By Meyer Gorelick
Fencing has taken three-time Olympian Greg Massialas around the globe, but he chose the Sunset District for his home base. For the last seven years, Massialas has been operating MTeam Fencing Studio on Taraval Street just east of Sunset Boulevard, where he and his staff train fencers ranging in age from 7-18 years old.
Massialas has been head coach of the U.S. Men’s Foil Team since 2011. After leading the U.S. to its first foil fencing team Olympic medal in 84 years at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the team’s first World Championship Title ever in 2019, he was named Team USA’s Olympic Coach of the Year for 2020.
Massialas’ son, Alex, who won two NCAA individual fencing titles while at Stanford University, took home the individual men’s foil fencing silver medal at the 2016 Olympic games, and his daughter Sabrina will represent the U.S. Women’s Foil Fencing Team at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.
Originally from Greece, Massialas moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan when he was a boy, and started taking fencing seriously when he was 14. He began his college career at Cornell University, but fell in love with the Bay Area when he came to San Jose State University to train with Olympic coach Mike D’Asaro Sr.
“Once you come here, you don’t go back!” Massialas said before breaking out in laughter.
He described his first taste of San Francisco, when he came to the Presidio for a national fencing trial when he was in college.
“I left Ithaca (New York) with like three feet of snow and everything else,” Massialas said. “And I came here, and it was January and it was like 70 degrees, beautiful, and you were in the Presidio. And I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something wrong with where I’m going back to.’”
Massialas’s first shot at competing in the Olympics slipped away when the U.S. was one of 66 countries that boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow, Russia, to protest the Soviet-Afghan War. But he got his chance to compete in the Olympic games when he represented the U.S. in 1984 and 1988. After retiring, he stayed involved in the sport as a referee, and participated in that capacity during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. At the behest of his wife, Chwan-Hui, he embarked on a coaching career that would take him and his family to the top of world fencing.
“I laid out a 10-year plan,” Massialas said.
He started out by coaching students at his children’s school and expanded into other schools before starting his own fencing program. He started out by focusing on working with young kids, making sure he did not take on more than he could handle, and developed at a sustainable pace.
“Now we’re a much bigger program, obviously, and I have multiple coaches,” he said.
He is proud that he has been able to prove that the Bay Area can also produce Olympic-level foil fencers, as the sport has long been dominated by east coasters.
COVID-19 has thrown a major wrench into Massialas’ program.
“It’s been hard,” he said. “The studio itself, there was a time in the beginning where we just sort of shut down for a month – nothing. Then we started doing some Zoom things when we found out what Zoom was all about.
“Finally, we were able to open up under the youth summer program, and we had all the protocols we had to do. Then things evolved … Subsequently in November, December, everything shut down.”
Training moved outdoors on weekends, including having “fencing on the beach” days in the winter, since no indoor training was permitted. Massialas was able to keep his coaches paid and survive the height of the pandemic.
“It’s a specialized industry, so if you lose your coaches, you’re in trouble,” he said.
With 65% of San Francisco’s adults fully vaccinated, MTeam studio is now able to resume indoor classes. The spacious studio is equipped with cables that link up to suits. The suits have sensors that are triggered when people score points by “stabbing” their opponent. There are narrow strips along the floor that opponents stay within when they compete.
“It’s based on the old days, life and death, when there was a duel. In the old cities, in Paris, in all these places where duels existed, you had these narrow alleys,” Massialas explained while he demonstrated how the sport works. “Basically, that’s why you fence up and down the strip versus in a circle.”
Points are only scored in foil fencing by hitting the torso where “mortal” wounds can be inflicted.
As life and training slowly transition back to normal, the U.S. Men’s Foil Team enters the 2021 Tokyo Olympics ranked number one overall in the world. Although he mentioned the disadvantage that the U.S. may face against teams like Russia – that didn’t shut down at all for COVID-19 – Massialas is confident heading into this summer’s Olympics.
“Now we’re shooting for gold and I think we have a very good shot at it,” he said.