Fifteen-year-old Bethesda fencer Honor Johnson is winning medals in competitions—and setting her sights on the 2024 Olympics
At age 15, Honor Johnson is a nationally ranked fencer who travels the world to compete. But her passion for the sport didn’t come naturally.
“I tried so many different sports—soccer, lacrosse, ice skating—and they just didn’t fit with me. I didn’t like them, or I wasn’t very good at them,” says Honor, a Bethesda resident and sophomore at the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C.
When she was 8, her mother, Sharon Rogers, suggested giving fencing a try and enrolled Honor in a foil fencing class that spring. Rogers believes her three kids—including Honor’s older brother True, 19, who plays basketball, and younger sister Merit, 12, who swims—should play sports to help balance their focus on academics.
At first, Honor didn’t like the sport, but she began to enjoy it after attending a saber fencing camp held that summer by Dariusz Gilman, a certified fencing master with the United States Fencing Coaches Association who is now the owner and head coach of the Capital Fencing Academy in North Bethesda. The switch from foil to saber helped ignite Honor’s interest because saber is more exciting to watch and participate in, Rogers says.
“It was quite difficult in the beginning,” Honor says. But she adapted quickly, and just a year later scored second place in her first competition, in Durham, North Carolina. “That was when I knew—oh, maybe I should stick with this sport. I’m actually kind of good at it,” she says.
Seven years and many victories later, she’s ranked No. 1 in the country for women’s saber by USA Fencing in the Cadet division for ages 16 and under. She’s competed in events held in places such as Columbus, Ohio, Verona, Italy, and Toruń, Poland, where she won a bronze medal at the 2019 Cadet World Championships.
Coached by Gilman, Honor has her sights set on the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Fencers qualify for international competitions by scoring points during national tournaments, and must be among the top 12 in the U.S. to qualify for participation. Their cumulative scores from international competitions are among the criteria considered when fencers are trying to qualify for the Olympics.
Rogers says that helping Honor reach her current level of competition has required a constant financial commitment and lifestyle changes for their family. These days, the family only eats organic food because Honor is “a high-level athlete, so we kind of have to support that,” Rogers says.
Depending on the time of year, Honor will spend 15 to 25 hours per week in training, mostly after school, according to Rogers. She also works with a strength and conditioning coach, and runs and hikes in her spare time. Despite this intensive regimen, Gilman says he doesn’t push Honor beyond her limits.
“I know that Honor is very young. Last year, we skipped many competitions; we didn’t compete in all the possible competitions that Honor could have,” he says. “It’s very important to grow organically, not to overdo it” to avoid burnout.
Rogers says she still gets nervous watching her daughter compete. To understand the sport better, she took an adult fencing class and learned to appreciate the level of skill required to perform as well as her daughter. “I didn’t last very long, but I did learn just how difficult it is,” she says.