“Gold!” replies Daryl Homer when asked about his aspirations for Rio 2016. It’s an open question but Homer has a gleaming, monosyllabic retort. His answer is as direct and assertive as his swordplay. Gold.
Of course, an athlete can only assure himself and the world over that he will compete to his highest level and then do so. A champion holds a nigh on mystic, unwavering surety that they will prevail above all others. In a sport like fencing, where bouts are decided on a synaptic level, focus is everything; on your opponent, on your own being (both physical, mental and, at length, spiritual) and on your goal. Gold.
Fencing is one of five sports featured in every one of the modern Olympic Games, the other four being athletics, cycling, swimming, and gymnastics. It emerged as a sport at the end of the 19th Century, although its history is ancient and world-shaping. There was a time when swords were drawn over matters of honour, deemed unsuitable or too pressing for the courts. The stakes were often high and whether death or pride be the forfeit, the sword and its sport was law.
To Homer and his peers, the stakes remain the same in essence. Fencing is somehow primitive and sophisticated at the same time. It takes the innate, biological necessity to overcome a rival in a battle of brain and brawn and combines it with all the nuance of a game of chess with a molecular margin for error. An old fashioned mono e mono, with a couple of swords between you for good measure - in the words of Daryl Homer, “when you’re on the strip, it’s like war”.
The very aesthetic of the sport stokes notions of bygone heroes and epic battles. White-clad knights duking it out in Olympic halls. However, for every archetypical hero an origin story of modest beginnings accompanies him or her.
A young Daryl Homer first laid eyes on his dream in a children’s dictionary. A photo of a modern fencer in full garb, braced in an en garde position was enough to prompt the five year old to run to his mother and insist she let him try out the sport. It wasn’t until seeing two black fencers in an AT&T advert that the image of her son shifting foot to foot on the piste was anything more than a boyhood fantasy. She relented and by 11 (a month into his fencing career) his club noticed his talent and paired him up with Yury Gelman, a four-time Olympic coach.
At 13, Daryl joined The Peter Westbrook Foundation. The titular man himself saw the burgeoning talent Homer possessed and fine-tuned his path and progress. Of his training ethos, Westbrook simply notes, “great coaching, great enthusiasm, great love and you get a great product.”
Homer thrived at his new home and his following years were his most formative.
“I was having fun. As a teenager I was traveling the world, competing, falling in love in foreign countries, and then coming back to school on Monday.”
It was at The Peter Westbrook Foundation where Daryl Homer matured. As his physical form came to fruition, his fencing style grew with it. At 5’8”, Daryl didn’t exactly fit the mould of a world-beating fencing specimen, but his persistence was resolute. Like his mentor Westbrook and hero Zorro, he favoured the sabre.
“Sabre was the most aggressive of the weapons. It felt unrestricted to me.”
What Homer lacks in height and reach, he makes up for in pure voracity. Homer’s flunge became his trademark and with his fast, aggressive and unrelenting sabre, he started taking the fencing world by storm.
He won a bronze medal at the 2007 Cadet World Fencing Championships and another bronze at the 2009 Junior World Championships in Belfast. That same year he competed in his first senior World Championships in Antalya, finishing 23rd, and took in first NCAA title as a sophomore.
In the 2009–10 season Homer successfully defended his NCAA title. At the 2010 World Championships in Paris he defeated France's Boladé Apithy and Nicolas Lopez to reach the table of 16, and finished 12th. The next season he won the gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Championships after prevailing in the final over Canada's Vincent Couturier.
By 2012, Daryl Homer was rated no. 12 in the FIE rankings. He was well on his journey and climbing the rankings fast.
Homer maintained this ranking in the next season thanks to three quarter-finals placings in the World Cup and a bronze medal at the 2013 Pan American Championships. He placed 11th at the end of the 2013–14 season. In the 2014–15 season he climbed his first World Cup podium with a bronze medal in the Seoul Grand Prix.
His latest and greatest achievement came in the summer of 2015, when he won a silver medal at the Senior World Championships, becoming the first U.S. man ever to win a medal in sabre at Senior Worlds.
Fencing has a certain image attached to it and, put bluntly, a black kid from the Bronx isn’t the first person you would expect to see up on the strip at an Olympic level. This is a preconception Homer has been cutting to ribbons in the last decade. His presence and prominence in the sport is a huge step in levelling the playing field. There’s no reason why fencing shouldn’t be a global sport – class-spanning too. Beyond his own career, Homer sees a world where the only prevailing colour is the white of the uniform.
“I try to give back and mentor the younger African American fencers, while also volunteering in programs to increase access to the sport for kids in the inner city. Above all I’ve realized that I am a role model in our community. I take that responsibility very seriously.”
However, it’s his seemingly ill-suited roots that fuel his form on the piste. Hailing from the Bronx instilled in Homer a streetwise edge to his swordsmanship.
“Being a kid from the Bronx you learn quickly that you have to fight for everything if you want to get to the top. Knowing that has pushed me to the top of my field in the sport. But being a Bronx kid you also learn that people are always waiting to catch you slipping. The fear of being caught slipping helps me keep pushing.”
Homer didn’t let his environment stifle him. In fact he took the potentially damning elements of his surroundings and used them to his advantage. Forever the optimist and ambassador, he champions his community doggedly.
Through the non-profit organization Fencing in the Schools, he has introduced fencing to children in Harlem, The Bronx, South Side Chicago and Newark. He was also selected for Neiman Marcus’ Fall 2014 New Influencer Campaign as an emerging man of style who redefines culture through their personal passions.
In his hometown, he is a revered figure. The walls of the Manhattan Fencing Center read like a tapestry of Homer’s meteoric rise. From his humble beginnings to the lofty heights he’s reached today, Daryl Homer has remained narrow-sighted. Like the piste, there are no ways around the fact. He has no alternate route or way out, only the drive to lunge forward and not stop until his opponent is bested – his goal realised. Gold.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY EMILY MAYE
ART DIRECTION BY NAS ABRAHAM | @NAS_ABRAHAM
Features Editor | SAMSON