The Olympians: Ann Russell, fencer

Ann Russell competed in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics as a fencer.

Ann Russell, a freshman at Jersey City State College in 1964, looked into the college gym one day and liked what she saw.

“I thought, ‘That looks like fun,’” she said of watching students fencing with foils. Indeed, fencing is a sport with eye appeal, a combination of physical grace, artistry, and athleticism. As a Catholic schoolgirl from Bayonne, N.J., fencing was not part of Ms. Russell’s life experience at that point. Twelve years later, she was the top woman fencer in the U.S., had competed in two Olympic games, in Munich in 1972 and in Montreal in 1976, and won a bronze medal in the prestigious Pan-American Games in 1975.

Last week, on the eve of the potentially rocky Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Ms. Russell, a 17-year Island resident, talked with the Times about her Olympian path, life lessons learned, and the then-and-nows of Olympic competition.

Her story, like that of Island Olympian Charlie Shipway (The Times, June 29, 2016) and Olympic coach and world-class luge competitor David Maddox, describes a time when everyday people with an athletic dream and the hunger to do their best could find their way onto the world’s premier athletic stage.

“I come from that time of romanticism in sports generally, and since there is no professional fencing, then or now, there is that romantic notion of amateur competition. I don’t know if it was better back then. That’s just how it was,” Ms. Russell said.

“Competing in the Olympics was more accessible compared with today, I think. Most fencers began at 18 years old back then. Today they begin at 8 years old, so I would have had to start earlier, with a big investment of time and money. I wouldn’t be able to work and train today. We were older athletes supporting ourselves. Everyone was employed on my team,” she said.

Her Olympic teams finished in the middle of the Olympic pack in 1972 and in 1976. “I was disappointed. I thought we were going to do better,” she recalled.

Her story, however, has that “Chariots of Fire” ring to it, underscoring the fact that the road to the Olympics was a life-changer, helping to shape and form her for a resilient, productive life.

Ms. Russell offers a balanced perspective, not that the old days were the best days, just that they were different and that they produced important life rewards.

“I had to work to support myself. If I were sponsored [as most fast-track potential Olympians are today], I wouldn’t be a teacher, wouldn’t have had my career teaching special needs kids. And honestly, I don’t know if I’d be comfortable as a ‘semipro.’ I liked the control of being able to say no if I had to,” she said.

Ms. Russell retired in 1998 after nearly three decades of teaching in New Jersey, and moved to the Island with her late husband, Bob Russell, a former national champion fencer, who had formed the Martha’s Vineyard Fencing Club after running into Island pediatrician Dr. Michael Goldfine, who recognized Mr. Russell from shared fencing days in New York.

She took over coaching duties after her husband died in 1999, and works with school kids, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) Fencing Club, adults, and seniors. Marjorie Lucas, a 2008 MVRHS grad and now a rocket scientist (The Times, April 13, 2016), captained her Florida Institute of Technology fencing team. “A lot of kids with science and math interests are drawn to fencing, and Marjorie obviously was very good at both,” Ms. Russell said.

Ms. Russell’s competitive road to the Olympics was difficult but uncomplicated. “There wasn’t a selection committee. You competed in fencing events around the country and got points for performance.

“Whoever got the most points got an Olympic spot,” she said. “I finished fifth for one of six spots in 1972,” she grinned. Ms. Russell was an Olympic lock in 1976 after being rated the top U.S. fencer and medaling at the 1975 Pan American games. “I had to take off work to go,” she said. Ms. Russell retired from competition in 1980, got a master’s degree, continued to teach troubled kids, and took care of an aging mother.

Then and now

“I was competing as an Olympian at age 30, in the middle of my prime in my sport then. Today? Today, I would be done [by age 30]. Today’s fencers are younger, with more physically. We focused on hand and foot technique. It’s more of a ballistic sport now, with great emphasis on lower body strength,” she said.

Ms. Russell describes an athletic career, prior to sports medicine, kinetic analysis, and advance scouting of the competition, in which she literally did not know how good she was or even why she was good.

“I finished 12th and made the semifinals in my first national tournament, and I was surprised. I wasn’t thinking about the Olympics, just to be the best I could be. That was the motivator — to develop all the skills necessary to be better at anything, really. It was a very internal and joyful experience,” she said.

Ms. Russell’s Olympic career spanned both the hardline version of amateur noncommercial Olympics espoused by Avery Brundage for decades before former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Simon succeeded Brundage and opened things up in the mid-1970s. At a training center established in Colorado Springs, Colo., the 5-foot, 2-inch, 110-pound fencer learned after testing that her remarkably fast physical reaction time was the tool that helped her to compete at a world-class level despite a diminutive frame.

The kinetics helped her, as did a grueling schedule of teaching full-time in New Jersey, practicing three nights a week in New York fencing “salles,” and weekends spent traveling to compete at regional fencing events.

Ms. Russell also had a glimpse of the future on Sept 5. and 6, 1972, at the Munich Games, when Palestinian terrorists invaded the men’s village, eventually killing 11 Israeli Olympians on site and at a nearby airport.

“Women athletes were segregated then. We stayed outside the main village, entering it via an underground tunnel only for our meals in the main dining hall. We had heard rumors, but our first idea that something was wrong was when we saw a military vehicle at the main village entrance to the tunnel. Communications were limited, no cell phones or social media then. We went back to our rooms and learned about [the massacre] on the radio, just like everyone else,” she recalled.

Mr. Brundage thundered that “the Games must go on,” and they did. “We didn’t feel at risk at the time. Security was everywhere [in the aftermath of the attack]. And by 1976 in Montreal, security was so tight that we had to stay on the bus at the practice facility until soldiers were in place outside,” she said.

With regard to the effect of “professionalism” on the Olympics, Ms. Russell said, “Do you want to see the best true amateurs or the best fencing product? Those are your only two choices. Every sport has its own professional aspect,” she said, adding that “the race for medals, which country gets the most medals, is a media product. As an athlete, you want the best athlete to win. You hope that would be an American, but the best could be from another nation.”

Her life experience inside and outside sports has given Ms. Russell a perspective she uses in her life and as a teacher and coach. “My point is that unless you put yourself on the line, you don’t know your limits, and it works for anything in life: teaching, sports, gardening for that matter … If you do the best you can, you learn a tremendous amount about yourself.

“You have to know what you do well and what you don’t do well as an athlete, to improve and maintain. That learning is who you are today. It is not separate from your life. Having a perspective about what is important and not important gives you confidence in your judgment. There’s so much flying around in life that sometimes you have to process with your gut, like the first time I saw fencing,” she said.