amazing and blissful and other times it’s a grind and you force yourself to go in. It’s all about learning and continuing to progress, and not just getting complacent. The second you get complacent and you’re no longer learning, you’re dead.