Since Laura Flessel’s Olympic double at Atlanta 1996, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe hasn't stopped producing fencers for Team France. But how do they do it? Tokyo 2020 tells the incredible story of fencing in Guadeloupe; a story that starts in Hungary
At Rio 2016, eight French fencers from the épée and foil’s team left Brazil with either a gold or silver Olympic medal.
And four of them came from Guadeloupe.
It's an impressive feat, and there's a real chance of it happening again at Tokyo 2020.
Six Guadeloupean fencers are looking to be part of France's Olympic Fencing team in Japan next year; Ysaora Thibus, Anita Blaze, Enzo Lefort, Yannick Borel, Coraline Vitalis and Daniel Jérent. They are considered part of a golden generation of fencers and come 25 years after Laura Flessel became the first fencer from Guadeloupe to win Olympic gold at Atlanta 1996.
Flessel's achievement in Atlanta continued the French fencing tradition, a sport that brought the most medals for the country (118) in Olympic history.
But if you want to understand the Guadeloupean passion for fencing and the staggering success the small French island - with less than 400,000 inhabitants - has in the sport, you have to look to Hungary.
Hungarian refugee in love with fencing
In 1956, a revolution was underway in Hungary, and thousands of people exiled towards Western Europe.
Robert Gara, an 18-year-old from Budapest with a passion for fencing, was among those fleeing from their homeland.
Gara arrived in Germany and settled in a refugee camp before travelling to France for a new life in Strasbourg, where he graduated in engineering - as well as fencing.
"I got my fencing tutor diploma in Strasbourg. I thought that one day, it would be useful," Gara, now 82, recalled in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
In Strasbourg, he met Rossely, a Guadeloupean occupational doctor. The couple married in 1963, had two children, and decided to move to Guadeloupe.
The Caribbean climate is far from ideal for fencing - the sport was relatively unknown on the island at the time - but that didn't stop Gara.
Courtesy of Robert Gara
Machete rather than sword
"Don't go to Guadeloupe," Gara was constantly told. "It won't work, it's too hot!"
"People kept telling me that fencing won't fit in Guadeloupe as it's a sport for white people.
"Nobody could imagine being dressed from head-to-toe and be a fencer.
"I was actually asked to teach people to use a machete to cut sugar cane!" he added.
Although there was a fencing club in Guadeloupe in 1970, Gara jokingly said it's members only consisted of "flight attendants who wanted to lose weight".
Needless to say, he faced an uphill battle to make the sport popular on the island.
1971: Born of a fencing facility and a champion
Over time, Gara managed to convince the city's mayor, Henri Bangou, to allocate budget for the sport - with one condition.
"In 1970, the former mayor of Point-à-Pitre told me, 'I'll give you a room in an old hospital and I'll give you some equipment, [but you must teach the sport] for free'. I did that for 20 years!" he said.
A year later, in 1971, Flessel was born.
2012 Getty Images
"I understood that if we were good, we could travel"
The Guadeloupean Fencing League was created in 1976. It was the first step of an unexpected journey.
Gara, who now speaks six different languages, had a desire to integrate the Central American and Caribbean Fencing Confederations into one, despite Guadeloupe being a French overseas region.
Remarkably, his plan worked.
"Every year, we were competing in the Central-American Championship," he explained.
"We didn't have many senior or junior fencers, so we were forced to use amateur fencers to compete with the seniors. But we were eventually travelling.
"In 1990, I suggested the creation of the Junior Pan-American Championships, and thanks to that, we were invited every year to a different country in Central, Southern and North America."
With fencing being freely available to everyone on the island and with the opportunity to travel, the popularity of the sport blossomed.
Yannick Borel, a key member of the Rio 2016 épée French team, and an individual 2018 World Champion, remembers that travelling was a big motivation for him.
"I understood that if we were good, we could travel," he told Tokyo 2020.
"I wanted to be the best in Guadeloupe and be part of the team that would represent my island at the Central American and Pan American competitions. I could compete in Brazil, Columbia, the United States.
"Robert Gara had an impressive network that allowed us to compete in those Championships while it was forbidden for us, as we are French.
"But he used the location argument to defend our legitimacy."
Many people began to dream of being in Team France and become the next champion.
I'm from this golden generation, where a lot of champions emerged.
Laura Flessel lights the wick
Gradually, the sport became popular in Guadeloupe and by 1990, twelve schools on the island were teaching fencing to recruit young athletes.
"I discovered fencing in school," remembered Yannick Borel, a European, World and Olympic champion.
In 1996, Flessel left Atlanta with two gold medals in both single and team épée events. Almost overnight, fencing exploded in popularity on the island.
An estimated 2,500 Guadeloupeans waited for her arrival at the airport to celebrate her achievement, and thanks to her, a whole new generation realised that Olympic glory was possible.
"Laura Flessel won the Olympic double in Atlanta and fencing began to be big in Guadeloupe," said Borel.
"She contributed a lot to make fencing grow there.
"I remember that she signed an autograph for me and it made a big impression on me. Many people began to dream to be in Team France and become the next champion. I'm from this golden generation where a lot a champions emerged."
Members of the golden generation of Guadeloupean fencers included:
- Yannick Borel: Born in 1988, Rio 2016 gold medallist in épée team event, 2018 World Champion in single event
- Jean-Paul Tony-Helissey: b. 1990, Rio 2016 silver medallist in foil team event
- Ysaora Thibus: b. 1991, 2018 World silver medallist in foil single event
- Enzo Lefort: b. 1991, Rio 2016 silver medallist in foil team event, 2019 World Champion in single event
- Anita Blaze: b. 1991, 2013 World silver medallist in foil single event
- Daniel Jérent: b. 1991, Rio 2016 gold medallist in épée team event
Arriving in Metropolitan France
Before winning international medals, Guadeloupean fencers travelled to France to master their skills at a high performance training facility in Reims. Borel, Thibus and Tony-Helissey trained together at this camp.
Isabelle Lamour, who competed at Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992 in the foil events, is now the president of the French Fencing Federation. She told Tokyo 2020 of her delight at having such talent available to Team France.
"Guadeloupean fencers arrive in France with exceptional skills and physical abilities. Guadeloupe is very influential in helping Team France reach our great past results."
The next generation
Gara can be proud of what he initiated, and various Hungarian books talk about his life. The 82-year-old is now retired but has handed over his love of fencing in Guadeloupe to the new generation.
Borel is truly thankful of what Gara did, and often comes back to Guadeloupe.
"When I come back, I always try to meet kids as I know how powerful it can be to meet champions. It gave me the possibility to see further."
"I tell them that coming from a small island is not a barrier. It's a strength."