2019 | Sports

Bethesda Fencer Wins National Competition in Epic Final Bout

16-year-old balances school with national and international competition

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Justin Haddad with head coach Janusz Smolenski.

DC Fencers Club

A Bethesda teen outlasted 304 competitors to win gold in Cadet Men’s Epee at the 2019 USA Fencing Junior Olympic Championships in Denver on Sunday.

Justin Haddad, 16, won all six of his round robin bouts then six more elimination rounds to reach the finals, where he narrowly defeated San Diego’s Daniel Shifron, according to a DC Fencers Club news release.

The Montgomery Blair High School junior has been a member of DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring since 2013, after four years fencing in London.

“It felt really great,” Haddad said. “I hadn’t made the podium all year, it was nice to finally be up there.”

More than 2,000 competitors flooded the Denver Convention Center for the Junior Olympics Championships, which included team and individual tournaments in foil, sabre and epee, the three disciplines of fencing.

Swordplay has been practiced for thousands of years, with fencing becoming a sport around the 15th century, according to the official Olympic Games website. The sport debuted in the Olympics at the 1896 Games in Athens. The object of competition is to record a certain number of points, or outscore your opponent in the given time limit. Points are scored by recording a “touch” on an opponent’s target area, according to the USA Fencing website.

The three disciplines of fencing are distinguished by target areas and the size and use of the weapon. USA Fencing explains the foil is a flexible weapon and touches are recorded only on the torso, the epee is a heavier blade and touches are counted anywhere on the body but using just the tip of the weapon, and the saber is similar to the foil but used differently, thrusting for touches from the bend of the hips to the top of the head.

Participants hailed from 44 states and the District for the event, the final national contest of the season.

Haddad rolled through the round robin and elimination rounds, but had some trouble with Shifron. He trailed by four points after the first of three periods, then battled back to tie the score at 12-12. The pair traded points to even the score at 14 in the first-to-15 contest. Haddad then landed the winning touch to take home the championship title, according to the news release.

“Just about everybody has nerves, even the coaches,” DC Fencers Club coach Byron Neslund said. “Luckily, one of the great things about Justin is generally he has a pretty cool head and he takes advice really well, even in stressful situations. He was able to make a couple smart changes and come back and win the bout.”

Haddad is in the Science, Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet Program at Blair. He said balancing school and fencing is difficult, but he works hard to get his homework done, communicates with his teachers and stays late after school when necessary.

Haddad in action, via DC Fencers Club.

After five international events and six to seven national competitions this season, Haddad couldn’t remember how many days of school he’s missed this year. His mother took a quick look at the calendar and called out 19 days. Haddad said he “made it a habit to pretty much avoid my house,” heading straight to the library to get work done after school and before fencing practice.

The tournament was Haddad’s last national event at the under-17 cadet level, and the Pan American Championships on Feb. 26 in Bogota, Columbia, will be his final international cadet competition. He will also be competing at the junior level in that event.

“The past two weeks, I’ve been fencing the best fencing I’ve done my whole career,” Haddad said. “I’m just trying to keep fencing at that high level … and remember what it felt like to win and hopefully replicate it in the future.”

The DC Fencers Club has churned out multiple champions in its nearly 30-year existence, most recently Team Women’s Epee Senior World Championship winner Amanda Sirico. The team is led by head coach Janusz Smolenski, a certified U.S. Fencing Coaches Association Fencing Master.

Neslund said the sport has been growing across the country, and victories at high levels help shine a spotlight on the club.

“It does a lot,” Neslund said. “It definitely raises the profile for us, and just for fencing in general, which we’re really happy about.”

The club has fencing classes and camps for fencers of all ages and abilities. Private lessons and memberships are also available.