Monica Aksamit: I wouldn't be where I am without my stubbornness

Monica Aksamit of the United States celebrates against Ilaria Bianco of Italy during the Women's Sabre Team bronze medal match between United States and Italy at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Monica Aksamit of the United States celebrates against Ilaria Bianco of Italy during the Women's Sabre Team bronze medal match between United States and Italy at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

As a Rio 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, the American fencer is aiming to go back to the world's greatest sporting stage 

With an unpredictable 2020, there is one thing Monika Aksamit is sure of: she isn't one to give up.

Part of the United States women's sabre team that won bronze at Rio 2016, Aksamit spoke in an Olympic Channel video about how her stubbornness has made her into a person who perseveres no matter what.

"My family complains about me being stubborn whatever, which I can understand how that's an annoying character in people, but I definitely don't give up," she said. "Same thing on relationships. I don't give up. I'm the last one fighting for them.

"Friendship, the same thing. Stubborn is a quality most people don't really want. But I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for my stubbornness."

Last to find out about Rio 2016 qualification

Aksmit qualified for the Olympic Games Rio 2016 at the FIE Fencing Grand Pix in Republic of Korea but it wasn't a simple pathway to qualification.

The then 26-year-old was ranked 11th in the United States (January 2016) and despite coming off a great season, she had hit a bump in the road. Nothing was coming together.

"Everyone had kind of wrote me off but I kind of just, I don't know, everything clicked at the right time," she explained.

Placed in a tough pool at the Grand Pix event, the sabre athlete couldn't believe her unlucky fate however, she decided that she just needed to do what she could.

"I was just like, you know what, whatever, I'm going to go hit these people. If it happens, it happens and I want to walk off with no regrets."

Qualifying for the Round of 16, Aksamit remembered she started being congratulated by those around her including members of the USA national team and she had no idea why. She had only made the last 16, nothing important right?

"Everyone knew before me... I was like, ‘Why are we making such a big deal about this result?’," she recalled.

"[Someone from the team was] taking a photo. He's like, ‘Can you just at least look happy?’ I was like, ‘I mean, I am happy.’ And he's like, ‘OK, just say, Rio or something’.

"I was like, ‘WHAT!?!? Why?'.

"He just stood there like, ‘Why do you think we're taking this photo?’ I was like, ‘Because I made a 16?’ And he's like, ‘No you, you're going to the Olympics'."

Competing on a fractured back

Aksamit headed into Rio 2016 as an alternate. So at that stage she didn't even know if she would fence.

If she was able to go out and compete, that means she was already accomplishing everything she wanted. Heading into the Olympic Games, the United States weren't expected to back up their medal from Beijing 2008; and London 2012 didn't feature women's sabre - since the team had not won all season.

In the individual sabre, the United States were left disappointed with no fencers making it to the Round of 16 before a loss to Russian Federation in the semi-final of the team event left the side a little rattled.

"Sitting on the sidelines, it kind of seemed like a dream but the entire time, while I wanted to fence, I thought 'If I don't fence, it's okay'," Aksamit laughed.

"Everyone felt responsible as you always do... But I didn't feel that guilt and responsibility because I wasn't out there so I was the most positive out of everybody," she continued.

Unexpectedly, as Aksamit was warming up, she was called into to compete in the bronze medal match against Italy. The coaches had decided beforehand that both the alternates would decide who wins the medal. That's when a million things started going through her head - she even gave herself a mental pep talk before going out.

While the bout didn't go exactly as planned with the wireless for the enpointe failing, the alternate managed to keep the United States ahead in the battle for bronze.

Eventually, the USA were victorious - not only did Aksamit compete on the world's greatest sporting stage but she walked away as an Olympic bronze medallist.

"All these things are just, kind of wild, because accomplishing your biggest dream is just such a weird feeling," the American explained. "I wanted this for so long. There were times I really didn't think it was happening. And here we are. And it happened."

(L-R) Ibtihaj Muhammad, Mariel Zagunis, Monica Aksamit and Dagmara Wozniak of the United States celebrate winning the Women's Sabre Team bronze medal match against Italy at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
(L-R) Ibtihaj Muhammad, Mariel Zagunis, Monica Aksamit and Dagmara Wozniak of the United States celebrate winning the Women's Sabre Team bronze medal match against Italy at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

What Aksamit didn't know was that she was actually competing with a fractured back. It was at first downplayed, she told the Olympic Channel:

"The doctor also tried to downplay it because you also don't want an athlete [who is] about to go to Olympics [to know] their back is broken for their whole lives. So [they were like], ‘This no big deal. [There’s] a little like chip in your vertebrae. It's fine’."

"After the Olympics, I did take three-and-a-half months off because I kept constantly having pain. Everything was swollen on the outside. It's better now. And I've learned to manage it."

In fact, it's actually fractured for the rest of life.

I wanted this for so long.

There were times I really didn't think it was happening.

Fundraising for another Olympics

Even before Rio 2016, Aksamit had been fundraising in order to aid her in her pursuit of Olympic qualification. But after winning an Olympic bronze medal, she thought it would be easier to secure sponsorship among other things.

However, that wasn't the case.

Being a professional athlete isn't cheap from the day-to-day things like food and rent, there are also equipment cost, competition travel, visas, hotels and transport among a longer list.

And while Aksamit had started crowd funding in September 2019 as she eyed off qualifying for a second Olympic Games, this time in Tokyo, COVID-19 hit and consequentially postponed the Games. She had raised over USD$31,000 but with most of that going towards qualifying in the lead up to Tokyo 2020, most of that money has now been used.

"I went through majority of that money for nothing but again I'm figuring things out," the fencer said.

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee in July, created the COVID Athlete Assistance Fund in partnership with the Athletes' Advisory Council and National Governing Bodies.

Aksamit was one of the athletes who received a grant.

"I'm fine for the next few months thankfully."

At the moment, while so much is up in the air and international competition look unlike until the Zonal Qualifiers for the Olympic Games in April 2021, the road to Tokyo continues for Aksamit.