By Hayley McGoldrickSpecial to the Star
Sat., July 10, 2021timer4 min. read
Like most 16-year-olds, Toronto’s Jessica Guo is trying to navigate the pandemic: keeping up with online classes, maintaining friendships and dreaming of attending medical school.
But she isn’t a typical 16-year-old. She’s also a first-time Olympian.
The youngest member of Canada’s fencing team is ranked 15th in the world — highest on the Tokyo-bound squad — and will compete in both individual and team foil.
In 2019, at age 14, Guo made waves by capturing silver medals in both events at the Pan American Championship and Pan American Games. She recalls being caught slightly off guard by how quickly she’d excelled at the sport — too young for the senior level when she started to compete.
“I decided to try it out for fun, and while I was fencing I realized I could make it to the Olympics, and I just took my chance,” Guo told the Star. “It’s stressful having to deal with school and training at the same time, but a lot of people at my school are super supportive and my teachers are supportive of me, too. It lessens the load.
“I have little time of my own, but I kind of like my day packed. It keeps me doing something.”
Guo started fencing at age seven and competing when she was nine. The sport is a family affair, with older sister Zi Shan at the junior level in épée.
In foil, where the sword weighs less than a pound, a point can be scored only with the tip of the blade in the torso area. In épée, points can be scored anywhere, but the swords are heavier and harder to manoeuvre.
Guo started at the cadet and junior levels, then made her senior debut at a World Cup event in November 2018. She finished 21st, surpassing expectations by winning five matches to reach the round of 32.
Looking for a strong female role model outside of her family, Guo saw herself in American fencer Lee Kiefer, now ranked first in the United States and fifth worldwide. She was the first American woman ever to hold the No. 1 world ranking, in 2017.
Guo competed against her idol for the first time in January 2019 — and won. Kiefer, No. 3 in the world at the time, was upset 15-10 in an intense match at a FIE World Cup event in France. Guo advanced to the round of 16.
“I was very nervous at first,” said Guo. “Obviously I look up to her and she’s a great fencer. But while I was fencing her, I learned a lot of skills from her and I got a lot of experience.”
One of the most valuable lessons was how to handle pressure. Guo went on to defeat China’s Qingyuan Chen 15-6 before falling in the quarterfinals, 15-10 to Ysaora Thibus of France.
“It was so exciting to win against (Kiefer) because you realize you have the potential to actually do well in the future,” said Guo. “It boosts your confidence 100 per cent, because you realize you can actually have a chance at this.”
Guo and Kiefer — now 27 and heading into her third Olympics — have faced off multiple times since then, including for the gold medal at the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru. Kiefer prevailed there, 15-10.
The comparisons extend beyond competition. Kiefer is attending medical school at the University of Kentucky.
“It is important for me to be a role model for younger women because growing up surrounded by strong females was pivotal in making me believe in myself,” Kiefer said in an email. “I think that it is awesome that Jessica has big aspirations and (I) know that young girls look up to her already.”
The weight of representing her country while striking a balance between fencing and school isn’t lost on Guo.
“(Competing for) Canada on a world scale and on a national level, it makes me really proud and it encourages me to try harder and thrive,” she said.
As the youngest member of the women’s fencing team entering her first Olympics, results won’t be the only measure of success.
“I’m planning on trying out for the next Olympics too, so I’m just trying to get experience dealing with all the emotional stress, and be able to deal with pressure,” she said. “That’s what I want to get out of this Olympics. Also, to have the most fun with my teammates and have a great time there.”
She hopes her progress, Tokyo included, inspires the next generation of fencers at a time when female athletes in particular need more role models.
“In sports, it’s very biased sometimes,” Guo said. “I’ve experienced male fencers (refusing) to train with me because I’m a woman. But overall, I think that it’s a new era for women.
“I don’t think that women should be put down in sport. So if I do well and perform well, I can encourage a lot of young women.”
With fencing’s biggest event just two weeks away, inspiration is just around the corner.
Hayley McGoldrick is a Toronto-based sports journalist.