Fencing Like The Godfather
The Physical Chess of Czech foil fencer Alexander Choupenitch
Edited By Robin Jay and Red Bull Sports
Keeping his emotions in check are key for the 22-year-old Czech foil fencer in a sport he describes as “physical chess” in contrast to his opera-singing parents.
Speaking of his father, he says: “There’s a book of opera and he needs to learn all the lyrics: Italian, English, German, Russian. Then he needs to learn how to sing it – opera is very hard to sing.
“Then he needs to be an actor. You need to act, to feel, to show your emotions. That’s what people want to see… emotions. Fencing is very easy compared to this.”
It means a contrasting approach, when parents and son are on their respective stages. “I’m trying to be cooler, like The Godfather,” said Alexander laughing.
The Early Years
Performing has been his or his parents’ way for as long as he can remember. They would perform with the National Theatre Brno before setting off post-performance at 10 p.m. to drive their son across different pockets of Europe to his respective competitions from Salzburg to Bratislava.
Today, Alexander is one of the rising stars of his sport. From his first major victory in 2011 at the Cadet European Championships to silver at the Junior World Championships the following year and nearly qualifying for London 2012 as a 17-year-old, he has long promised to deliver and has enjoyed a highest ranking of fifth in the world.
His parents remain both his biggest backers and harshest critics. “Thanks to them, I am here because they really supported me financially in the beginning,” he said. “Now they cannot handle it as I’m going to places like Tokyo and Shanghai, but they’re still really supporting me. They are also very critical. If I make a bad result, they’ll give it to me. They’ll say ‘you really messed it up’.”
The tough love has had the desired effect. His parents took him to as many as 45 competitions a year, in contrast to now where a typical year is more akin to just 12.
At The Top Of His Game
That he finds himself among the world’s best foil fencers is somewhat fortuitous. A keen sportsman in his youth – he had tried ice hockey, karate, tennis and basketball – he only tried his hand at fencing after managing to get his hands on a ball at a basketball session only three times in an hour.
“I wasn’t into Star Wars or The Three Musketeers or anything like that, but I said I’d try fencing,” Alexander recalled. “We then started doing fencing footwork, which looks like ballet. I was like ‘I’m not doing it’, then here I am today.”
One could argue he was born to fence. Despite never meeting her, his stepgrandmother was Tatyana Petrenko-Samusenko, a three-time Olympic foil champion for the former Soviet Union, while his first forays into the sport resonated with his grandfather back in Belarus.
He was enrolled in training camps in Belarus in the summer holidays, his first coach there an Olympic champion.
Alexander was so obsessed with climbing up the rankings that when first allowed to travel to competitions without his parents at age 13, the money his mother gave him for a hotel and food, he spent on other means.
“I had the money and I could use it how I wanted to. So, I gave almost all the money for fencing lessons so I could have more lessons with the coach, but the thing is, I didn’t have a place to live or eat. So I asked the Belarus guys if I could sleep on their floor, but I had more lessons.
“I never told my mother as she’d be angry with me. I was a big businessman even back then!”
As well as aspiring to be the world’s No.1 exponent of his sport, Alexander has pledged to spread the message of the sport both at home and globally.
Giving Back to Help Future Fencers
“After Rio [the Olympics], I had training camps with kids,” he said. “I had no vacation after the Games, but it was the right thing to do because in Czech Republic there are many really good children, but they don’t have the opportunity to progress.”
When not on the piste in competition, Alexander’s secret talents are playing Photograph by Ed Sheeran on the piano, cooking and singing in the shower, although he does not envision following his parents onto the musical stage. For him, his stage – a sporting one – is already set.