COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Gerek Meinhardt, a graduate student at Notre Dame who is attempting to win his second national title at this week‘s NCAA Fencing Championships, already has a place in U.S. fencing history.
When he placed third at the Paris World Cup in January, he moved into the No. 1 men’s foil ranking in the world.No other U.S. men’s fencer has ever been No. 1 in the world rankings in foil.
It is a moment that Meinhardt still appreciates now. And even more than the ranking itself, Meinhardt was humbled by the amount of congratulatory support he received.
“It was huge,” he said. “Really overwhelming the congratulations and support I got in accomplishing that. It just meant a lot to me and obviously those close to me because of the fact that the year had followed the Olympic qualification year where I didn‘t perform as well as I had hoped.”
Notre Dame teammate Lee Kiefer, a 2012 U.S. Olympic teammate and two-time NCAA champion who won her second national title Friday in women’s foil, had a piece of advice for Meinhardt: “Lee was reminding me, ‘Make sure you appreciate this. You’re No. 1 right now.’ ”
Sunday, Meinhardt will attempt to turn that top ranking in the world into an NCAA championship. And that will be no easy task considering that the stacked men’s foil field includes Olympic teammate and defending NCAA champion Alex Massialas of Stanford, three-time All-American and 2013 runner-up David Willette of Penn State and Nobuo Bravo of Penn State.
Outside of college, all are coached by Massialas’ dad, three-time Olympian and USA Fencing Foil National Team coach Greg Massialas.
Meinhardt has known Massialas since they were 9 years old and at one time took piano lessons from Alex Massialas’ mom.
Meinhardt lost just once in 15 bouts in Saturday’s round-robin matches, 5-3 to Harvard’s Brian Kaneshige. But Massialas and Bravo also were 14-1, and Willette was 13-2. It is likely that all four will be on center stage for the semifinals and finals at St. John Arena on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m definitely motivated,” Meinhardt said. “Unfortunately our team this year didn’t qualify all 12. So it’ll be difficult to win [a team title], but we have goals to earn a certain place anyway. Each bout counts toward us. All of us take pride in our school and our team, so we want to go out there and win as many as we can.
“An individual title would be great, as well, for us to bring back to the school since the team one will be hard to reach.”
Just getting to Columbus took some doing. Meinhardt was in Venice, Italy, for a World Cup event last week. He returned to South Bend, Ind., on Monday, then traveled to Columbus on Tuesday with the Notre Dame fencing team. Among all that travel and fencing, he also has school assignments in his studies at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.“It makes me very task oriented,” he said. “I need to do certain things at a certain time to make sure that I get everything done. It’s just how things are sometimes. You have to make sacrifices. But obviously it’s all worth it.”
It is Meinhardt’s and Kiefer’s attention to detail that has impressed Notre Dame coach Janusz Bednarski.
“They are so organized,” he said. “They have a plan. They have a plan of their life.”
Meinhardt has overcome three knee surgeries to remain a title contender at the NCAA and World Cup levels. The sport is tough on an athlete’s knees and it isn’t uncommon to see a fencing athlete have his knees wrapped in ice after a competition. Twice in 2008, Meinhardt had a trimming of the meniscus in his knee and in 2011 it required a surgical repair. He still overcame those surgeries quickly enough to win the NCAA foil championship in 2010 and make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. He was on his first Olympic Team in 2008 at age 18.
While Meinhardt is focused on making the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, fencing for Notre Dame is important to him. He is true to his school and his teammates. After Kiefer’s championship win in women’s foil Friday, Meinhardt was on the scene with a camera, snapping photos of Kiefer with her family and friends.
“It’s great being able to represent a school that you go to that you love for reasons other than fencing,” Meinhardt said. “For all the friends that you have, it’s great to be able to go to this tournament and other tournaments during the season and represent Notre Dame and try to make those back at school proud.”