Tokyo Olympics: “He had trouble holding the sword at the start”, Ukrainian coach Romain Cannone tells of the youth of the Olympic champion

That’s it, the apprentice fencers have gone to bed, Misha Mokretsov has a little time to give us. “I run a summer camp with kids in New York State, the days are busy. But we did not miss Romain’s victory. Posted in front of television, the current students of the Ukrainian technician were able to admire the coronation of one of his former proteges. Gold medalist and surprise of the day on Sunday in épée at the Tokyo Olympics, Romain Cannone was introduced to fencing with this trainer, whose influence he spoke of just after stepping off the podium. A slice of life together in Brooklyn that Misha Mokretsov agreed to tell us about.

When he enrolled in fencing at 12, what state of mind is Romain Cannone in?

MISHA MOKRETSOV. He came to see how it was going, what the lessons consisted of. He was a boy who was looking for a nice activity, in search of a passion. He quickly progressed, and managed to reach the 32nd finals of a national competition. It meant that he had something in him, it is not given to everyone. But he absolutely had to settle certain things.

Which ones?

He was a very small and thin child. He had trouble holding the sword at first. He faced tougher opponents who weren’t going to give him a chance to express himself. So, I undertook to make him work physically, to make him capable of holding a match. He was smaller than the others and therefore had less elongation. He had to compensate with his speed and flexibility, a bit like he did at the Olympics.

He explained that your methods were strict and that he had had a bit of trouble with you …

The Ukrainian school is a physical school (smile). I insisted a lot on the points he had to work on so that he could continue to progress.

Romain Cannone and Misha Mokretsov on the sidelines of a competition in which the young man participated. Misha Mokretsov

Did he fear opponents taller than himself?

(He cuts). Not at all. He never walked away. Romain, he has a heart. He was a very hardworking child.

Does the fencer you saw win the Olympic title look a lot like the one you trained until he was 20?

There is more maturity, but I see a lot of commonalities. He is a player, but has gained experience which allows him to correct the mistakes he could make. When he left the United States, he was already a confirmed junior.

Did he tell you about his Olympic dream which drove him to leave the country for France five years ago?

Yes, and I want to say he was very brave. The last year here he went to college in Connecticut. And I could tell it was not right at all. He found the level of training he was doing next to his studies bad, he could see that it was getting him nowhere. So he decided to go and try his luck in France. It was a difficult decision to make. He could have stayed in the United States, given it all up, pursued his business studies, then his life here when he joined a company in New York. But no, he took the idea to the end. He was so passionate.

After his gold medal, he explained that he was angry with the United States for not granting him American citizenship to fight in the American jersey …

Here, the federation does not have the power to naturalize someone. So, they wrote to the immigration services, but they must have decided that it was not worth the trouble. Afterwards, I think he shouldn’t have any regrets. If he had stayed here, he probably wouldn’t be an Olympic champion today. The structures are not the same, it is complicated to have state support when you are an adult, and the level is not the same. At the time, he had managed to convince the French federation of his level by going to participate in a competition there. For them, it was an unusual profile, that of a kid who learned fencing in New York.

Have you had him on the phone since his Olympic title?

No. But when he learned that he was selected to compete in the Olympics, I was the one he called first to announce it. It lasted five minutes, he was in tears on the phone. I am very proud that he wanted to share this news with me first.

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