Sept. 16, 2008
By Tim KaiserNotre Dame Sports Information
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - While former Notre Dame standout Mariel Zagunis got most of the headlines from Beijing with her gold-medal winning performance in the women's individual sabre event, two current members of the Irish fencing team quietly turned in solid performances at the 2008 Olympic Games as well.
Junior epeeist Kelley Hurley, the 2008 NCAA champion, and freshman foilist Gerek Meinhardt both competed in their first Olympic games in August. While neither came home with a medal, both athletes left China having benefitted from the experience.
For both Hurley and Meinhardt, making the Olympic team was the culmination of many years of training and a great deal of hard work. As is common in the culture of U.S. fencing, each found their respective way to fencing in vastly different ways. For Hurley, it was a matter of being born into the sport.
"I started fencing because my parents met in fencing," Hurley says. "They've been fencing my whole life. Other fencers used to tell me stories about me running around fencing style when I was a kid."
Meinhardt, who traveled to Beijing as the youngest competitor in the history of U.S. Olympic Fencing, began the sport at age nine. Oddly enough, his start in fencing was a by-product of learning to play the piano.
"My parents actually started me fencing, when Greg Massialas [Gerek's coach and three-time Olympian], was starting a new club," Meinhardt remarks. "I had actually been taking piano lessons from Greg's wife for a few years. They were family friends of sorts. I went to the first [fencing] class and loved the sport, so I stuck with it."
Meinhardt was quickly labeled a prodigy and has the resume to prove it. In a productive 18 months leading up the games, Meinhardt, then only sixteen, had to juggle schoolwork and an intense travel schedule determined by international fencing tournaments. But doing so enabled him to have a chance to compete in Beijing.
"A big sign for me that I had a chance to compete in Beijing was when I won my first Division I Senior National in April of 2007," Meinhardt says. "I followed that up by winning the Division I Summer Nationals as well and the Pan-American Zonal Competition in Canada. I had a long year that included tournaments touring through Asia, the Americas, eight Senior World Cups in Europe, and then back to Asia and America."
Hurley's recent schedule has been similarly chaotic, and both fencers believe that it helped them to adjust upon arriving in China. Hurley has been to China five times in five years, and both fencers were in Beijing earlier in the year for a test event.
What caused more of a problem was the change in diet. Hurley, who is not a fan of Chinese food, believes she contracted food poisoning from something in the Olympic dining hall, and was ill the day of competition.
"It was terrible," she says.
Hurley, the lone U.S. female epee competitor, lost in the round of 32, but still scored enough points to finish 20th overall. Hurley narrowly missed qualifying for the 2004 games in Athens as part of a team, and after her first taste of the Olympic experience, she would love another go. One of her goals is to qualify as part of a team for the 2012 games in London. She would love to get a chance to compete alongside her younger sister, Courtney, who is now a freshman epeeist with the Irish. Kelley is confident that Olympic success could run in the family.
"I think we could do some damage," Hurley comments, on the prospect of fencing alongside Courtney in London.
While Meinhardt did not medal, he finished a respectable tenth, and also is looking forward to 2012.
"Competing in London is definitely in my plans. It's a goal I will shoot for," he says. "Of course, a lot can happen in four years, but having been so young competing in Beijing, I will definitely have higher expectations for myself going into London. I am really looking forward to the training leading up to the Games, and these next four years at Notre Dame."
Meinhardt, who was the only U.S. competitor in the men's foil and the youngest male fencer by almost five years, felt his performance in Beijing was not only a reflection of his own achievements, but on the strength of the future of U.S. fencing.
"It means a great deal to me being the youngest U.S. fencer in Olympic history, because I feel as if the United States' junior fencers are getting stronger and becoming more of a presence in international fencing. I was honored to go to Beijing as the only men's foil fencer, and I did my best to represent the fact that the U.S. has a strong core of young fencers coming up," he says.
Results aside, both athletes enjoyed their time in Beijing.
"The thing I enjoyed most about my Olympic experience was the fact that I could walk around the village, and although I did not know who the athletes were or what their stories were, but I did know that like me, they had put everything they had into qualifying and training for the Olympics," Meinhardt remarks. "I was in awe at the whole experience because I felt a great connection to the other athletes who I did not know in any way, and that is, of course, a great aspect of the Olympic Games."
And while Meinhardt enjoyed the anonymity he felt in the Olympic village, Hurley was a little more star struck.
"It was amazing. You see people walking around that are from T.V.," she says. "We got to meet Kobe Bryant. And the opening ceremonies -- meeting the president, all the people cheering; it was really exciting."