French Foil Fencer Ysaora Thibus’ words are just as mighty as her sword as she talks about social justice and lifting up her fellow women in sport.
“I feel free when I fence.”
Ysaora Thibus, the current sixth world ranked foil fencer tells me over Zoom and the expression on her face shares a knowing look, like she’s unlocked a secret, she’s found the answer. She’s found her sport.
Thibus started fencing when she was just seven years old in Guadeloupe before moving to France to further pursue the sport.
“I was doing sport before that, so it was not the first sport I suppose. I was doing swimming and ballet and so my mum was actually looking for a sport for my little brother and I was with them on that day. We entered that room, and I’d never seen the sport before. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this sport because it looks crazy!’. You know, you see two people in white gear fighting with each other and I was like, ‘I really want to try that sport’.
And since that day, I’m just doing it, I love it. I feel free when I fence. There is a goal, it’s to touch your opponent so it’s a combat sport, but like you can do whatever you want to reach that goal and I think I can express myself in this sport.”
It’s a beautiful thought and for those who’ve watched fencing before, you can see the artistry, poise, strategy and skill. It is a sport that is the epitome of self-expression and I can only imagine how empowering it is to wield a sword and strike with such meticulousness and simultaneous force.
For a fencing novice, learning about the sport from an athlete of Ysaora’s calibre is a privilege. She is more than generous in talking me through her chosen weapon, Foil, and the basics of the sport.
“In fencing, we have three weapons, Foil, Epee and Sabre and each weapon has different roles.
“In Foil, it’s the lightest weapon and I would say that the easiest way to explain is Foil was made historically to teach (the sport) so that was the lighter weapon. Then when you have a real duel outside is when you have Epee so the weapon is bigger and you can touch everywhere, and it gets a bit complicated as with each weapon, you have different targets too. With Foil you can you can touch the torso and the back. And Saber, you can touch with all the blades, like not only with the tip, so it was historically made when you are one on one and you’re both out on the horse and have to fight.
“My sport (Foil) is about precision because the target is really small.”
Ysaora describes the sport’s complexities to me and it’s far beyond just trying to poke someone in the chest while shouting ‘touché!’, a phrase that occurs to me during this conversation, has its roots in this sport, and I feel foolish for not making the connection sooner in our chat, but relieved that perhaps I have avoided making a cliched joke she’s heard all too often.
“It’s beautiful to watch because you need a lot of skills. I like the complexity of the sport with the physical, but at the same time you use your brain constantly, the strategy is almost like a soccer game. I like to say it’s like playing chess, but at the same time you are biking! So it’s like, using your brain and your body at the same time.”
Thibus now lives in the United States where Tokyo 2020 preparations have ceased due to COVID-19. Being away from France and experiencing such a unique disruption to her training has been hard, but Thibus is quick to look at the positives.
“Two years ago I decided to build my own team so we are currently based in the US. Sometimes I go back to France to train with the French team. But right now, I’m in New York but it’s really complicated. My team is spread out because my coach is Italian and my physical trainer is based in Los Angeles, and my boyfriend (American fencer Race Imboden), he is fencing for the US team. So we are always traveling around the world, I mean, during COVID, it’s like the first time that we have stayed in the same place for two months!
“At the beginning (of COVID-19), it was really difficult just to stop and calm down, it took a while to find a new rhythm and be more relaxed about it. But at the end of the day, I have to say that it was good to recover my body. I had a few small injuries, and mentally too, it was nice just to stop for a while. It might be the only time I’m going to have that time in my career.”
Being in isolation during a global pandemic with a fellow fencer certainly then also has its advantages as Thibus continues to train and look towards Tokyo 2021.
“We are together all the time, and it’s really nice to be from the same sport because we can really understand each other, we talk in the same language and we can communicate about it. But actually, we have two different visions of the sport itself. We learn a lot from each other, like it’s been almost four years that we are together, so we learn how to work with each other as we don’t train in the same way. I need more space. I like to find more balance with the sport and things around the sport and for him it’s really like more focus and obsession about the sport all the time.
“He inspires me a lot. It is really interesting to learn from him and also to be from two different countries, we have two different stories, different backgrounds. During COVID-19, sometimes it’s a lot, I’m not going to lie! I mean, we are all the time together! But no, I’m never bored of him, so it’s good.”
Having two different stories is something that has particularly been on Ysaora’s mind as she’s experienced living as a person of colour in the US with a white partner. COVID-19 has been hard, but for Ysaora the protests and conversation in response to George Floyd’s murder is something she is passionate about discussing. She’s determined to ensure the conversation reaches those who do have the lived experience she and many others have.
“It’s a discussion that I have a lot with my boyfriend because he is white, and he was really questioning himself about how to be a better ally. I mean, we’ve had this discussion forever, but especially right now.
“I think the best way to be an ally is to start the communication, ask how people feel, reach out to your friends of colour, ask them how they feel. And be supportive. Let them talk about what they’re living because I think this is what has happened for so long. They didn’t have space to talk and to say how they feel and what they want.
“Try to figure out how you can help make it happen in your workspace or around you or in your family and make a change and don’t be afraid to stand up.”
Ysaora took her passion for equality to the frontlines, protesting in Los Angeles and New York, fighting for a better world.
“It’s been really difficult lately in the US, we’ve been really, really supportive to each other. As a person of colour, it is very difficult for me to be in the US right now and to deal with everything going on, so it was really, really good to have him by my side.
“We had spent two months in Los Angeles so when the protests happened there, we felt like we really needed to be there at the protest. It was really, you know, there were a lot of emotions. It started off really peaceful and, to be all together like that for the same cause it was really intense, but we felt like we were really doing it for the right reasons and then it became a bit more violent with the police.
“I was shocked at that moment and a little bit sad about the situation, I think everyone went through a lot of anguish and sadness. Being angry, being tired about all of it, but everyone kept fighting for this cause and kept also asking and demanding for change.
“When we arrived home in New York and we kept protesting and we felt like it was different, like there was hope and that everyone who was there was asking for a better world. I think now we are in this period that we feel like something is happening and we have this historical moment that we have to keep pushing through.”
“I think it’s an important moment and I was really proud when it was not only black people who spoke out this time, it was like everyone in the protest. It was every gender, every colour, every social class. It was so diverse and that was beautiful. It is not a black people problem, it is everyone’s. It is a human rights problem, it concerns everyone.”
While she’s fighting in the US, it’s also extremely hard for Ysaora to think of home, back to France and what is being done to address systemic racism.
“As it was happening in the US, I was really starting to fret about my own country and what was happening in France. And I felt like it was a moment for everyone to reflect on what was going on in their own country and around them. I really wanted to speak out for that and to say, well, racism, discrimination is happening also in France and we need to do something about that and to be able to talk in an open dialogue. So yes, as athletes it’s not always easy because we expect athletes to stay in that box of performance and sport, but we have a voice and I think it’s our responsibility to use it.”
Ysaora is a formidable woman. Her advocacy work, continuing to protest and speak up, is inspiring, and it’s not just the fight for racial equality that she’s fighting, she’s also working hard to fight for equality for her fellow female athletes.
“I am a little afraid because the Olympics are postponed, that maybe the first people that will be affected by that will be women and female athletes. If, like for example, sponsors don’t have the same budgets, so I hope that something is going to be done to keep all the progress that we’ve made in the past for women’s sports in general. And that keeps going because we need more support.”
On a personal level, she also walks the talk with her own junior camps and contributes her voice and platform to amplifying the voices of other women.
“I’ve started to do camps for younger girls. I want to reach more little girls and to inspire girls to start doing sports, in this case to start fencing. I want to try to reach new generations to push them to try sport and to find themselves through sport, I think sports, in my life has given me a lot of things, has given me confidence.
“During the quarantine I’ve started to do Instagram Live with other female athletes. I think it’s so important to support each other’s sport. I want to develop solidarity and bring girls together and cheer each other up, so my IGTV show is about giving a space and a voice to other female athletes to tell their stories and give their opinion about what they think about women’s sport.”
I ask her if she’s ever afraid. Not that I think she’d ever fear the sword of an opponent, but maybe the criticisms that come with being an outspoken athlete.
“It’s a bit scary because you know that you can have negative feedback and people want to always to shut you down sometimes but if you really believe in something, and I really believe in what’s happening right now, I knew inside me that it was a good thing and I focused on the positive side of it because a lot of people message me and say, ‘thank you’, that it was important to speak out. And I just focus on that. I think if I can change only one life or make someone think about it, it’s already a win for me, so I focus on what I can do. And I believe in that.
I think the thing is, I’m not the only one you know, a lot of (athletes) are doing this. We have the platform, everyone was thinking about it and questioning themselves about what they can do to make a change. So for me, it was timing, for sure, but also, because it’s something you wonder why is it still happening in 2020?
I have a platform. I can do something. I can reach people. I can use my voice.
So that power made me feel like I needed to do it more than I have to stay silent. It is not a moment for me to stay silent.”
Follow Ysaora on Instagram to keep up to date with her IGTV show, EssentiELLE where she speaks with different women in sport.
Related: Transforming the World