March 14, 2014
Phoenix Harris, Class of '14 -
When you think about speed in sports or who the fastest athlete is, fencing probably isn’t the first endeavor that comes to mind. It’s easy to recognize the fastest runners on the track or the swiftest players on the football field, but according to sophomore epee fencer Garrett McGrath, fencing athletes are leaders in one of the areas that matters most – mental speed.
“Fencing happens much faster than other sports,” he explains. “In the Olympics, when a fencing blade is in the middle of a flick, when it’s arching down, it’s the second fastest object in the Olympics. The first is a bullet.
“Things happen extremely fast, and as a fencer, you can tell when you’ve made it and you didn’t. You have a small margin for physical errors, so mental speed and willpower are the fuel that pushes you to be even a tenth of a second quicker.”
McGrath prioritizes having enough “fuel” to push him and his team forward – a leadership role he has quickly but happily accepted following the graduation of over five fencing seniors from last May.
“Last year, there were a lot of successful seniors that had impressive careers and records and intimidating details all around. There was no lack of leadership on the team. There was definitely no need for someone like me to ever make a decision other than in my own matches. My responsibilities were very confined to fencing because I was new and I was doing well,” McGrath recalls. “That’s dramatically different from this year where I’m now kind of among the most ‘senior’ fencers on the epee squad. All of the sudden I don’t just have to worry about my personal fencing responsibilities, but the team as a whole as well.”
Although this is only his second year on the team, McGrath shows no signs of being a newcomer to collegiate fencing. Last year, he earned a 13th place finish in the men’s epee of the NCAA Championships despite only being experienced in pre-collegiate tournament style fencing.
McGrath says the two are very different. According to him, pre-collegiate tournaments start quietly and build throughout the day with each bout. They get more intense and the stakes get higher as the tournament goes on.
On the other hand, “in NCAA fencing there is no slow pace, no climax. The bouts are shorter, they happen faster, and they mean more to you because they apply to your team as well. Each happens briefly like fireworks. If you’re going to do well you have to be mentally ready and already envision yourself in the final,” he says. “Reflecting on last year, I fenced in a lot of bouts and won them but there were also a lot of improvements I had to make for this year. It’s definitely a ‘do it to learn it,’ situation.”
And he has “learned it” in rapid fashion. This year, he’s collected a number of impressive qualifications. One of the first was a second-place finish in the USFA National Junior Olympics this past February.
“Going into the Junior Olympics, I actually took that week off practice,” McGrath explains. “We’d had four or five tournaments back to back and things were getting intense surrounding the NCAAs. I was feeling a little bit tired and rubbed the wrong way. I talked to Coach Loiseau, [epee coach], about taking a breather. I went into the Junior Olympics physically ‘cold,’ but mentally I felt much stronger.”
McGrath says the rejuvenation of his mental strength and speed gave him the confidence to continue to develop as a fencer and to encourage his teammates to do the same.
“If I took anything from the Junior Olympics going into the Conference Championship, Regionals, or National Championship it’s to make sure I really want to do well and am passionate about winning,” he says.
One look at the remainder of the season and it is obvious the passion is there.
A few weeks ago, when the Irish hosted the Midwest Fencing Conference (MFC) Championships, McGrath anchored the men’s epee team to a third place finish. Notre Dame finished second in the MFC Championship overall. This past weekend, at the NCAA Midwest Regionals in Detroit, Michigan, McGrath was the sole Irish men’s epeeist to qualify for the upcoming NCAA Championship, finishing third behind Ohio State’s Kristian Boyadzhiev and Marco de Guzman.
“We have amazing fencers on this team. It’s a challenge to be good enough and live up to the expectations, but at the end of the day we will all try as hard as we can,” McGrath says.
He and the fencing team are definitely on the fast track to capping of an amazing season. His dedication to personal and team development will be more than useful in the upcoming weeks as the Irish prepare to wrap up a year of competition that has truly sped by.
McGrath and his fellow Irish qualifiers will head to the NCAA Championships in Columbus, Ohio to compete March 20 through the 23. Follow their journey via the Notre Dame fencing Twitter - @NDFencing! and on facebook.