The small group of young fencers can’t take it anymore. On July 25, in the early morning, on a bus somewhere near Storm King (NY), where they are at summer camp, they explode with joy when they see Romain Cannone become an Olympic gold medalist in Tokyo. “Since the night before, they were up until late to follow Romain. It didn’t matter if they had to get up early the next day! Romain, for us, is a legend,” smiles coach Misha Mokretsov, who runs the fencing club to which this happy contingent of 70 budding sportsmen belongs, and to which the champion belonged when he was a teenager.
This Ukrainian fencer is particularly proud of the improbable performance of the Frenchman, who went from the 47th place in the world to its top tier: it is he who gave Cannone the taste for fencing a little more than ten years ago. At the time, Canonne was only 12 years old and living in New York, where his parents had moved to open Macaron Café, a French macaron store. He then trained with Misha Mokretsov at the Brooklyn Fencing Center, where the master gives classes. He followed him in 2010 when he launched his own school, the New York Fencing Academy, near Coney Island, where most of his students live. “At first, Romain was just one of many students. He was pretty weak and skinny. He had trouble holding the blades over time and staying in guard position over the length, but he was very elastic and creative. He didn’t just do what he was told. He was able to make combinations himself based on the general direction I gave him.”
A friendship quickly developed between the coach and his young disciple, who was determined to improve. Their families became closer, and the wife of “Coach Misha” provided “moral support” to the perfectionistic and “sensitive” young man when he suffered a setback. “He wanted so much to do well and lived for fencing,” remembers the swordsman. “We did with Romain the work that any athlete must do to prepare: jogging on the Coney Island boardwalk, physical preparation through rafting, skiing. We also did some fishing. I was trying to show him respect and how to be a good person. Which he already was because, having had a French education, he was always very polite!”
It is also Misha Mokretsov who encouraged him to return to France when, at university in the United States, the future champion felt “miserable” not to be able to pursue fencing at a high level. “We came to the conclusion that he had to return to France to go all the way,” says the coach. “He could have stayed in the United States and found a job, but he would have been unhappy. He was passionate about fencing. France and its culture are better for him. In the U.S., we don’t have a very strong support system for adult fencers. Sure, he could have made the U.S. national team, but he would not have reached the level he has today. I am very proud of him. He has sacrificed so much. And besides being an outstanding fencer, he’s a great guy!”
The Frenchman’s consecration is also that of Misha Mokretsov, a former Ukrainian vice-champion and member of the junior national team. Inspired by a friend, he started fencing at age 12 and went to Saint John’s University (Queens) after winning a scholarship. In addition to making the varsity team, he began tutoring to fund his education. “I started getting results, even though I didn’t know how to coach. But because I was young, I was able to communicate my energy to my students, who saw me as a friend,” he says. “Also, I wasn’t super talented. Fencing for me is more of a science than an instinct. It allows me to dissect my movements and explain them easily to others.”
Today, Misha Mokretsov heads two schools, in Coney Island and Port Washington (Long Island), for 6-20 year olds and fencing veterans. He can boast of having trained many budding champions. But Romain Cannone’s Olympic medal is his greatest reward. He was able to speak briefly to the champion on Tuesday 27 July, interrupted constantly by the “congratulations” launched by his students in the background. Some of them have met the Frenchman, who liked to help his former club during competitions in Europe, but most have never seen him. “For us, the greatest reward is to show our cadets and juniors that they can dream even bigger. There is no American Olympic gold medalist in epee. That title is kind of held by Romain. Even though he competed under French colors, he is our fencer!”