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Freshman fencer competes in Olympics

Dan Murphy | Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In the past week students have poured into South Bend from all around the world, but it is safe to say that none of them had a longer – or more interesting – journey than freshman Gerek Meinhardt.

Meinhardt was in Beijing last week competing for the United States fencing team in the Olympics. The San Francisco native left China on Aug. 17 and spent a few hectic days packing, doing interviews, and saying goodbye to friends before arriving on campus Thursday.

“The worst part was the jetlag. It would get to be about three o’clock and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I would end up taking about a four hour nap,” Meinhardt said.

He then boarded a plan to Chicago and endured the treacherous four-hour bus ride to campus before finally moving into his new room in Knott Hall.

“The dorms aren’t quite as nice as the Olympic Village, but I have a TV in my room now and I didn’t over there, so that is nice,” he said.

Meinhardt finished tenth overall in the men’s foil event, but even making the team was a serious accomplishment. Meinhardt, who turned 18 less than a month ago, was the youngest fencer in Beijing by nearly five years. He has only been competing on the senior level for a year and a half and was not expected to debut on the Olympic level until the 2012 games in London.

“Olympic fencers can be as old as 35, 36, 37 years old. Experience is a huge factor in a sport like fencing, so for Gerek to be there was very special,” Irish fencing coach Janusz Bednarski said. Bednarski was an Olympic coach for the Polish national team in the late 1970s.

“He is a great young man who not only is a terrific athlete, but also is very intelligent,” Bednarski said.

Meinhardt first got into fencing when he was nine years old. His piano teacher at the time happened to be married to an Olympic fencer who was opening a gym nearby. The young Meinhardt gave it a try and quickly began racking up championships on the junior level.

“I had to stop with the piano lessons, but my teacher agreed that it was probably a smart move,” he said.

Meinhardt was already considered to be one of the best younger fencers in the nation and his experience at the Olympics will only make him better. He and Bednarski both said that the biggest advantage will be from a mental perspective.

“The Olympics can help you to deal with stress and compete well under stressful situations,” Bednarski said.

After performing on the biggest stage in the world, the Joyce Center will seem much less daunting.

Meinhardt said that along with the valuable fencing experience, Beijing also gave him some memories he will never forget – like the time he met the entire U.S. basketball team.

“I’m a pretty big basketball fan so that was probably one of the coolest things that happened to me over there,” he said.

Meinhardt was eating lunch in the Olympic Village cafeteria when Dwayne Wade sat down at the other end of the table. Pretty quickly the rest of the team filed in and before he knew it, Meinhardt was talking with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Michael Redd.

A few minutes later when Kobe Bryant arrived at the table he was followed by a mob of foreign athletes and fans snapping pictures. The team’s security guards surrounded the table and Meinhardt found himself inside a circle with the best basketball players in the world.

“I was trying to play it cool, but I had a huge smile on my face the whole time. I couldn’t help myself,” he said.

In a week, Meinhardt has gone from exclusive meals with Kobe Bryant to lowly dining hall meals. Nonetheless, the young freshman said he couldn’t be more excited to be at school and is looking forward to a great year in fencing and around campus.