By Conor Hockett | BSU at the Games
Eating with a teammate in the Olympic Village dining hall back in 2008, Gerek Meinhardt watched in awe as Dwyane Wade sat down at his table 20 feet away.
More NBA players from the Olympic team slowly filed in until Chris Paul and Michael Redd took a seat next to Meinhardt.
Growing up in San Francisco, Meinhardt was a huge Golden State Warriors fan. His sister Katie played Division I basketball, and the sport remains one of his biggest passions.
Meinhardt met the Olympic basketball team during opening ceremonies and felt comfortable enough to talk to Redd and Paul. It wasn’t long before the topic of fencing came up.
“They were really nice and personable,” Meinhardt said. “They started joking about how they’ve tried to do the fencing squat before and it was terrible. It was all really funny.”
As the youngest male member on the entire U.S. team at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Meinhardt had a lot to take in. He turned 18 a month before the Games began and didn’t know what to expect.
“I’m looking forward to going to London because with one (Olympic) Games under my belt, I’m definitely going to appreciate it more,” Meinhardt said. “When I was there in Beijing, it was all kind of overwhelming—kind of a blur. I didn’t have a full grasp of what was going on. I plan on being more in the moment and appreciating things more this time.”
After qualifying for the London 2012 Olympic Games back in April, Meinhardt said he hopes for better results than his 10th place finish in 2008 after what was a grueling journey back to the top of fencing.
Predicting a prodigy
When Meinhardt was 9 years old, his parents, Kurt and Jane, signed him up for fencing lessons with a family friend named Greg Massialas. Massialas was a three-time U.S. Olympian (1980, 1984 and 1988 in foil) starting up his own fencing club.
While Meinhardt didn’t experience the early success of some of Massialas’ other pupils, his coach always knew he had something special.
“The difference was his work ethic,” Massialas said. “Other fencers were happy to fence and have fun doing it. Gerek would really take time to work on specific things. That made a huge difference. His drive, the creativity element in his fencing and his physical characteristics made him what he was. It allowed him to surpass others and make his big surge.”
As Meinhardt began to mature in his teens, he won tournaments and made the big surge predicted by his coach. Massialas saw the potential early in Meinhardt and developed a 10-year plan that they hoped would culminate in an Olympic gold medal in 2012.
Meinhardt continued to win tournaments as he got older, and the two started gearing everything toward the Beijing Olympic Games as the next part of the plan.
Back in 2008, there was no team competition in men’s foil, so only one individual could qualify from the U.S. Meinhardt improved enough under Massialas to become the youngest fencer by five years ever to compete in men’s foil at the Olympic Games.
Meinhardt said he won his first-round match easily before losing to a Chinese fencer named Zhu Jun, who finished fourth in Beijing. Meinhardt said he was disappointed with a 10th-place finish, but the loss was what he needed to improve in the future.
“I learned what it would take to one day get to that elite level,” Meinhardt said. “It (the loss) has really motivated me over the past four years and will continue to motivate me in the future.”
A giant setback
The future looked bright for Meinhardt after the Olympic Games. He balanced winning silver in individual men’s foil at the Pan American Championships in 2009 with two minor knee surgeries since Beijing.
Meinhardt enrolled at Notre Dame and took silver and gold, respectively, in the 2008 and 2009 NCAA Championships individual men’s foil events. He was an information-technology-management major enjoying life, and the meniscus on his right knee was feeling better every day.
In November 2010, Meinhardt emerged as a real international threat when he won the bronze medal at the World Championships. It was the first medal ever for a U.S. fencer in that event.
All the strain from an elite-level athlete’s training and competition, however, finally caught up to Meinhardt. His right meniscus, a disc in the knee used for balance, gave out during training and had to be surgically repaired in January 2011.
Meinhardt never considered quitting, but with 2012 Olympic qualifying starting in March, his recovery would need to start immediately.
Two months of no weight-bearing rehabilitation followed, with physical therapy throughout the week. It was grueling work, but Massialas never thought it would cost Meinhardt a chance to compete.
“Gerek has a really disciplined work ethic,” Massialas said. “He would do all the things he needed to do to get himself going. He’s very passionate about his fencing. I’ve always been confident in Gerek. So long as we had the green light, he would do all the work necessary to get back.”
Meinhardt recovered in time for qualifications, but he wasn’t the same. The meniscus was healed, but his mind was still recovering.
“Even when the doctors cleared me to fence physically, psychologically there is a lot of doubt in your security,” Meinhardt said. “You don’t feel comfortable going all out.”
That’s when Meinhardt’s ranking started to plummet. Matches he’d control most of the way turned into 15-14 losses.
“In the beginning of qualifying, I’d started to feel more confident physically, but I didn’t have that edge,” Meinhardt said. “I wasn’t feeling my fencing. I threw away a lot of opportunities in four out of the first nine international events.”
That tiny shred of doubt cost him dearly. Meinhardt missed qualifying top-three by eight points, a margin Massialas said is equivalent to about .0001 percent in the current system.
“The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Meinhardt said. “I’ve had to fence and fight from behind in a sense this whole season because of the surgery. It takes a lot to get back into form when you can’t walk for a few months. It’s been a long road back.”
A special relationship
Despite all his injuries, one advantage Meinhardt has over the other fencers is his familiarity with the U.S. coach.
After Massialas became the Olympic men’s foil coach back in 2008, he and Meinhardt have continued working together and bonding.
As the coach, Massialas can both watch and benefit from his pupil hopefully fulfilling the 10-year plan Massialas started all those years ago.
“When he was young, he’s a young kid and looks up to you and listens to what’s going on,” Massialas said. “He knew I was always supportive. I’m seeing the transition where he’s becoming a young adult now, so my relationship now is much more male-to-male relationship. That’s very different than years ago when it was adult-to-child. Since his fencing game is more mature as well, it’s more intellectual with the discussion we can have. He must now ingest more of what I’m thinking in his feelings and apply it on the strip.”
Sitting fourth on the team as the first substitute fencer, Meinhardt can enter the match with a much better idea of what Massialas is thinking.
Watching from the sidelines also gives Meinhardt a unique opportunity to help his teammates. Miles Chamley-Watson, the No. 2 ranked U.S. foil fencer and one of Meinhardt’s best friends, said Meinhardt is an extremely positive teammate.
“Gerek is the definition of lead by example,” Chamley-Watson said. “He works hard, is a smart fencer and is always there to give great advice. Even though we had to compete for the third spot and become enemies, we still kept our close bond. This is a quality that is extremely hard to find. He is a captain because everyone respects him for his character and for his fencing credentials. He has accomplished a lot at the age of 21.”
Massialas said naming Meinhardt a captain was a no-brainer based on the respect both he and the rest of the team has for him.
“On our men’s foil team, I think we have an exceptional chance to medal and potentially gold medal,” Massialas said. “He (Meinhardt) will be an integral part of that both in terms of his fencing on the strip and also as men’s foil team captain where he helps focus the energy of the group.”
To hone that focus before the Games, Meinhardt took a leave from absence from Notre Dame this year to go back and train in San Francisco with Massialas. Massialas said the camp has three of the top five U.S. fencers working out there.
Although qualifying was finished in April, Meinhardt is traveling to the Wakayama Grand Prix in Japan; a World Cup in Seoul, Korea; a Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Pan American Championships in Cancun Mexico; and another World Cup in Cuba before the Olympic Games begin in July. These are all team events that affect placement and team ranking going into the Olympic Games. It will also decide which country the U.S. fences in London.
“Quite honestly, if he didn’t have that last injury after the World Championships, it would be a different situation even right now,” Massialas said. “Part of my plan and goal, when we set up what we’re working on, was a gold medal in the 2012 men’s foil individual event. He was right on course for that—maybe even a little ahead. Had it not been for this one injury, everything else in this 10-year plan, each step he was right on plan. If he’s able to stay healthy, he can have a chance to prosper.”
Meinhardt takes the same positive approach as his coach about the injury. While he knows how much they cost him, Meinhardt said his greatest accomplishment to date is recovering from injuries he’s sustained both mentally and physically.
With the international fencing season in full swing, Meinhardt still has high hopes for his progress in 2012. He hopes to compete as a substitute in London but tries to keep his ambitions under control after recent obstacles in his life.
“I take it day-by-day, honestly,” Meinhardt said. “With my history of injuries, I’m not going to try and project it too far into the future. I’m looking forward to finishing the season out and heading to London. Hopefully, I have two more years at Notre Dame where I’ll be getting really great training. At that point, if fencing is still going well for me, I’ll shoot for 2016 in Rio.”