An Interview with 2012 NCAA Epee Fencing Champion Jonathan Yergler

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At the young age of 10, you could tell Jonathan Yergler had a rare knack for the game of fencing. My mother once turned to me during a tournament and said: “That boy is going to be an Olympian one day.” I agreed. I have had the pleasure of being Jonathan’s teammate at various Florida clubs for the last 10+ years, and seen him go from “mushroom,” as we used to call him to what he is now. Jonathan was a freak athlete from a young age. Few youth 10/12 fencers have impeccable point control, quick toe touches, and coordinated footwork. Jonathan did. Few youth fencers push themselves to do extra footwork, extra reps on the target, or ask for additional minutes in a lesson to perfect an action– but Jonathan did. Now, after years of experience and an unmatchable work ethic, Jonathan has just begun to scratch the surface of his fencing, making multiple Cadet and Junior National Teams, winning a fair share of NACs, and most recently, a 2011 silver medal in the NCAA championships followed by a dominant performance in the 2012 NCAA championships to win Gold.

The fencing only tells part of Jonathan’s story though. In a sport that can attract many egos, Jonathan has remained humble, hard working, and most importantly– no fencer has more fun than him in competition. He is the product of two supportive and amiable parents, who without fail would cheer him in victory and encourage him even in defeat. In the second post of our interview series, I am pleased to share this conversation with my old friend Jonathan Yergler, a now senior at Princeton University who I have no doubt will become a power house for United States Fencing for years to come.

Damien Lehfeldt: Who are you coached by?

Jonathan Yergler: Mario Jelev primarily but I work with Zoltan Dudas at Princeton.

DL: A lot of fencers consider coaches to be like surrogate family members. How have Mario/Zoltan affected your life off the strip?

JY: They’ve been great. Mario especially is like having another dad. He’s been great at pushing me to work harder and achieve more than I otherwise would have been able to. He’s a great guy to shoot the breeze with and is always game to talk about just about anything. Zoltan has been incredibly supportive and helpful throughout my fencing at Princeton also. I know that both of them have always had my best interests at heart and want to see me succeed both on and off the strip.

DL: What initially drew you to fencing/how did you get involved originally?

JY: Haha. I was a toddler running around with a stick everywhere. My parents needed to find some place to channel that affinity for dangerous pointy things. All the other stick-sports were boring to me. (golf- well that’s self explanatory; baseball- I sat in the outfield and picked at the grass the whole time; hockey- I live in Florida) There was a kid at my elementary school who was taking classes at a local rec center and they thought maybe I should try it out. Needless to say, I was hooked.

DL: You’ve been doing this sport for roughly 15 years, and I’ve had the opportunity to see you progress from when you started all the way up until now (I sure miss the days where I had a 2 foot height advantage on you). Not a lot of people stay in the sport so long. What about it keeps you going and what advice can you provide to young fencers to stay motivated and have fun throughout their career?

JY: The sport is great. No other sport has the same mix of speed, strategy, technique, agility and excitement as fencing. Plus it’s sword fighting. Who doesn’t like that?! I love playing the game. For me it is also an area of my life where I feel I can really push myself. I really believe the sky is the limit for what I can make myself in this sport and that by pouring my heart and soul into it can make me one of the absolute best at it. That feeling is pretty great. I’ve also made a ton of great friends in the sport over the years and those people have helped push me to make myself better over the years and dedicate more of myself to improving my fencing.

Part of it is to always remember that fencing is a heck of a lot of fun. It’s easy to lose track of that when you get so focused on your results and the frustrations of training. Enjoy hanging out with friends and don’t take defeats and setbacks too hard. Just try and learn from them for next time. You have to avoid losing sight of why you are doing the sport in the first place. If you don’t lose sight of that, I don’t see how someone couldn’t keep fencing.

DL: How would you describe your fencing to someone who has never seen you fence? What are your greatest strengths as a fencer and what areas do you need to work on the most?

JY: I move precisely and focus on maintaining my balance and composure. I probably try too many toe touches. Some of my friends do some great imitations of how I fence. Mike Raynis and James Kaull are especially good at it.

I’m not sure I have any one set strength. I work hard to make sure I can do a lot of things well and can adjust to different circumstances and opponents. My point control has always been top notch I guess but my success usually tends to hinge on my mental approach and strategy as the bout goes on. I’m not going to divulge all of my weaknesses so publicly (I’ll make my opponents try and figure that out for themselves) but I definitely have a lot of things I am working on. I’m trying to make my movements more fluid and less choppy and trying to make sure I lead with my tip instead of my legs whenever I go forward more regularly.

DL: I think the first thing that comes to mind when people think of your fencing is your toe touch. Somehow, it comes out so fast, including the recovery from the lunge that you’re already back en guard before your opponent has counter attacked. Where the hell did that come from?533206_361785533866185_796718352_n

JY: Haha! I think I give Mario nightmares about how many ill advised foot touches I try in a given competition. I originally fenced foil and switched when I was about 10. The new target area really expanded my horizons. I especially like being able to show that I’m going for the arm target and then drop down quickly to the low line. I think my point control around the wrist really makes people worry about that which opens up the space for me to hit the foot. I’ve been pretty successful with it over the years so I guess it’s pretty positively reinforced at this point.

DL: What fencer do you most admire and who do you think you compare favorably to?

JY: Tricky. There are a lot of great fencers I’ve looked at and really been inspired by over the years. I grew up with the conceptualization of Pavel Kolobkov being the best fencer in the sport (possibly the best ever). I always wanted to be better than that so I think there has to be a lot of admiration there.

There are other fencers now who I really like watching a lot of the Italian fencers like that guy who won the Olympics in Beijing (Matteo Tagliariol) but there are a lot of other successful fencers that I think highly of and feel I can learn a lot by watching. In the US you have to appreciate what Seth Kelsey has been able to accomplish over his career but I can’t say his style would work well for me. There might be some comparison that can be made between myself and fellow Princeton grad, Soren Thompson, and I admire what he has been able to accomplish in fencing. But I’m not sure I fence too much like many other people. That’s part of what’s cool about fencing. There is no real one right way to do things. There are so many different styles and approaches that are tailored so specifically to work for one fencer that every bout is unique. I could never do exactly what Seth does and be successful. I will never have the same flêch attack with the same sense of distance control as Kolobkov. I can learn from other fencers but in the end I have to find what works for me and make my own path.

DL: What are your short term and long term goals in the sport of fencing? Are we going to see Jonathan Yergler competing in the Veterans 70 division?

JY: In the short term I want to defend my NCAA title. I have one last shot at this tournament and I really want to go out with a bang. After that I’m hoping to make a Senior World Championship and hopefully make the Olympic team for the US in Rio in 2016. Who knows farther out than that?

I don’t plan on stopping there. I hope to have a very long career in fencing and I hope I will be able to compete at the highest level for many years after. Veterans 70 though? I don’t know. I hope I’ll still be fencing the Div 1 for fun and challenging the next generation of upstarts to reach new levels of success in the sport. Maybe I can punish them for their ill advised foot touches and stop that habit from forming before it’s too late!

DL: Walk us through a typical fencing practice for you. 378248_414334791937234_675431722_n

JY: It changes depending on when in the season it is and when I have tournaments. I always start with a routine warm-up: some jogging, grapevines, power skipping, a few short sprints, high knees, butt-kickers, etc.

Then I stretch for at least 20-30 min. I learned the hard way early on that you really need to do this. It’s one of the best ways to prevent injuries.

Then I do some form of footwork. This changes from practice to practice. I personally like shadow-fencing. It forces you to use your imagination a little and allows you to focus on elements of your footwork such as the rhythm that you usually don’t think about when you are actually fencing or doing more specific footwork drills. Visualizing is a great way to work on the mental part of the game at the same time as improving your technique if you do it right. Sometimes it helps to have someone there to give you a little direction as well.

Then bouting! The best part. I have never been a fan or normal pair drills personally (I don’t like to get hit and not do anything about it) but I love situational bouting. You can adjust the bout score, limit the amount of time remaining, make doubles count for the other guy, limit actions that can be used by both fencers, etc. This let’s you work on specific things you have been training to improve but also in a realistic setting.

Free bouting is something that should not be overlooked either. It is your chance to be creative and take risks. Without taking the time to explore that crazy idea you may have you wont be able to develop new actions or tactics as readily. Plus it is fun. The more varied your sparring partners, the more you can do with this. I will sometimes try to do some more intense, timed bouts closer to a competition time to hone my focus and build up some adrenalin for the upcoming tournament.

Either after or before, I will do target practice for somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes just focusing on hitting the target with a relaxed shoulder and precisely where I want to with the tip. At Princeton we have a golf ball attached to a string, a dummy with a protruding arm and leg and a basic wall target that I use. I switch between them as I get bored.

DL: Any supplemental weight lifting/training regimes you do in addition to standard fencing (be as detailed as you can!)

JY: I actually don’t do very much in terms of weightlifting ever. I used to cross train in high school with swimming on the swim team but I haven’t done any of that in college. I do most of this kind of stuff during the off season and then don’t do much once the competitions schedule picks up. I make sure I do some running to increase my endurance, some ab work for strengthening my core and improving balance, and maybe some light lifting with dumbbells (low weight/ high reps).

DL: Besides winning Central Florida Division Team Championships twice with myself and Matthew Neu, what are some of your favorite memories of fencing and why?

JY: There are a lot of good ones. Winning the Ivy League Championships in 2010 and 2012 and my individual title in 2012 are really high up there. Getting into Princeton in the first place. Making my first junior world championships team in 2008. Competing with our Olympians the same year at the Pan American Games. There was this team event at Nationals in Atlanta where our rag-tag team from South Florida placed third in Junior’s and gave the top NY Athletic Club team (headlined by Seth Kelsey and Benji Ungar) a run for their money in the top 8. That one was a lot of fun.

Those were all great individual experiences but they don’t even come close to encapsulating all the great memories I’ve had in the sport. It’s the fun at practice every day. It’s seeing my friends from all over the country and world for the first time in months at each tournament. It’s spending time with my teammates. It’s the long bus rides, train rides, car rides, national and international flights, and my intimate knowledge of the inside of convention centers from around the world that all add up to make my fencing memories special.

DL: What’s the most embarrassing thing on your iPod?

JY: I take full responsibility for most of it. Katy Perry is great but the number of times I’ve listened to Teenage Dream might be a bit incriminating. Oh I love all of Rhianna’s stuff too. Then there is that hit single I made sophomore year in honor of one of my teammates at Princeton called The Burford Song but that one is not available for download on iTunes yet.

DL: You’re always wearing your fisherman’s hat and you’ve been seen wearing a clock around your neck a la Flavah Flave with the words “Game time” on the clock face. Any other superstitions you have?

JY: Haha. Not really. The Game Time bit was just me having fun on the team. It was sort of supposed to be a bit of a life mantra I was hoping the team would get into. If someone asked me for the time I would always respond that it was in fact game time. I think I may have annoyed some people with that! I didn’t start with that until college fencing. James Kaull still insists that I stole that idea from him, but I’m going to go ahead and take ownership for this one (either way I was the one who ran with it). What’s been funny is watching some of the other college teams try to copy it or do their own renditions. They never quite get it right… My roommate, Ed Kelley, made the physical clock for me a few years ago. I think I’m going to keep it hanging on the wall for the foreseeable future but Flavah Flave’ing it was just me having some more fun at the time.
I’ve been wearing the hat for years. My grandfather used to have a hat like that and I always thought it was pretty cool. He pulled it off the way only an elderly man could. I started wearing one a little before he died. It’s quite practical, keeps me warm at competitions. My original one got to be in pretty bad shape and I replaced it with a Princeton one once I was accepted. It’s part practical, part habit and part remembrance of my grandfather. But I guess it’s just kind of my thing now.
DL: Your parents are a special kind of awesome. How have your they played a role in your success on and off the strip, and what is the most valuable advice you can give to parents of fencers?
JY: My parents have been amazing. Without them I would not be where I am today in the sport. They have put so much time and energy in to helping me pursue my passion it’s amazing. They were the ones who originally got me to try fencing for starters. They not only supported me financially but they invested a great deal of time to take me to tournaments and training. My club in Florida where Mario works is 200 miles south of where I live in Orlando. They would drive me down almost every weekend to train. As dedicated as I have been to fencing, they have been just as dedicated to making sure I have to opportunity achieve my dreams in fencing.
Thank you parents for all your support!
My advice to parents: support what your kids want to do with the sport. Whether that’s just having fun or really trying to be the best they can be at it. Having your parents behind you can make all the difference. Try not to be too hard on them. Let their coach be the guy who gets in their face and chews them out when they aren’t listening and struggling. And let the coach do the coaching. You’ll be surprised at just how far a little unconditional support in their fencing can go and your kids look to you for that support. Give them every opportunity to push themselves to be better but try not to add to the pressure they are already putting on themselves.
Follow us on Twitter at @TheFencingCoach
Click here for our interview with foil fencing legend and 3x world champion Sergei Golubitsky

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