'A Fantasy Of A Fantasy': U.S. Fencer Jason Pryor On Reaching The Olympics
Jason Pryor shows me the thick calluses that have built up over the years on the inside of his pointer finger, from nail to knuckle. That index finger skillfully guides Pryor's grip on the epee, his fencing weapon.
"I can strike matches on these things," he says.
His calluses are testament to the many thousands of hours he's spent fencing, which have paid off with an Olympic berth this summer in Rio de Janeiro. Pryor, 28, is ranked number one in the U.S. in men's epee, and will be the only U.S. epee fencer competing in Rio.
That he's come this far still amazes him.
"I don't think I was even brave enough to admit to myself that I wanted to go to the Olympics," says Pryor, who's currently ranked 38th in the world. "That thought was such a fantasy. Such a fantasy of a fantasy."
Pryor's trajectory to the top of his sport is unlikely. He is short for a fencer: a little under 5-foot-9. He compensates for that with speed and unpredictable motion.
"I want to suck people into my motion so they get desensitized," Pryor says. "So when they think, 'Oh, he's coming,' and then they jump, no! That's the moment when I'm leaving."
As he fences, Pryor is in constant motion, his dreadlocks bouncing on his shoulders. It looks to me like his feet have springs: they seem to hover above the ground.
Coach Kornel Udvarhelyi at the New York Fencers Club compares watching Pryor fence to watching a dancer.
"When he's himself and he's moving like that, he's very hard to hit," he says. "And he's capable of beating anybody in the world."
Pryor came to fencing by accident. He played soccer as a chubby kid growing up outside Cleveland, Ohio, but didn't much like it. When he dropped soccer, his parents told him he had to choose another sport, so he said, "OK, well, fencing."
He figured that was obscure enough to get him out of it. To his surprise, his parents quickly found a local fencing club, and he soon discovered he loved it.
In particular, he discovered he loved the thrill of a win. He compares the sensation of victory to "lightning."
"There's just this excitement shooting through you everywhere," he says. "There's just this thrill that just explodes, and then it's gone. Just like that, it's gone, and you just have to keep chasing it over and over and over again."
Pryor has a gentle demeanor, but gets a steely, hard look in his eyes when he describes taking out an opponent on the fencing strip.
"That is one of the sweetest things," he says, "when you've broken their soul, and you can see that cold, slimy feeling creep up in their chest when they know they've lost the bout."
"But you seem like such a nice guy!" I point out, laughing.
"I am a nice guy," he replies, "but the strip's different. It's two dudes trying to ram a metal rod as hard and fast as they can into each other!"
It is a combat sport, after all.
Pryor fenced through high school, describing himself then as "extremely mediocre but passionate."
But at Ohio State, he helped propel his team to the NCAA fencing championship in 2008. He figured his fencing career would stop there and was making plans for law school.
However, as a graduation present the following year, his parents and church passed the hat and raised money to send Jason to Colombia for the international Grand Prix competition.
There, he caught the eye of scouts, and he was recruited to join the Olympic training program in Colorado Springs. For the last six years Jason Pryor's entire life has been consumed by one goal: making it to the Olympics. He wasn't really close to making it to the 2012 Games in London. But now he's just weeks away from the culmination of all that training.
In the final months of training before the games, Pryor is staying at a small apartment in Queens, New York, where he's renting a room from a high school buddy and his wife. He's vigilant about expenses. As he cracks his daily four eggs into a pan for breakfast, he says, "I'd eat more because I'm super hungry. But then I'd go through a carton in two days as opposed to three, which is too much, because eggs cost quite a bit in New York."
Money is a huge, constant worry. Like a lot of Olympic athletes, Pryor struggles financially to support his passion.
"I can't overstate this," he says. "The vast majority of us are broke." Pryor has scraped together a couple of small corporate sponsorships. He gets paid for occasional promotional appearances. He swallowed his pride and accepted donations from his family church, Providence Baptist, back home in Ohio. Members passed the hat to help Pryor train for Rio.
I ask him if he allows himself to picture a moment of Olympic glory: standing on the podium in Rio, the American flag rising behind him, the national anthem playing.
"I'm not thinking about medals or podiums or any of that crap," he replies. "I'm thinking about being amazing, what it feels like to score those touches. When I'm so sharp around the short target, that as soon as I feel someone extending, BAH! One light for me! BAH! One light on the toe. BOOM! That's what I'm thinking about. But past the actual touches? No."
All of Pryor's years of training, conditioning, practice, and obsession will culminate in one single day of fencing at the Olympics. He will be competing on Aug. 9.
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