You may have heard the story of fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. She will become the first American athlete to ever compete at the Olympics wearing a hijab, a headscarf commonly worn by Muslim women as a symbol of modesty. She was the focus of the fencing pre-Olympics press conference, of course, and she spoke wonderfully about making the United States Olympics Team just a little bit more diverse. She spoke from the heart about wanting to change American perceptions about what being Muslim means.
It was beautiful and so important in our particular moment of time. We will revisit her during these Games.
But, I have to admit, for most of it I was on the other side of the room cracking up and talking martial arts movies and big dreams with my new best friend, America’s only Olympic epee fencer, Jason Pryor.
The Summer Olympics are funny; they are so big, so vast, that as an observer you find yourself just getting tossed and turned in its wake. NBC, of course, with all the magic that 2,000 people can muster, takes you effortlessly from venue to venue, event to event, so that you’re always in the right spot, always at the peak moment, always at the big finish. Here, though, you just follow your instinct, your sense of smell, your curiosity and just hope for the best.
And so here’s what happened on Day 2: I came to talk with Ibtihaj Muhammad like all the other reporters, only in the introductions I heard the fencing PR person say, “And from South Euclid, Ohio, this is Jason Pryor.”
And my mind wandered to the obvious place, “Wait a minute, I’M from South Euclid, Ohio.*”
*Hail to South Euclid, home of former Cy Young winner Steve Stone, David S. Ward the director of “Major League” and probably some other famous people.
So there you go. I left the pack and went to go talk to Pryor. And — as is usually true when you’re at the Olympics just following whatever looney instincts happen to be leading — it was fantastic. Pryor is hilarious and fun and full of life. And his story is great.
So it turns out that Pryor played a little soccer in my old hometown, and he kind of hated it, and at 11 he told his parents that he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t really want to do any sport, not baseball, not football, none of them.
“Well,” they told him, “you have to play SOME sport.” It seems, as Pryor retells the story, he was a chubby kid who would prefer just doing a whole lot of nothing.
“How about fencing?” he said. A friend had told him about fencing. It sounded kind of cool, you know, with the swords and stuff. Plus, he figured it would take his parents a long time to find a fencing club (or whatever) and then they might forget about it and …
“FINE!” they said, and within 10 minutes they found the Alcazar Fencing Club there in the boiler room of Shaker Heights High School, about 20 minutes from their house.
“YOU’RE GOING!” they told him.
He liked it at first, you know, with the swords and stabbing people and all of that. Then it started to become work. Fencing looks easy in “The Princess Bride,” but you probably already knew that’s not fencing. Epee is a lot of work, it’s very physical, so he was beginning to lose interest. And then the coach put him in his first competition.
“It was the strangest feeling,” he says. “I was scared, and I hated it, and then I loved it. It was the craziest mix of feelings. And, of course, I was terrible, and I lost mostly, but something comes over me when I lose. I am like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to climb up. I’ve got to win.’ I become crazed.”
His story follows a crazy path from there — he did get better, he fenced at The Ohio State University (he dutifully includes “The”), and they even won a national title. Then he was about to retire the epee and try to make it as a writer (scriptwriter, comic book writer, novelist, any kind of writer — he loves to write). Then, as a gift, his parents bought him a plane ticket to compete in his first grand prix. And, one thing leading to another, someone saw promise in him and convinced him to give his life to epee and try to become one of the best in the world. That was seven years ago. He became a professional (sort of) athlete.
“People would see me and say, ‘Oh, you’re an athlete?’” he says happily. “And I say, ‘Yes! I’m an athlete! Except I have NO money and NO fame and NO ONE cares.”
The guy’s really funny, and really smart, and impossible not to like. He was shocked to make the Olympic team, and he’s shocked to be here, and nobody really expects him to win a medal. But, as he says, nobody knows in his sport. Surprises happen. It all depends on the day. “The best fencer,” he says, “does not always win.”
Anyway, he’s not here to win a medal. He’s here to surpass himself. And, hey, that could lead to a medal, but the only way he will be satisfied is if he feels like he has reached the peak of his personal mountain.
“All I want is to have the greatest fencing day of my life,” he says. “That’s all. People are here for all different reasons. That’s mine. If I have my greatest fencing day, win or lose, I’ll have what I came for.”