NEW YORK — On the second floor of an office building a few blocks from Penn Station, a miracle was taking place.
Jake Hoyle was training at the Fencers Club, getting in a two-hour workout on a recent Saturday morning, less than two weeks ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games. The room was wide-windowed and aseptic, with 20 fencing tracks lining the hardwood floor like tiny landing strips, with half a dozen other members of the U.S. men’s fencing team mingling around, all of them cloth-masked against COVID-19 and face-masked for their training and armored in white, padded gear. Hoyle, who is 27, a native of Delaware County, and 6 feet tall and 185 pounds, wrapped a bungee around his legs, just below his knees. He tried to extend his left leg to stretch, to warm up. The cord snapped in two.
“Your legs are too strong,” someone shouted.
His journey there had been unlike any of his teammates’. An Olympic fencer … from Delco? Like a professional hockey player from Bermuda, right? Out of nowhere, he had won the NCAA championship in the men’s épée in 2015 as a junior at Columbia University, then won it again in 2016 as a senior, and even now, by his mere appearance, he stood out — a dash of counterculture amid the clean-cut. He wore his brown hair surfer-long, sweeping it from his face before fitting his helmet over his head, and a handlebar mustache wrapped his lips in a funky embrace.
“Gonna rock it for the Games,” he said.
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The boy was 9 when he decided to give fencing a try last year. Before he turned 3, doctors had diagnosed him with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. In the six years since, he had played a couple of seasons of organized team sports — basketball in the summer and winter, baseball one fall, no pressure, just fun with friends. But competing in those sports manifested his quirks and anxieties and frustrations over circumstances that he couldn’t control. He was open. Why didn’t his teammates pass him the ball? He was fouled. Why didn’t the referee blow his whistle? After every game, his reaction would be, at best, a pair of clenched fists. At worst, a teary outburst.
But when he watched The Princess Bride and the Star Wars films with his family, he was taken with Westley and Inigo’s swordplay and the flash and crackle of the Jedi’s lightsabers. There was a fencing school, a storefront in a Montgomery County strip mall, just eight miles from his house. His parents asked him if he was interested. “Sure,” he shrugged. So they signed him up, not knowing what would happen or how he would react.
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A miracle? Yes. Aladar Kogler, Hoyle’s personal coach, used that word to describe his pupil’s rise. Kogler is 88. Born in Hungary, having lived much of his life in Czechoslovakia under communist rule, having defected to the United States in 1981, he has coached in 11 Olympic Games — four with the United States — and at Columbia for 35 years. He can recognize the extraordinary, in fencing or anywhere else, when he sees it.
“For me, it is a miracle that he qualified for the Olympic Games,” Kogler said as he kept an eye on Hoyle’s workout. “It is remarkable. It shows what a talented person he is.”
Fencing is a sport of the elite. Its practitioners typically enter the tunnel of the sport’s circuit when they are young, maybe 8 or 9 years old, their mothers and fathers bankrolling travel to national and international competitions for years. Growing up in Wallingford, Hoyle didn’t know what the words parry and riposte meant until he was a sixth grader at Strath Haven Middle School. His phys ed teacher, Pixie Roane — the founder of the Wallingford/Swarthmore Panthers fencing club — included the sport in her curriculum, alongside swimming and dodgeball. Soon, Hoyle and his friends started commandeering the school cafeteria every afternoon after the final bell, rearranging lunch tables so they had enough room to hold bouts, and he started pestering his parents, Charlie and Suzy, to enroll him in tournaments hosted by the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia.
He entered one when he was 13. Technically, he was too young — it was an open tournament for grown men, mostly — but the woman who was registering the competitors said, You know what? It’s OK. We’ll let him in. He won, the first and brightest signal to himself and his parents that fencing would be more than a mere pastime for him.
“We are not a family that has a fencing strip in our house,” Suzy said. “When Jake was 15, we really had to have a talk with him. ‘We are very willing to support you in this effort, but it’s a financial situation for us and our family.’ We didn’t force him to do it, but we said, ‘If you’re going to make the choice, you have to be all in.’ ”
He was, and he had to be, because while he was traveling around the country, his classmates were wondering what kind of weirdo would want to give up his weekends — the parties, the chance to hang out, the opportunities to play other sports that mattered — to play a sport that, in their minds, didn’t. Strath Haven was football. Strath Haven was basketball. Strath Haven wasn’t fencing, was it? Hoyle wanted a little respect and recognition from his peers, and there was none coming. I’m ranked sixth in the country in my sport, and this guy’s second-team All-Delco in his, so why does he get all the attention?
“I hated it,” he said. “ ‘It’s not cool to be a fencer.’ Maybe it is now, but when I was in high school, I was getting made fun of, teased. I remember my senior year. It was like, ‘Jake’s going to Columbia for fencing. Fencing? I should have fenced.’ A bunch of kids said that to me, and I said, ‘You don’t wish you had fenced! Three years ago, you were dogging me for fencing. Come on. It’s easy to say that now, but where was this three years ago?’ ”
In recruiting Hoyle and studying his high school career, Michael Aufrichtig, Columbia’s head coach, had viewed him as an undervalued asset. Aufrichtig picked up on a pattern: Hoyle would usually cruise through a tournament’s preliminary rounds, when a fencer needed to touch his opponent just five times to win a bout. Once the tournament went to 15-touch bouts in its later rounds, Hoyle lost more frequently. But Aufrichtig didn’t care about those losses; most college fencing bouts were five-touch bouts. More, because Hoyle had picked up the sport relatively late in his life, there was less risk that he would burn out and a greater likelihood that he would improve.
“I just noticed he had so much potential,” Aufrichtig said in a phone interview. “He told me his goal was to be an All-American, and that’s top 12 in the NCAA. I smiled and said, ‘Well, you know, that’s a great goal.’ ”
He finished 15th in men’s épée as a sophomore, then won his first national championship the following year. The realization of how good he was and could yet be didn’t hit him until he was one point away from victory in his final match. Holy crap, I’m gonna win. I’m gonna win this tournament. I never thought I would win this tournament. This is crazy. Defending his title was more difficult, all his opponents giving him everything they had. In one early bout at the 2016 NCAAs, he was down 4-0, one point away from losing, before rallying to win. “I’m good at making the right decision about what to do when there’s just one touch on the line,” he said. He doesn’t know why. He and Kogler use meditation to manage his arousal levels, to help him know when to pump himself up or cool himself down, but he isn’t certain it’s a skill that can be taught. Perhaps he just has it.
He reached the finals again, came within one touch of the championship again, and ahead by five, he finished off Ohio State’s Marc-Antoine Blais Bélanger with a flashy, athletic move, the kind he would never have tried if he weren’t leading so comfortably. “He has the fastest hands,” Kogler said, and there was Hoyle, coiling, the épée in his left hand, then leaping straight up, faking to the right, then looping the épée back to the left, over Bélanger’s head, to slap it against Bélanger’s shoulder.
“It’s an individual sport, and I love that,” Hoyle said. “You’re just fully responsible for every aspect: your time management, your own training plan, when you show up at the competition, your result. It’s all you. Maybe you have a coach, a trainer, a small team, but at the end of the day, your results are your results, and you’re fully responsible for yourself. I love that. I love being able to own losing and own winning at the same time. It’s not about who’s taking the last shot in basketball, because you take every single shot.”
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From the boy’s first session, his first time fencing, his parents noticed something different in him. There were fewer complaints and no outbursts. The formality of the sport’s rules and movements appealed to him; they aligned with the binary way that he often saw the world. Touch here, it’s a point. Touch there, one inch to the left, it isn’t. No exceptions. He liked that.
With each practice, he grew more comfortable and confident, even though he was one of the youngest students in the class. During his bouts, he bounced on the balls of his feet like a boxer and held his foil with a French grip, his hand curling palm-up underneath the sword, a rarer technique nowadays. He didn’t have to wait for someone to pass him a basketball, didn’t have to worry about striking out and letting his team down. In this sport, he didn’t have to rely on anyone else.
None of his friends fenced. But he knew they thought it was pretty cool that he did, and because they weren’t there, he didn’t sense their eyes on him, didn’t perceive any outside expectations, didn’t put so much pressure on himself. This was his thing. He liked that, too.
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After his second NCAA championship, Hoyle graduated from Columbia with a degree in economics. If he wanted, he could take a high-paying private-equity gig, put fencing aside, and be set for life. He called his parents and Kogler and Aufrichtig and every mentor he’d ever had to ask for advice. They all said the same thing: Forget the full-time job. Go for it.
So he worked part-time for a real estate company, and he moved in with four friends in the cheapest apartment they could find, on West 136th Street in Harlem, and he shared a bedroom with one of his buddies, sleeping on a twin-size mattress, eating beans and tuna fish every night for dinner, training in an alley outside the apartment building last year when the pandemic closed The Fencers Club. Sundays were his day to rest and to watch the Eagles. “I will never miss a game,” he said.
If Kogler considers Hoyle’s qualifying for the Olympics to be a miracle, the notion that Hoyle could medal in Tokyo would seem too far-fetched to contemplate. But provided that COVID-19 doesn’t upset the Games, Hoyle, who is fully vaccinated, expects to return with at least a bronze. His first match will be at 8 p.m. Philadelphia time on Saturday. “I’ve already won medals at tournaments that are objectively more difficult than the Olympics,” he said. “So if I win one, it’s not going to be a shock.” His parents look forward to something more modest and, to them, more meaningful: the sight of their son at the opening ceremonies.
“The achievement of becoming an Olympian is the pinnacle of a career, regardless of how you do,” Charlie Hoyle said. “I remember being 10, 11 years old, watching the Olympics, and my favorite thing was everybody walking in. What I want most is to watch him walk.”
A 10-year-old boy and his father will be watching, too.
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The boy’s father knelt down in front of him, steadying an iPhone. The day before, the father had taken a train to Manhattan to interview and spend time with one of the best fencers in the world, and the fencer had sent the boy a message of encouragement, a four-second video from one person who had found joy in the sport to another. The boy now wanted to return the favor. His father pushed the red button on the phone, and the boy took in a slight breath before speaking.
“Hi, Jake. This is Evan Sielski. I just wanted to say thanks and good luck at the Olympics.”