This Article Was Originally Published in the Washington Times.
WASHINGTON, February 28, 2013 — Prior to the 2000’s, foil fencer Sergei Golubitsky had arguably cemented himself as the greatest foil fencer of all time, winning three world championships in a storied career. At the turn of the millennium, a young German fencer by the name of Peter Joppich entered the international fencing scene and forever changed the game of foil, making the act of winning a habit.
Joppich has won five world championship gold medals (four individual and one team) and an Olympic team bronze in the London 2012 Olympics. He has won a total of 13 world medals — and he just turned 30 years old. What’s most impressive about Joppich’s many world championships is that they came during both eras of foil fencing.
Speaking with Joppich, I found that he never seemed to claim any credit for any of his personal successes without graciously thanking his teammates, his coach and even his physical therapist. His humility has allowed him to remain driven to win, and as you will read, victory for Peter Joppich is only temporary.
Like Alabama football coach Nick Saban, Joppich only briefly revels in victory before returning to the drawing board and resetting his goals so that winning can continue habitually. I sat down with Peter Joppich to discuss memories of his fencing career, his training regimen and his relationship with his coach.
Peter Joppich: Yes, I started fencing when I was 5 years old. I live in a region with a lot of castles. So I knew a lot about knights and musketeers. In 1988, I watched the Olympics and especially the fencing competitions, where the German fencer Anja Fichtel won the gold medal. I saw the competition at five o’clock in the morning and got so excited that after seeing that, I woke up my parents told them I wanted to start fencing.
And so I started. I remember my first practice weapon when I began fencing. I used a short plastic kid’s foil (at this age the kids get shorter and lighter weapons) with a neon yellow blade. With this weapon I did my first hits on training pillows which hung on the wall in my club.
DL: Of the utmost importance in fencing is the relationship between a fencer and his/her coach. Describe your relationship with Coach Uli Schreck and how he has contributed to your many successes in fencing.
PJ: Uli Schreck is the most important person in my fencing career. We know each other and have worked together for more than 17 years. He discovered my fencing talent very early, taught me a lot about fencing and supported me all my way until today. The way he prepares me for big events is first rate, both in my fencing shape and mental shape. I’m very thankful for having him as my coach. We also have a good relationship outside the sport and respect each other.
DL: Since you began fencing, the timing on the foil machines has changed, and the bib is now valid target. How do you feel about the changes to the rules and do you agree with them?
PJ: Yes, that’s right, the timing changed in 2005. My fencing style was adapted to the former timing with a lot of flicks. After the change, I had to alter my fencing style and the 2005/2006 season was very difficult for me with not so good results. It took some time, but with Uli Schreck’s help I changed my style and won the World Championship in 2006. I’m very glad that I won world championship titles in both eras of fencing history.
DL: What kind of mental preparation do you undergo leading up to major competitions?
PJ: I have to say that the mental strength is something that characterizes me. I won a lot of fights on the last touch. I even won two World Championship finals that way. I never get nervous and I’m very focused at the final moment and highly concentrated.
In the beginning of my career it was easier than today. In the beginning there wasn’t so much pressure. But with winning my first World Championship titles the pressure and the expectations grew. And if you are getting older, you start to think more about it.
I have a good team of fencers behind me at home – a very good coach – a very good physical therapist. All of them give me open ears and their undivided attention. They all help me to put the pressure away, and I’m thankful to have them supporting me.
Damien Lehfeldt: In as much detail as possible, walk us through what a typical day of training looks like for you.
This a difficult question, because it depends on the part of the season.
Before the season: I start with physical training, running, lifting weights, and then I switch to fencing. I do footwork, get my first lessons and start fencing with my teammates.
During the World Cup season: My main fencing days are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. On these days I get lessons, fence with my teammates or do footwork. On Monday and Friday I do physical training or recovery exercises after tournaments.
World Championship training: This is the most intensive training to get your body and mind in a good shape for the big stage. For the first three weeks, I do training camps and a lot of physical training like running and lifting weights.
For the last four weeks: fencing, lessons and footwork and on the weekends, fencing training camps with the first and second team and junior fencers.
DL: What are your short-term goals and long term goals in fencing, and do you think we’ll see you competing in the Veterans 70 division?
PJ: I don’t know if I’m the type who will be competing in the veterans division. But I know veteran fencers, visited veterans competitions and I like to see that you can fence even at an advanced age.
If I look back at my 13 World Championship medals and my Olympic medal, a lot of people would guess that I don’t have further goals, but I’m different. If I win medals, I’m very happy about it, but after a short time I always look forward to the next big event and how I can win the next medal. My motivation is to win — I always try to win — and not just in fencing. A new Olympic period just started and my long-term goal is Rio 2016. During this time we will have three World Championships, so I’m hoping to win more and add to my legacy.
DL: What is your single favorite memory of your fencing career and why?
PJ: There is no single favorite memory. If look back at my whole career, I see a lot of ups, but also a lot of downs. All my world championship titles and the Olympic medal means a lot to me. I do not like to compare them, because every medal has its own history.
Peter Joppich (r) v. Jeremy Cadot (l), 2013 Photo: AP
To take part in the Olympics is something great. To be there with the best sportsmen of the world and to live with them in one village is amazing. You collect so many memories you will never forget.
But a very special moment in my career was my World Championship win in Paris at the Grand Palais. This was the best World Championship I’ve ever seen.
The spectators were great and the palace where it took place was amazing. It was a big palace on the Champs-Élysées, where normally designers present their new collections in big fashion shows.
At the beginning of the 2010 season, I set a goal to win in the homeland of fencing (France), and now I am very happy that I could win there. I will never forget this special moment of being on top at the medal ceremony.
DL: While an amazing Olympic run for Team Germany and Britta Heidemann, what do you make of the Shin A. Lam controversy and what can the FIE do to ensure such errors are not repeated in the future?
PJ: It was a very difficult decision, because nobody knew if the clock was running or not. There were a lot hits in the final second and nobody understood how this was possible. Even the referee didn’t know if the clock was running.
For the future, it would be good to have a clock with hundredths of seconds (like in the NBA) so that the referee has the chance to see if the clock is running or not.
DL: This question came from the Reddit Fencing Community (from Mattinthehat). How has being so successful at such a young age affected your mindset and career? Does it make it harder to appreciate victories later on and stay motivated when you won so much in your early twenties?
PJ: Because I was successful in my youth, the pressure and the expectations grew very vast. I learned to handle this in a professional way. Sometimes, it was not so easy. But I stayed motivated all the time because after winning big events I always looked forward for new goals and winning new medals is something that motivates me.
Of course, I had some downs in my career, but they were also important for my personality and development. I learned to handle these situations, to trust in myself, and to look forward. I appreciate my later victories in the same way that I do my former victories. Some were harder to win because of the big pressure. To repeat victories or to win medals for many years is something that characterizes top fencers.
DL: When you complete your fencing career, how would you like to be remembered by the fencing community?
PJ: I always want to be myself. I am not a showman. I want to stay in mind as a great fencer who isn’t only characterized by his titles.