Amid Trump’s travel ban, fencers keep their weapons raised

Francesca Russo, 24, is ranked fifth in the women’s saber U.S. Olympic qualification list.

By Emine Yücel
Medill Reports

Kamali Thompson, a Team USA saber fencer training for the 2020 Olympics, woke up Thursday morning to 30 missed messages. Her friends and family in the U.S. were calling, urging her to cut her training trip short and return home from Paris immediately.

“Luckily for me, I was able to switch my flight really quickly without any problems at all,” said Thompson, who arrived in New York City Thursday night, just ahead of President Trump’s new travel restrictions on flights from Europe to the United States that came into effect March 13 at 11:59 p.m. EST. “But if I hadn’t left that day, I know I probably would’ve been stranded in France for a while.”

The ban applies only to non-U.S. citizens who in the past two weeks have visited one of the 26 countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. But Trump’s Wednesday night announcement alarmed U.S. fencers and coaches who are in the Olympic qualification process.

After Friday night, citizens who have traveled to specified European countries will still be allowed to enter the U.S., but the process could be extremely complicated.

In his Friday afternoon press conference, where he declared a national emergency, Trump, specified that U.S. citizens who are entering the country after a visit to one of the specified European countries will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and be “subject to extra screening.” Athletes said they’re unsure what this means.

For most elite fencers, an Olympic training schedule involves five days a week of practices and a rigorous strength and conditioning regimen. Throughout the qualification process, athletes will often travel to Europe for training camps and competitions. For athletes who are on a strict schedule to be in peak condition for qualifiers and the Olympic games, a 14-day self-quarantine could be devastating.

“With Olympic qualifiers scheduled to be happening, taking two weeks off completely is definitely not ideal,” Thompson said. “It can be detrimental to your chances of making the Olympic team. We want to be in the best shape physically and mentally, and it doesn’t feel like you can have that if you are not doing anything for two weeks.”

The day after Trump’s announcement regarding the travel ban, the International Fencing Federation said it would be canceling or postponing numerous Olympic qualifiers as overwhelming numbers of athletes are affected by COVID-19 induced flight cancellations, mandatory quarantines and travel restrictions.

According to U.S.A. Fencing’s Olympic qualification criteria, following the one-year process that ends in April 2020, on each category, “the top 3 athletes on the senior national team point standings will qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Fencing Team with the No. 4 athlete earning a position as the replacement athlete for the team event only.”

Thompson, 28, who has spent the last four years pursuing her dream to become an Olympian, is ranked fourth in the women’s saber U.S. Olympic qualification list.

Kamali Thompson competing in the 2019 Absolute Fencing Gear Women’s Saber World Cup in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Courtesy of Kamali Thompson)

Right behind Thompson is Francesca Russo, 24, who after graduating from Notre Dame in 2018 committed to training for the Olympics full time.

“There are just a lot of emotions right now,” Russo said. “This is very nerve-wracking because I’m in a position where I absolutely need more competitions. They’re so important for me to push myself up in the ranking. If they decide to cut the Olympic qualification short right here, I would be devastated because I could have gone to one more competition, gotten a really good result and moved up to fourth.”

Like Russo, Jonah Shainberg, 24, has been training full-time for the past two years. He is ranked fifth in the men’s saber category.

“Obviously, this is very unfortunate,” said Shainberg, who trains in New York City. “But, whether I get to compete in one more tournament or three, I’m just going to give it my best. I’m trying my best not to freak out about it.”

Jonah Shainberg (right) scores a touch at the 2020 Warsaw World Cup in Poland. (Courtesy of Jonah Shainberg)

That’s easier said than done. “It’s hard,” said Russo, who was Shainberg’s teammate in college. “Because, there’s this dream that you’ve been working toward for so long and all of a sudden, it’s sort of shattered, but you’re not sure completely.”

The uncertainty around the rest of the fencing season is stressful even for athletes who are closer to securing a spot for Tokyo, compared to Russo and Shainberg.

Jackie Dubrovich, a foil fencer, woke up to a phone call on Thursday at 4:30 a.m. Her last scheduled qualification event, which was supposed to take place this weekend in Anaheim, California, was canceled due to the European travel ban.

“For me, it’s pretty anxiety-inducing,” said Dubrovich, 25, who is ranked second in the women’s foil category. “Especially, because this was going to be, hopefully, the tournament that I was going to find out that I was officially on the Olympic team. So, to indefinitely postpone the process and be in this waiting period is nerve-wracking, especially because U.S. Fencing does not yet know what will happen next.”

Despite all the anxiety and uncertainties, athletes are trying to stay focused on qualifying for the Olympics in Tokyo.

“Now, it comes down to who is going to be the calmest through this storm,” Shainberg said. “Who is going to tune everything out and keep doing what they need to be doing?”

Jonah Shainberg celebrates at the January North American Cup in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Camille Simmons)

“A lot of athletes talk about the grind,” Russo said. “We all feel it. But this, in my opinion, is the ultimate grind, physically and mentally. I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing and keep that grind mentality because if I stop I’ve given up all hope. So, I’m going to keep working hard ‘til there’s absolutely no chance for me.”

It’s a common refrain. “What choice do I have?” said epee fencer Isis Washington, 26. “This is just one of those situations I can’t control, so I can’t stress out about it. I’ve been doing quite well this whole season. I’ve been fencing well. So, I’ll stay ready. I believe that the FIE and U.S Fencing will try and give everybody the best opportunity to qualify.”

In a statement emailed to the fencing community, U.S.A Fencing said it is gathering more information on how to deal with the five-week postponement of international events, but its top priority is the safety and well-being of all athletes.

“Things are closing day-by-day,” Thompson said. “Gyms in New York are closing down as well. I need to sit down and come up with a plan that’s best for me.”

According to Thompson, Fencer’s Club, where she and Washington train in New York City, said it is shutting down and allowing only Olympic hopefuls to train.

“Whoever qualifies to the Olympic team, whether it’s me or my competitors, know that we went through extreme adversity to get there,” Shainberg said. “Whoever it may be, they have earned it. No one decides to train for the Olympics and deal with a pandemic at the same time.”

Photo at top: Francesca Russo (right) competes during the 2019 Orléans World Cup in France. She is ranked fifth in the women’s saber U.S. Olympic qualification list. (Courtesy of Francesca Russo)