Photos courtesy of Greg Vaughan for models.com
At just nineteen, the Brooklyn-based Race Race Imboden is already among the top ten fencers in foil in the world. Since first picking up a sword about a decade ago, the young athlete has spent countless hours training and competing around the world, a journey that brought him to the London Olympics earlier this summer, where he made it to the round of sixteen as an individual and helped the upstart American men’s team—with an average age of about twenty—secure a fourth-place finish behind Germany. Imboden, who began classes as a freshman at St. John’s in Queens yesterday, also DJ’s and recently finished up a stint as an intern for indie record label Fool’s Gold. And, after being spotted on television competing in London, he just got signed by Request. MDC spoke to Imboden this week after his first shoot about his training schedule, the misconceptions around his sport, and his début Olympic experience.
MDC: How did you get started fencing?
Race: I was living in Florida at the time. I was in a park and like any other kid I was running around pretending to be a knight. Someone came up to my parents and said I should try it out, so I went and tried it out. I was eight, and they said I was too young. I made my parents take me back when I was nine and I’ve been doing it ever since.
MDC: What drew you to fencing?
Race: The same thing that makes any kid want to do fencing: you get to play with swords all day. It’s a great sport. I think when I was younger, it was the idea of doing what I thought was in movies and being a knight and whatnot. As I got older, it was this perfect balance between this physical and mental game that I really liked.
MDC: When did you decide that you wanted to fence competitively?
Race: When I was ten, I watched my current coach [Jed Dupree] starting to train for the Athens Games and then watched him compete, and I was instantly like, That’s what I want to do, I want to be like him when I’m older. And then afterwards he started coaching, and it just clicked that I would go work with him.
MDC: What was it like getting started with competing?
Race: It was great. You’re competing, you’re traveling the world, and you’re growing up with all these different cultures. As a kid I was traveling all the time and fending for myself. My parents were there but I was always away from them, so it made me grow up really fast. I only started fencing when I was ten to eleven, and by the time I was fourteen or fifteen I was traveling, so it’s pretty crazy.
I still always get nervous before competitions. I think it’s a bad thing if you’re not nervous, but at that age I think I was just really excited to be there. It was something I wanted to do, and it was an accomplishment for me to be able to travel, because you have to have a certain ranking in order to travel internationally. So for me it was jittery and exciting, along with the nerves.
MDC: Of all the places you’ve traveled to compete, what was your favorite?
Race: I think the thing I’ve learned from traveling is that the places that you will like the most are the ones you don’t expect to. I’ve been to all the great cities in the world, and I actually went to Jordan for a competition and we went out to Petra and that was incredible. It’s this amazing city in stone and it floored me. I didn’t expect it to be that big or that beautiful. I would say that’s one of my favorites.
MDC: At what point did you realize you had a chance to go to London for the Olympics?
Race: I think that it happened for me right after I won the national championships in 2010. That was the first senior event I ever won. I won that and I won the next season and I knew I was going to start traveling on the senior circuit, and I think that was the point it hit me like, I can really go for this. Then I took that year off after high school and decided not to go to school to take the time and really train like a professional.
MDC: What did you enjoy most about your Olympic experience?
Race: Obviously the thing I’ve wanted to do since I’ve been ten years old was to compete there, so I don’t think anything is going to beat that, stepping out on the largest stage in the world and competing. I don’t think it gets much better than that for me, but other than that, the opening ceremony was obviously incredible. It was nice for me because it was the first time I’ve ever been in the same time zone as an Olympic Games, so when I was up, people were competing, and I could just turn the television on.
MDC: What did you do with the rest of your time in London after the fencing competition ended?
Race: I just took the opportunity to soak it all in and stay in the Village and meet some of the other athletes and relax. We were together a lot as a team, so I would be with my team and we’d go out and do some interesting things in London. I’d been to London a bunch of times because my mom’s English, so it was mostly just soaking up the opportunity to be in the Olympic Village.
MDC: What are some of the differences between competing individually and competing on a team?
Race: The big difference is the amount of touches. In individual, it’s fifteen touches, so it’s a little more area to play, as opposed to team, where it’s only five touches each. That can mean one person’s on fire and there’s a string of five touches, whereas with fifteen, five touches up or down, that’s a comeback waiting to happen. You’ve still got a lot of touches to score. It’s a slightly different game, there’s a little more room for each fencer to change in a fifteen-touch bout, whereas if you’re going into a five-touch bout, you have to be ready, because if you’re not on your game, then the other guy’s going to win.
Mentally, you’re carrying your teammates on your shoulders, you’re representing a team, so I feel almost more pressure in team than I do in individual, because I’m here fighting for these guys who are my teammates. With individual, it’s all me, so I take the blame. I know if I win, I win, and if I lose, I lose, but if I lose here, I’m letting down this group of people.
MDC: Are you looking ahead to Rio already?
Race: Yeah, definitely. I’m definitely ready to start training hard again and get back in the swing of things. Definitely looking forward to Rio. I’ve had a little bit of a break. I would’ve loved to have gone right back and started training again, but my coach wanted me to take a break, so I’ve been hanging out in the city a little bit. Usually I’m running all over the place and I have so many places to be and I have such strict times, that it’s really nice to just be like, Alright, if I’m at home, I’m at home. It’s been nice having a break, I’ll admit. It was the first break I’ve had in a while.
MDC: What was your training schedule for the Olympics like?
Race: I trained two times a day, six times a week, so morning and night, long, long hours in the club. In high school, I went five to six times a week, but I was doing school and I didn’t have as much time, so I stayed in the club really late. I remember on Fridays getting home at twelve o’clock, one o’clock from the fencing club. Then I remember when I was even younger than that, I used to go before school at like five o’clock in the morning to get my extra time in. So it was pretty intense. It was no joke.
MDC: Do you ever feel like you missed out on any part of a normal teenage experience?
Race: No, I never feel like I really missed out on anything, just because I love what I’m doing so much. If I had regretted anything I was doing, then maybe I would’ve been disappointed with some of the things I missed or that I didn’t hang out all the time, but I mean, I just went to the Olympic Games, so it’s hard to say that I regret anything.
MDC: Why did you decide to intern at Fool’s Gold?
Race: I really like music and Fool’s Gold is a record label I had obviously heard a lot. It’s unique and they’re really cool guys. We just kind of clicked and it worked really well. I’ve always liked music and I like the music industry. It was really cool, seeing how it works behind the scenes. During my run last year, I would go in the morning two days a week before I would go to the club.
MDC: Do you think you want to go into the music industry in the future?
Race: I think there’s a lot of things I want to do. I would say that it’s definitely one of the things I’m interested in, but I’m just keeping my horizons open right now. I think I’m young and I’ve got a lot of places to go, and the one thing I know that I love for sure is my sport, so that’s the thing I’m really focusing on, and we’ll see what happens after that.
MDC: How did you get into DJ-ing?
Race: I did it a little bit here and there as a hobby, and then all the guys at Fool’s Gold are DJ’s and a lot of their big artists are DJ’s so it just kind of took off from there and I’ve just been doing it. It’s my hobby, it’s what I love to do other than fencing—listen to music and play my music.
MDC: Do you feel like you want to be an ambassador for fencing?
Race: Definitely, definitely. I’m obviously looking forward to Rio and the next Games, but I really want to give back and change the sport that’s changed me so much, to help kids start fencing and help kids who probably wouldn’t have started. I think there’s an idea that there’s a certain type of person who fences, and it has a very stereotypical “private school” feel. I love my sport and, definitely, that would be awesome if I could be an ambassador for it.
MDC: What do you think are some of the things that keep people from starting fencing?
Race: I don’t know. I think that every person that I see try it or that goes into a club and actually does it, they love it. It’s just not accessible right now to a lot of people. It came from this exclusive world where the royalty fenced, but it’s obviously not that anymore. It’s a more mainstream sport, and I think a lot of people would enjoy it if they watched it, and I think it’s just getting it out to the average viewer. Now that you can look it up and watch it on the internet, that’s huge for our sport. We as Americans are doing a lot better in the sport as well.
MDC: France and Italy both have very long fencing traditions, but it’s not really a sport that’s ever been big in America, right?
Race: Yeah, but I think from 2004 to 2012 we’ve seen a huge growth in the sport. Our competitions in the States are getting a lot bigger, there’s tons more people involved, and our results internationally are getting a lot better. We’re medaling in World Cups pretty consistently, and we have people ranked really highly in the world now.
MDC: It’s promising going forward because all of you guys on the national team are so young compared to a lot of the other teams.
Race: Yeah, that’s got to be one of the best things looking up for us, that we are hopefully the future of the sport. We’re so young, and I think a lot of our guys are going to stick around, and we all love it, so it’s really nice. We’re definitely the youngest team that I’ve seen in fencing for a really long time. We’re a close team too. It’s been awesome hanging out, growing up, and basically living with these guys now, especially this last year.
Special thanks to Greg Vaughan and Yelena at Request Model Management NY