Road to Paris: The 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris are less than a year away, and athletes around the world are gearing up to go for the gold—including AA+PI athletes throughout the United States. Normally we’re all about shirking the unrealistic expectations put on our community to excel, but as we gear up for next year’s summer games, we are here to celebrate the outstanding AA+PI athletes getting ready to compete for their country. Read on to learn more about their road to Paris!
Fencer Alex Massialas competed in his first Olympics at 18 in 2012. Now 29, the three-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist is hoping to qualify for his fourth Olympics, which will be held in Paris next summer.
While three, going on four, Olympics may sound like a lot (it is), Massialas comes by it honestly. His father (and coach) is also an Olympian, passing down an Olympic dream that’s basically been a birthright.
I spoke with the San Francisco native—a self-described “Bay Area kid, through and through”—about picking up his first foil, being coached by a parent, and his career beyond competing. And as someone who is half Chinese, Massialas shares how the anti-AA+PI racism during the pandemic had him reflecting on his identity, and his feelings on representing his country at a time of so much vitriol toward his community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Samantha Pak: How did you get started in fencing? And when did you start?
Alex Massialas: I started because my father was a three-time Olympian in the sport. So ever since I was a kid, I had this fascination with mostly the Olympics, but fencing as well. I always wanted to be an Olympian, an Olympic champion.
When I was 5, my dad started his own fencing club, and I immediately wanted to join. I was really excited to follow in the footsteps of my dad. But he actually held me back two years, because he had this rule where he doesn't start kids until they're 7 years old. You're too young to understand the rules. Kids at 6 can get really uncomfortable. And the actual blade itself is too heavy for them. Also, he didn't want to give me any preferential treatment as his son. I had to follow the same rules as everyone.
SP: What was it like when you officially started at the club and picked up your first foil?
AM: I was so happy. My dad, at that point, was still doing after school classes at a lot of the different schools in the area, including my school. And so my first class wasn't even at the fencing club. It was at my after school program at my Chinese American school with all my best friends. It was just so much fun to start that journey with a bunch of my really close friends, and then get to, you know, stab a bunch of my really close friends too, on day one.
SP: So your dad was your coach at the beginning? Is he still your coach?
AM: He is still my coach. I can't get rid of him (laughs). We have a lot of different coaches at the club, but he's my primary coach now. My dad's philosophy has always been a group effort. No one is anyone's student. Everyone is everyone's student.
SP: Are you able to separate your family life and the sport life?
AM: My parents were really clear from the beginning that if I wanted to fence, and if I wanted my dad to be my coach, we would have to be able to compartmentalize. When he was at the club or at a competition, he was a coach. But at home, he would be a dad. So, we really tried not to mix the two. And I took that to heart. Obviously, there'll be times over your career, especially if it spans 20-plus years, that it's not like that. And people do get those personal feelings involved too. But those have been few and far between.
SP: When you started out as a kid, and you just wanted to do it for fun or follow your dad's footsteps, it could have gone either way. When did you really get serious about the sport?
AM: I think the turning point in my career was when I was about 13, 14 years old. In 2008, I made my first cadet, which is the under-17 world championship team. And that was pretty wild, because I was so young at the time. That year was also the 2008 Olympics. My teammate (Gerek Meinhardt) made his first Olympic team at 18. I was like, “Wow, this kid is 18. And he's already at his first Olympic Games. And in four years, I'm going to be 18. What's to stop me from making that Olympic team?”
SP: So the 2012 Olympics, that was London. You'd already been competing internationally at that point. But what's the difference between a world championship, or a world cup, versus the Olympics? What does that feel like?
AM: Even though the field of fencers is pretty much similar—if anything it’s smaller, because it's much more limited in scope—just the whole vibe of the Olympics is completely different. This is the first time I'm getting to really meet athletes in different sports. People who I grew up idolizing. It felt surreal that these people were treating us like equals. Because they understood that the Olympics are the pinnacle of your sport.
And then being in the Olympic Village and walking the Opening Ceremony, these are all dreams I had ever since I was a little kid. So even though the actual competition itself doesn't look crazy different, just the electricity of the Olympics was vastly, vastly different.
SP: And in 2016, you went to Rio.
AM: In 2016 the biggest difference was, I was so ready for that competition. I wanted to just compete. I entered the competition with a small wrist injury that was sidelining me at practice a couple of times. Even though I was still happy to do everything else—walking the Opening Ceremony, meeting the athletes—really I just wanted to go out there and compete.
I came in at number one as well that year. And then obviously fell short of my goal just a little bit, but was able to secure a silver medal, which is historic for the U.S. We had not won a silver medal for 84 years at the Olympics. And then I was the first-ever U.S. men's fencer to win two medals at the same Olympics.
SP: You competed in the most recent Olympics, the 2020 (but held in 2021) Olympics in Tokyo. Obviously, the pandemic delayed everything for a year. And as Asian Americans, we were dealing with all of the anti-AA+PI racism and everything. So for you, what was that like?
AM: We took a long break from fencing. We had no idea when the Olympics were going to be held, or if they were going to hold it at all. They didn't really give us a lot of information. For several months, we had no idea what was actually going to happen. And then finally, they told us they postponed the Olympic Games, but didn't tell us till when. Then they started to tell us some more details about the dates and what it's gonna look like.
Although I always understood that Asian American racism had existed in this country—I had friends experience it, family experience it—the level of vitriol that was being directed to Asian Americans really changed during that time frame.
SP: What about outside of your career and being Asian American and training to represent your country, when a lot of times people are telling us, “go back to your country,” “go back home.” How was that dynamic for you?
AM: It really made me reflect on my identity, and how I viewed certain experiences that I had in the past, as well. You know, being half Asian, I'm pretty white passing.
And so everything I had previously seen is through this white-passing eye. And although I always understood that Asian American racism had existed in this country—I had friends experience it, family experience it—the level of vitriol that was being directed to Asian Americans really changed during that time frame.
SP: It changed for a lot of us. We knew it was there. We got teased or made fun of at school, but once the violence started, that was another level.
AM: My experience with Asian American racism is so different from everyone else's.
One time, I was gonna grab an Uber to go home. The Uber driver was dropping off someone almost exactly at the location that I was getting picked up at. And this dude gets out of the car, and he's clearly infuriated. He's swearing at the Uber driver. And then sees me just standing there, so he comes up to me like, “Yo, what the fuck is up with this fucking chink? Like these chinks, man!” I just didn't know how to act.
The whole year made me reflect back on not only the stuff I've experienced in the past, but in particular, that experience, a lot. Because people were so quick to bring race into the equation, when it had nothing to do with it. And this is before COVID and everything too. It just made me really realize that all this stuff always happens. A lot of people just didn't talk about it up until that point.
SP: So in terms of being Asian American and competing on this world stage and representing your country with, at least at that point in time, all the racism that we were dealing with, what was going through your mind?
AM: It's not like we live in a perfect society by any means. But I'm still vastly proud to be representing the U.S. And for me, I wanted to at least make an example and show that Asian Americans have people to be proud of as well. So it gave me extra motivation to want to do well. Because I knew I was out here, representing more than just Americans. I am part of a small group of Olympians that are Asian American as well.
If I can make the Asian American community proud as a whole, through my performance, and hopefully through how I carry myself as an individual, that would be something that was really important to me. And that is something I can be very proud of.
SP: What were your results in Tokyo?
AM: On my flight over, the guy sitting in front of me tested positive for COVID on entrance. So they quarantined me as well, even though I tested negative every single day for two weeks. They put me in a hotel room by myself. Not really training, not seeing my teammates, not seeing my sister who made her first Olympic team, not seeing my dad.
So under the backdrop of that, not to make any excuses, but my performance definitely lacks compared to my first two Olympic Games. All the stars aligned in the wrong way, let's just say that much. I bowed out early. I think I ended up 34th in the individual event. And then in the team event, was lucky enough to salvage a bronze medal.
SP: You're now in the middle of training for Paris. How's that going?
AM: It's going alright. (The last few years were) pretty bumpy, between COVID still affecting a lot of our competitions, and then I was dealing with a wrist injury.
I'm getting older, so I'm looking kind of at my career past fencing as well.
SP: Let's shift gears a bit. Can you tell me a bit about your Panda Express partnership and the camp program that you've been running?
AM: This is an opportunity to run clinics all across the country to not only teach kids fencing, but leadership skills and goal-setting skills that I use to this day.
My goal with these (camps) is to really teach these goal-setting and leadership skills, where you can learn to be proactive, to fight for what you. And then also to give you a way to track your progress. I really wanted to create a program that can teach kids these skills, that they can look back on and understand how tangible they are, in your day-to-day life.
SP: You talked about your career beyond competitive fencing. Is this something you see yourself doing once that part of your career comes to a close?
AM: Yeah. Panda Express has been such a supportive sponsor on these endeavors. So if I can keep doing these on a year-to-year basis, I'd be very, very happy. These clinics have been so rewarding. Not only for the kids, but for myself as well. Because when I was growing up, there were very few opportunities to do something like this.
I think it's a really special and unique opportunity for kids to be able to have this one-on-one moment with an Olympian and learn a lot about the skills that yes, for fencing are really important. But Olympians have such crazy life stories, they can teach you so much outside of the sport as well.
Published on September 6, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.