After taking a year off of school to train for the Tokyo Summer Olympics, CAS senior and fencer Grant Williams is finally ready to achieve his ultimate goal: making the U.S. Olympics team. Coming into his first year, current CAS senior and co-captain of the men’s fencing team Grant Williams targeted one of the four spots on the United States’ 2016 Junior World Championship Team in the sabre division. Seven months later, he not only made the team but also finished the tournament 26th out of 145 fencers, second among the four representing the U.S. For Williams, competing at the Junior World Championships confirmed that he could fence at the highest levels of the sport. Williams soon set his sights on the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“Coming into college, I knew that the Olympics were something that I would hopefully one day be able to shoot for,” Williams said. “My freshman year, [making] the junior national team gave me the resolve to continue with the sport.”
Patrick Durkan, who has been Williams’ private coach since he arrived at NYU as a first-year, noted his unlimited potential and helped encourage Williams to pursue the Olympics.
“The understanding was: if you can [qualify for the Junior World Championships] in one year, what can you do in five?” Williams said.
Five years later, Williams is as close as he can be to qualifying for a place in the U.S. Olympics team this summer. With four qualifying events left, starting with a tournament in Varsovie, Poland on Feb. 21, Williams is ranked fifth among the senior U.S. fencers in the sabre division; only the top four earn a spot on the U.S. Olympics Team.
Steve Mormando, the head coach of the men’s and women’s fencing teams at NYU, has confidence in Williams’ ability to compete with any opponent in the remaining qualifiers.
“Grant is a spectacular athlete,” Coach Mormando said. “He’s probably one of the most talented athletes that we’ve had. Grant is on the level of any Olympian that’s out there right now.”
To give himself the best chance to qualify, Williams took a leave of absence from NYU for the 2018-19 academic year. During the year, Williams trained six days a week, taking 90-minute commutes to New Jersey to train with his private coach and bouting at fencing clubs around the city. The break from school gave him the time to concentrate on all facets of his game — cardio, footwork and even psychological training — to raise his comfort level in high stakes competitions.
“The hardest part of qualifying for the Olympic team in sabre fencing are the international competitions,” Williams said. “So last year, when I was off school, I was able to really focus on traveling to all those international competitions and that opportunity gave me the ability to be relaxed enough to compete to the best of my ability.”
Showcasing more confidence in international competitions, Williams steadily positioned himself closer and closer to Olympics qualification. As of February 2019, he rose to the eleventh spot in the national standings.
“All of last season I didn’t make a single international result,” Williams said. “This year, I made two. I see that as a result of the work that I put in over the course of last year, training and just getting the reps in, as well as developing the right mindset for international competition.”
The heightened level of competition often entailed facing opponents with more daunting resumes than Williams’. In the second round of the Moscow Grand Prix, Williams faced Giovanni Repetti, an experienced fencer who was a gold medalist for Team Italy in the Baku 2015 European Games. Overcoming a sprained ankle down 12-11, Williams proceeded to register the next four touches to win 15-12. The ensuing round matched him against Junghwan Kim, a 3-time World Cup winner and an Olympic bronze medalist. Williams lost 15-9.
“He lost to [Kim], but he did a very respectable job,” Coach Durkan said. “You talk about a 23 year old against someone six, eight years older who’s been a [bronze medalist], that was pretty impressive.”
As he prepares for the final qualifiers, Williams has the support of his NYU teammates. Upon returning to campus, Williams has been a vocal leader, cheering on his teammates and imparting the insight he has gained through his international experience. His eagerness to connect with his former and current teammates from both the men’s and women’s teams has earned him a pretty big group of supporters.
“It’s a lot easier when you’re with a gang,” Coach Mormando said, “and Grant’s got one of the best gangs out there, a Top 10 NCAA championship team that he plays with daily. That’s a good gang.”
A version of this article appears in the Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, print edition. Email Kevin Ryu at [email protected]