SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Looking to fill a rare gap on its medal shelf, Team USA is sending the strongest fencing squad in memory to Rio, helped along by a generation of Olympic elders that has expanded the sport’s frontiers.
Of the five sports contested in every summer Olympics, fencing is the only one where U.S. men have not won gold.
The Americans aim to make history this year with an exceptionally deep bench, including seven athletes ranked among the top 10 globally in their events.
“Across the board, this is one of the strongest American fencing teams — if not the strongest — in modern history,” said Greg Massialas, a three-time Olympian coaching the men’s foil team.
NBC has taken notice and will devote more television time to fencing at the Rio Games than any U.S. broadcaster has before.
Programs opened by Massialas and his Olympic peers in recent decades have deepened and diversified the American talent pool, with fencers starting younger and aiming higher than ever.
The best shot at the podium this year may be his son, Alexander Massialas, the world No. 1, who anchors a standout foil team with fourth-ranked Gerek Meinhardt and Miles Chamley-Watson, the first American man to take individual gold at a world championship.
Mariel Zagunis, the most decorated American fencer ever, broke the gold drought for the women with top finishes in 2004 and 2008, and she is back this year to try to secure a third.
Her partner on the saber team, Ibtihaj Muhammad, is ranked eighth in the world and will make history regardless of her finish, as the first U.S. Olympian to compete in a Muslim hijab.
“I told her to bring home the gold. Not to put any pressure,” joked President Barack Obama in February, during his visit to a U.S. mosque, where he applauded her example.
New Jersey-born Muhammad owes a lot to another groundbreaking U.S. fencer, six-time Olympian and 1984 bronze medalist Peter Westbrook.
As a biracial teenager raised by a poor single mother in 1960s Newark, New Jersey, Westbrook knew at firsthand the difficulty of breaking into the top echelons of a traditionally white and privileged sport such as fencing.
So in 1991 he opened a foundation in his name offering subsidized fencing lessons and academic guidance for disadvantaged youngsters.
“When I grew up, I didn’t have a lot of role models. Kids need role models,” Westbrook said. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Muhammad is one of nearly a dozen athletes from the program to reach the Olympics, along with teammate Nzingha Prescod, who last year became the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at a world championship.
Just as the Peter Westbrook Foundation brought new blood into New York City fencing, the Massialas Foundation in San Francisco, started by Greg Massialas in 1998, has spurred California fencers to new heights in a sport with deep East Coast roots.
And with the growing talent base come growing ambitions for the big event in Rio.
“You know they’re coming back with hardware, with Olympic medals,” said Westbrook. “It’s just a matter of how many.”
Reporting by Brad Haynes,; Editing by Neville Dalton