5:07pm

Tue July 31, 2012
WALOFF.Fencer

A Bay Area fencer slashes her way to the Olympics

Up until last week, the legendary sword-fighting scene in The Princess Bride—where Inigo Montoya and ‘the man in black’ show off their skills on a mountaintop—pretty much summed up my fencing knowledge.

“You seem a decent fellow, I hate to kill you,” Montoya says.

“You seem a decent fellow, I hate to die,” responds the man in black.

The music picks up, followed by the sharp clanking of swords and it’s all pretty dramatic and entertaining.

Then I met Doris Willette, a native of Lafayette, California, and soon-to-be two-time Olympic Fencer. I paid her a visit during one of her practice sessions.

Willette seems impossibly calm for an athlete competing in a sport originally based on dueling to the death. She’s nothing at all like Inigo Montoya, the aggressive and merciless fencer in The Princess Bride, on a quest to avenge the death of his father:

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”

They're nothing alike at all.

“My name is Doris Willette. I’m from Lafayette, California,” says Willette. "I have been fencing for fifteen years now and next week I am leaving for London for the 2012 Olympic games."  

While she’s never killed anyone, Willette does like to stab people.           

“I am so excited. I cannot wait, I think it's gonna be a pretty amazing experience. Beijing was incredible and I'm hoping for even more from London, so I hope that they live up to everyone's expectations,” she says.

Willette trains at the Massialas Foundation. Wedged inbetween its neighbors—an auto parts store, an apartment building, and a deli called “Bite Me Sandwiches”—the modest two-story building is hard to miss. A bold blue and white mural covering the front of the club depicts larger than life-size fencers in action. Inside, yellowing photographs and fencing memorabilia clutter one long wall of a wood-floored studio. Young fencers practicing upstairs sound like a stampede.

That was Willette, 15 years ago. “I was nine when I started. I actually did a lot of sports when I was younger, like judo and gymnastics,” says Willette. 

They didn’t quite fit though. 

“With Judo I was the only girl and I think that was a big part of the reason why I didn't like it actually, all the boys were smelly and gross and there was no one I could chit-chat with.”

And gymnastics?

“Uh, gymnastics I just, um, I actually wasn't that flexible, so I knew I wasn't gonna be that good at gymnastics, and I was kind of afraid of heights so I couldn't do the bars, so I was like, 'well! fencing it is!'” she says.

Watching Willette suit up to practice takes a while. There are layers of protection, a small pair of shorts she calls ‘knickers,’ a long-sleeved white shirt and then a sleeveless metallic shirt that goes above that. To top it all off, Willette puts on an egg-shaped helmet with a mesh visor that nearly completely masks her face.

“It's pretty thick and it gets really hot, when you're fencing, whether you're competing or practicing,” Willette says, “so, I end up sweating a lot.”

Properly clad, Willette and fellow Olympian Gerek Meinhardt begin to practice. There’s a lot of quick hopping, and moving forwards and backwards. Their movements are fast. It’s not quite as dramatic as The Princess Bride, but it obviously takes quite a bit of agility. That, and…

“You have to be smart,” Willette says. “In fencing you kind of have to set up actions and predict what they're gonna do. So a lot of it has to do with kind of playing a kind of mind game with them.

Willette knows all about the history of her sport. “So each weapon comes from kind of back in the day, where it was more deadly I guess,” she says. “The one that I do came from dueling to the death.”

She uses a thin-bladed sword called a foil. 

“When people practice, basically the target area would be the torso, so arms and legs don't count,” Willette explains. “In foil they used smaller swords because they wanted to pierce, and not flash, and so really what you wanted to go for were the internal organs.”

A complicated electrical system now records the jabs that would once injure or kill. 

Up until last week, the legendary sword fighting scene in The Princess Bride—where Inigo Montoya and ‘the man in black’ show off their skills on a mountaintop—pretty much summed up my fencing knowledge.

“You seem a decent fellow, I hate to kill you,” Montoya says.

“You seem a decent fellow, I hate to die,” responds the man in black.

The music picks up, followed by the sharp clanking of swords and it’s all pretty dramatic and entertaining.

Then I met Doris Willette, a native of Lafayette, California, and soon-to-be two-time Olympic Fencer. I paid her a visit during one of her practice sessions.

Willette seems impossibly calm for an athlete competing in a sport originally based on dueling to the death. She’s nothing at all like Inigo Montoya, the aggressive and merciless fencer in The Princess Bride, on a quest to avenge the death of his father:

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”

They're nothing alike at all.

“My name is Doris Willette. I’m from Lafayette, California,” says Willette. "I have been fencing for fifteen years now and next week I am leaving for London for the 2012 Olympic games."  

While she’s never killed anyone, Willette does like to stab people.           

“I am so excited. I cannot wait, I think it's gonna be a pretty amazing experience. Beijing was incredible and I'm hoping for even more from London, so I hope that they live up to everyone's expectations,” she says.

Willette trains at the Massialas Foundation. Wedged inbetween its neighbors—an auto parts store, an apartment building, and a deli called “Bite Me Sandwiches”—the modest two-story building is hard to miss. A bold blue and white mural covering the front of the club depicts larger than life-size fencers in action. Inside, yellowing photographs and fencing memorabilia clutter one long wall of a wood-floored studio. Young fencers practicing upstairs sound like a stampede.

That was Willette, 15 years ago. “I was nine when I started. I actually did a lot of sports when I was younger, like judo and gymnastics,” says Willette. 

They didn’t quite fit though. 

“With Judo I was the only girl and I think that was a big part of the reason why I didn't like it actually, all the boys were smelly and gross and there was no one I could chit-chat with.”

And gymnastics?

“Uh, gymnastics I just, um, I actually wasn't that flexible, so I knew I wasn't gonna be that good at gymnastics, and I was kind of afraid of heights so I couldn't do the bars, so I was like, 'well! fencing it is!'” she says.

Watching Willette suit up to practice takes a while. There are layers of protection, a small pair of shorts she calls ‘knickers,’ a long-sleeved white shirt and then a sleeveless metallic shirt that goes above that. To top it all off, Willette puts on an egg-shaped helmet with a mesh visor that nearly completely masks her face.

“It's pretty thick and it gets really hot, when you're fencing, whether you're competing or practicing,” Willette says, “so, I end up sweating a lot.”

Properly clad, Willette and fellow Olympian Gerek Meinhardt begin to practice. There’s a lot of quick hopping, and moving forwards and backwards. Their movements are fast. It’s not quite as dramatic as The Princess Bride, but it obviously takes quite a bit of agility. That, and…

“You have to be smart,” Willette says. “In fencing you kind of have to set up actions and predict what they're gonna do. So a lot of it has to do with kind of playing a kind of mind game with them.

Willette knows all about the history of her sport. “So each weapon comes from kind of back in the day, where it was more deadly I guess,” she says. “The one that I do came from dueling to the death.”

She uses a thin-bladed sword called a foil. 

“When people practice, basically the target area would be the torso, so arms and legs don't count,” Willette explains. “In foil they used smaller swords because they wanted to pierce, and not flash, and so really what you wanted to go for were the internal organs.”

A complicated electrical system now records the jabs that would once injure or kill. 

Willette’s not too concerned about the potentially deadly weapons she wields. Unlike Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, neither she nor her fellow competitors are preparing to die. She also seems relatively unruffled by competing in the most prestigious sporting event in the world. So what is Doris Willette worried about?

“After this Olympics, I'm not really sure yet, I do have to get a job. So I'm searching right now, don't have one yet,” she says, while laughing nervously.

Willette hopes to find something far-removed from fencing—advertising. And she seems to have made peace with the fact that she will probably be retiring from her sport at age 24 because she hasn’t even begun her other career yet.

“I've spent my whole life juggling fencing and school and trying to be successful at both,” says Willette. “And I feel like this is, you know, what I do next is gonna be my livelihood, and I'd actually like to put as much energy as I can into it.”

Willette would like to work in sports marketing, but she says, “there's no guarantees at this point. I'll probably take anything I can get!”

After the games are over, the challenges will keep on coming for Doris Willette, because it’s possible these days that it’s easier for a 24 year-old to win an Olympic medal than to get a good job.

Willette and the US women's fencing team will compete in the foil on Thursday, August 2nd against South Korea

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