On A Harlem Stoop With An Olympian

In quartata. Glissade. Manchette. Plastron. I don’t even know if these are real things that I’m saying but that was about the extent of my fencing knowledge, courtesy of Gil, Peter, Eugene and Larry over at the Pasadena Fencing Society.

It wasn’t even until this past summer’s Olympic Games in Rio — when fencing was constantly in the headlines — that I thought to even expand on that knowledge.

And what better place to go than directly to the source? In my case, that happened to be two-time Olympian, Daryl Homer who brought home silver for Team USA; the best result for a U.S. individual men’s saber fencer in over 100 years.

Daryl footed the bill for some fresh juice from Rejuvenate and then we settled on a stoop across from my old grade school.

Get to know Daryl Homer. Get to know fencing.

Tyron de Harlem: Having previously competed in the Olympics in London in 2012 and placing 6th and then this year coming in 2nd as you did what adjustments did have to make to get to where you were this year?

Daryl Homer: Each Olympic Games is its own separate entity. I’m grateful that I was able to elevate my experience from London. I learned in London pretty much how to compete on a high level. You learn the layout of the game and you also just learn that it’s just a normal competition and to kind of approach it that way. The reality is that although the Olympic Games is its own unique tournament; the whole world is watching, it’s still just like fencing in the gym and you just want to remember that. So that’s pretty much the mindset that I brought into Rio.

TdH: Training…What’s different [between] Olympic training, your regular fencing tournaments or championships or nationals?

DH: The thing with the Olympics is you have to get ready for the amount of pressure you’re going to be under: family, friends, sponsors, random people who start supporting you who just keep telling you, “You’ve gotta win the gold!” Things like that you really have to become aware of and really try to handle and manage. Other than that, it’s the same competitors you’ve had for the last four years, it’s the same referees, you’re the same fencer but it’s just bringing that out on that day and just handling that pressure.

TdH: You mentioned people saying, “Bring home the gold!” or constantly reminding you to bring home the gold. Is that a mindset you had yourself or was it one of those things where it’s like, “I’m already competing at an elite level, I’m just glad to be a part of this experience” or was gold what you had in mind?

DH: So the funny thing is I think for the whole year I was like, “Gotta get the gold. Everything has to be for the gold. If you’re not going for the gold Daryl you’re not doing anything.” And then finally about a month and a half before the Olympics, I hit a peace of mind and a really spiritual space where I just said to myself, “You’re already on a high level. You’re already a great fencer. Now just go out there and have fun and show off a little bit and show what you can do.” versus stressing out over winning gold, winning gold, winning gold. I just focused on the process, focused on being ready for the games, focused on being ready to compete, focused on getting my mind right, body right, my nutrition right. And I was just in a really good head space going in.

TdH: You’re a saberer. Is that the proper term?

DH: Saber fencer.

TdH: And there are two other types of fencers.

DH: That’s correct. There is foil and épeé.

TdH: So can you give us a brief tutorial on the differences of the three? And how you settled on the saber as your choice of weapon.

DH: Saber is more like Zorro. There’s slashing. You can hit anywhere from the waist up and you can slash. Foil you can only hit with the point and target the front of the torso and the back of the torso. The movie everyone’s seen with foil in it is The Parent Trap, “En garde!” And épeé is the same thing as foil, you can only hit with the point but the whole body is the target so it’s super slow and very methodical. The one I do is more explosive and everyone gets straight to the point.

TdH: Is that what attracted you to it?

DH: I got attracted to it because pretty much the program I started in, all of the cool older kids were fencing saber and all of the younger kids who were just starting were fencing foil. So at a certain point I was like I want to be with the cool older kids and be around those guys rather than being around the little kids all the time. That’s how I got into saber.

TdH: Speaking of being a kid and fencing, when you were fostering this relationship with this new sport was it instantaneous or did you have a love/hate relationship with it?

DH: I think it was more so instantaneous. I put on that mask — my mom still has a picture of my first time fencing — but I put on that mask and I just fell in love with it. And I think that love for it deepened when I got into saber fencing because it was just a whole new level of something for me.

But you know, it was a lot of hard practices. I started when I was 11 so a lot of times I wanted to be with my friends playing basketball and I had to run to practice or go to a movie with my friends at night and I had to be at practice but you kind of fall in love with it. And I always realized that I had a gift; that I was given a gift and that I was very lucky to be in that situation.

TdH: If a kid is interested in basketball, he has a whole lifetime to emulate Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or Lebron James. And the same with baseball whether it be Derek Jeter or A-Rod. Being that you were immersed in this thing that was kind of foreign, who did you emulate once you became more acquainted with the sport?

DH: I didn’t even have to look far. The program that I started in was started by a former Olympian who was African-American, Peter Westbrook. And after that, Keith Smart was a three-time Olympian, silver medalist in 2008, ranked number 1 in the world in ‘03. So it was just a situation where those were two black men in the same weapon I was in, who were among the greatest. Ivan Lee is another guy who is an Olympian from ‘04. But those are three dudes that off the rip that I was always around and could always emulate and look at and say that’s who I want to be or who I want to surpass. It’s amazing now that I have that support network because I have Peter, Keith & Ivan calling me up like, “You’re the man!” and I’m 26.

TdH: So introduce us to some of the terminology. I mentioned basketball. People will say I want to shoot like Ray Allen or I want to crossover like Allen Iverson. What did you want to do like Peter or what did you want to do like Keith?

DH: I wanted to parry like Peter. Peter is from the Ali age so he has that cool Zen like, “I’m a killer but I’m going to smile in your face” type look. And Keith is more from the Kobe era where he’s just dominating, dominating, dominating, dominating, I just want to blow you out. So it’s pretty much dominating and attacking like Keith and just having Pete’s finesse because Pete had so much finesse.

TdH: You’re credited with having this move called “The Flunge”. Is it something that’s yours or something that’s attributed to you because of how far you’ve gotten?

DH: It’s been attributed to me based on how far I’ve gotten and I use it a lot but I’ve actually watched Keith do that, I watched Ivan do that when I was a kid. I think we just have a different way of doing it. They were more direct with it. I kind of get hangtime, see the target and go around. I’ve kind of changed it and made it something for me but the reality is that Keith and Ivan were the first people I saw doing that.

TdH: Now that the Olympics are over what’s your routine or what are you gearing up for next? I think with something as foreign to us as fencing, we just know the Olympics and maybe Daryl just goes home now. What’s the day to day or what other kind of tournaments are you going to participate in now that the Olympics are over?

DH: I just finished up getting back from vacation so now I’m back to the job, back to the money. I’ve done some consulting and marketing for brands before. I worked on Budweiser Global for two years before the last Games. I’ll probably do some consulting again. I’m really focused on building and helping the community, volunteering with kids.

Beyond that, my competition cycle starts again in October, November actually. We have a tournament in Senegal that I can’t miss. It’ll be my first time back to Africa. It’s back to training. It’s back to travel, back to the grind making money.

Traveling, I’m going to the White House tomorrow to meet the president. Also, we have Team USA awards, opportunities like that and leveraging opportunities like that. But it’s uncharted territory for me too. I just came home with a medal, I don’t know what doors are going to open. So I just have to keep an open mind and keep doing the right thing and keep focused and hopefully more things will happen.

TdH: You mentioned starting when you were 11. At what point are the Olympics embedded in your mind or you figure out that’s something you want to accomplish? And not only in your mind but coaches see that you have the talent and the drive to even make it a consideration.

DH: This is going to sound like a fairytale to you but I was super blessed. My first coach was actually Yury Gelman or is Yury Gelman, he’s still my coach today. He was the Olympic coach in 2000 when I started. That was my first coach, the Olympic coach. So I think around 16, I medaled at the cadet world championships which is under 17. Then everyone was like okay who is Daryl Homer. Then at 20, I medaled twice at the Junior Worlds so it was like okay this guy is pretty good. At 18, I already made the senior team which is the Olympic team in non-Olympic years. I think around 16 is when people started to notice, “Okay this kid has talent” and I just kept building off of that. I think that’s when I kind of knew. I mean I always had dreams of being in the Olympics. My first Olympic memory was watching the guys compete in ‘04. For me, it was concrete around 16, I was like okay I have to keep doing what I’m doing and I’ll be there.

TdH: What about your friends? Did they understand what was occurring with you?

DH: I have a friend now, a really good friend from high school who writes for SB Nation and he wrote a really funny article about how I bragged about being good at everything in high school and no one believed I was good at fencing.

But it’s funny now everyone has a perspective of it and it’s like, “Whoa, we had no idea that you were that committed to it or you were that good at it or that this sport had that level of excellence in it.”

TdH: What other sports did you participate in on your downtime or was it 100 percent fencing?

DH: I started in cross country as a kid and hated it. Now I love track & field and athletics but cross country I hated it. I played baseball when I was young and those were the two main things I did.

TdH: Can you talk about the camaraderie, if any, you experienced in London or Rio whether it be among your teammates or the US period.

DH: Teammate wise, you travel with these people 8,9 times a year so you get very ingrained in each other and start understanding each other really well. We room together so we get used to be around each other all the time.

Team USA is amazing. Everyone is an Olympian whether it’s KD, Kobe you’re all olympians, Serena, you can just have real conversations with people. You can take their best training secrets away and learn about other sports and watch these other sports compete. And then you’re around a level of excellence you’re not around everyday. That’s what I love about Team USA, whether you’re the last ranked person or the highest ranked person, the expectation is that you can win a medal and that you’re doing it for your country, so I love that.

TdH: What do you listen to, if anything, to get you revved up? Can you take us through your routine when you’re prepping for a match?

DH: I listen to everything, from Yé to Kid Cudi, Travis Scott. I really like production, I like sounds, melody so I love Young Thug obviously. I’m an athlete so before all of this stuff was going on, Dreams Worth More Than Money was my album…Meek Mill, that was my album. When he was like, “shout out the judge that denied me my bail”, the hunger.

Right now I like Chance a lot. I think Vic Mensa is cool. Love me some dancehall and reggae too so I’m like all over the place. I’ll mix that with a Whitney and a Michael too so I’m all over the place.

TdH: Is it already a guarantee that you’ll be in Tokyo [2020 Olympic Games]? What’s that process?

DH: I have to requalify a year and a half before the Games. We start qualifications again and it starts all over but there are no guarantees. You have to come correct every year to be on that team. It’s very unforgiving. Hot today, cold tomorrow, you’re out so you just always have to be prepared and stay woke.

TdH: And you’re the big story but who else can you speak of that’s on the horizon?

DH: Ibtihaj Muhammad the girl who competed with the hijab on, she was the first person ever to do that. She got a lot of press this year, Obama shouted her out, she won a bronze medal. Miles Chamley-Watson is from the city as well, he models, he’s very into the downtown culture. Nzingha Prescod, ESPN Body Issue, two-time Olympian, Junior World Champion, Cadet World Champion. There are definitely people doing big things in the sport and everyone is trying to elevate the culture of it.

TdH: Do you have the desire to compete in as many Olympics as Peter [Westbrook] did?

DH: I don’t even know if that’s possible. I have to take it Olympics by Olympics. It’s not something outright where you can say, “I’m going to do six.” If it was possible, I’ll see. It’s a different time, it’s a different sport now. It’s more athletic, more wear and tear on your body. We travel more, there are more competitions, it’s just different.

TdH: I read somewhere that and I don’t want to misquote you but it was in regards to the final match…do you look back on it and see where you could have excelled?

DH: In that final match I think I was too anxious. It was a different situation for me. I think once you get yourself in enough situations you get use to it. I just think I over thought it a bit. If that would have been a match to make that round, I would have won the match in my mind 100%. A lot of times what’ll happen is that you’ll over think a situation.

TdH: And are these all the same people you see on the circuit all the time?

DH: We all know each other. Half of us were in training camp together three weeks before that.