Museum turns into Olympic battlefield

The Bruce Museum may be Greenwich’s world-class art institution but it was transformed into a battle zone last week at its Meet the Olympians event, where demonstrations of judo and fencing taught people about the world of Olympic combat.

The event, co-sponsored by the U.S. Athletic Trust, featured demonstrations by recent competitors in the London Olympic Games as well as a question and answer segment, allowing attendees the chance to interact with the athletes.

According to Robin Garr, the museum’s director of education, the event featured judo and fencing as a means of highlighting sports that get little attention in the United States. The museum hoped to both raise awareness about the sports and to wrap up its Olympic exhibition, which explored the artistic, cultural and athletic aspects of the Olympics.

The Bruce Museum is indebted to August Wolf, founder and president of the U.S. Athletic Trust, for precipitating the event, Ms. Garr said.

Mr. Wolf, a United States track and field Olympian in the 1984 Olympic Games, established the sports philanthropy business shortly after graduating from Princeton University. He had been awarded an athletic scholarship by the German government that allowed him to train for his sport, eventually leading him to the Olympics, but couldn’t comprehend why his home country hadn’t financially supported him, he explained.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Wolf said he was astounded to see that athletes were still not receiving financial aid, even though “the Olympic movement [was] going through the roof.” It was then that he founded the U.S. Athletic Trust, which raised money to supply Olympic athletes with direct grants, as Germany had been doing since 1969.

Given Mr. Wolf’s connection with Olympic athletes, he was able to coordinate the appearances of top-level Olympic competitors at the museum.

The first athletes to showcase their sport were brothers Jeff and Will Spear, who kept the audience engaged with a captivating fencing demonstration.

Jeff, who just returned from the London Olympic Games, told the Post he enjoys participating in events like the one at the Bruce Museum because it’s a way to get people interested in fencing, or at the very least help them understand how it works when they watch it.

“What little kid doesn’t like watching movies with sword fighting?” he asked. “It’s a fantastic sport.”

Throughout their demonstration Jeff and Will, who hopes to join his brother in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, kept the audience actively engaged, often questioning their pupils so ensure that they truly understood the lesson.

The duo described the three forms of fencing: Foil, epée and sabre, the discipline they compete in. While demonstrating a lively elimination match, the Spears allowed audience members to referee as they learned about parrying — the blade maneuvers carried out to deflect an incoming attack — score keeping, strategizing and a number of other insider fencing tips.

Jeff also told audience members that when they see a movie character raise his sword above his head with both hands, the opposing character undoubtedly tries to block the attack. Instead, “if you’re ever in a sword fight,” Jeff said with a laugh, lunge at the attacker because he is exposed and vulnerable.

The hardest part of fencing, Jeff said, is not the rigorous three-hour practice sessions he completes six days a week, but rather the mental aspect of the game. With every move occurring in tiny fractions of a second, a fencer can never lose focus. In fact, Jeff explained, the sabre is the second fastest moving object in the Olympics, second only to a bullet.

“Fencing is like a complicated rock-paper-scissors game,” he added.

At the end of the fencing demo, when an audience member asked Jeff if he’d won any gold medals, he explained that he had won several but never in the Olympics.

“That’s for 2016,” he said with a laugh.

But for judoka, the term for a competitor in judo, Kayla Harrison, the dream of earning an Olympic gold medal came true just a few short weeks ago, when she became the first American to win the gold in judo.

Joined by Marti Malloy, who earned a bronze in the London games, and Travis Stevens, who had a fifth place finish, Ms. Harrison described her journey to the top. She began her judo career at a young age, when her mother wanted her to learn self-defense, and she immediately fell in love. It was always appealing that the sport was one person against another with no outside distractions, she explained.

In recent years, while training for the London games, Ms. Harrison said an important part of her training was visualizing herself winning the gold.

Each night before bed, she would go through every step of the process from weighing in and warm-ups to hearing the national anthem, until she could truly envision herself accepting the gold medal.

“So when I woke up, [the day she won the gold] I knew it was my day,” she said. “August second, this is my day, this is my purpose.”

Although 10,000 fans screaming the name of her favored British opponent was nerve racking, Ms. Harrison said, she stuck to her methods and earned the win.

The journey to the gold was full of sweat and tears, she added, but the result was well worth it. When an audience member asked how she kept motivated, Ms. Harrison shared one of her favorite quotes in response: “You fuel the desire and the desire will fuel you.”

Along with her fellow judokas, Ms. Harrison also gave an up close and personal demonstration of judo, often eliciting gasps from the audience as the athletes tossed each other around on a floor mat with seemingly little effort.

The trio also discussed their experiences at the London Olympics, which were the most prosperous games for United States judokas in the event’s history.

The country’s overwhelming success, however, is somewhat perplexing, Ms. Harrison said.

While France spent $22 million, Brazil spent $16 million and Russia spent $12 million to train their judokas over the last four years, the United States spent just $1.6 million — a fraction of the funding the other countries received, she said.

Nevertheless, the trio said they hope to find enough funding to compete in 2016.

The goal of the Olympics, Ms. Harrison explained, is to achieve one’s personal best performance and to encourage others, rather than to win.

Mr. Stevens agreed, adding, “Being able to inspire a generation is one of the things that we love to do.”

 

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