Wojciechowski backs his protégées to end Britain's 52-year wait for Olympic fencing medal
PUBLISHED: 09:00 04 August 2016
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It may seem rather improbable that all four members of the British men's fencing squad learned their trade in north London, but it is by no means a coincidence.
Richard Kruse, 33, Laurence Halsted, 32, James Davis, 25, and Marcus Mepstead, 26, have all been trained by Ziemek Wojciechowski, an 11-time Polish champion and 1976 Olympian who lives in Willifield Way in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Wojciechowski, 67, arrived on these shores in 1978 to become Britain’s national coach and, when his time in that role ended, he established the Finchley Foil junior club in Mill Hill along with his late first wife, Susan Wrigglesworth – a three-time Olympic fencer – while also working at Salle Paul in Hendon.
Kruse, Davis and Halsted all developed their skills at Finchley Foil before moving to Salle Paul, where Mepstead was a member.
They then worked with Wojciechowski at international level when he reprised his role as national coach between 2007 and 2013 – preparing them for the London 2012 Olympics. And when the Pole set up a new club, ZFW, at South Hampstead High School, Kruse and Davis followed him.
This is his 23rd year working with Kruse, and he estimates he has coached Davis for 16 years, Halsted for 20 years and Mepstead for 10 years.
The quartet have now gone their separate ways, but Kruse still works closely with Wojciechowski at ZFW, while Mepstead is still in London with Sussex House in Westminster.
Davis is still a member at ZFW and will be coaching there during a summer camp after the Olympics, yet he now trains at the Massialas Foundation in San Francisco, which is run by USA national coach Greg Massialas. Meanwhile, Halsted – the son of Olympic fencers Nick and Clare Halsted – is in Denmark.
Nonetheless, the gang is getting back together in Rio. Kruse, Davis and Halsted – who fought together at London 2012 – will compete in the individual foil event on Sunday and then in the team competition next Friday. Mepstead is the reserve, and Wojciechowski has also made the trip to aid his protégées.
“There are all sorts of factors to make the jigsaw which creates a strong team, and one of them of course is that they have spent lots of time together – or at least in the past they used to,” said Wojciechowski.
“Now we have the really interesting situation that every team member trains somewhere else in different environments.
“But when they come together they are a wonderful team because in the past they have spent so much time together – they are like brothers.”
Britain has not won an Olympic fencing medal since 1964, and the 2012 Games were underwhelming. The men’s foil team went out in the quarter-finals and Kruse, the best individual hope, came 17th.
Things have changed since then, however. In 2013 Davis, who grew up in Barnet, became the first Briton to win a Grand Prix title since 2009, triumphing in St Petersburg – and the following year he won the nation’s first ever European foil gold medal.
In February this year, the British team finished ninth at the World Cup to qualify for the Olympics – which they did not have to do in 2012, as hosts – while Davis won the individual event.
In March, Kruse won the Grand Prix event in Cuba, securing his first gold medal for seven years, and in June the team won bronze at the European Championships.
Halsted said: “It feels like the culmination of a 10-year project to find a team that is strong enough to compete at this level [in the Olympics], and in the last year we have come on so much.”
Wojciechowski concurs, adding: “We have been working extremely hard for many years to get this team to this place.
“Unfortunately in the last Olympic Games we came sixth because in the top eight we faced [the eventual champions] Italy, and they were a little bit stronger than us at that stage of development. Still they are potential candidates for medals, no question, but they are more beatable than four years ago.
“Our team has got stronger through huge changes in James Davis. In 2012 he was very young, it was his first Olympics.
“Richard and Laurence are more or less at the level they were before, I would say, maybe slightly better. The difference is the experience and huge change of James’ performance. He really shot up after 2012. In 2013 and 2014 he was winning European Championships and Grand Prix.
“Now he has consolidated his position in the world and with him, and very experienced fencers like Laurence – who is a very clever fencer – and Richard, who is a master tactician, our team is much stronger. Also Marcus, the reserve, has made huge progress and is getting top-16 results.”
Wojciechowski went on: “I know the strength of other teams and I know the strength of our team and our individuals, and I think we’ve never before, in the history of foil in the Olympics, had such a big chance to win a medal, both in the individual or team events.
“I would say our chances of a medal in the team are slightly higher as it’s the accumulation of three individuals, and because of the composition and strength of other teams as well. We really have got a very good chance, more than ever.”
Kruse has already achieved an impressive feat by being present at his fourth Olympics. That achievement seemed unlikely four years ago after his frustrations in London, and his immediate reaction was that he “would probably continue for another year at international level” before retiring. Yet here he is again.
Wojciechowski believes the rapid rise of Davis has driven Kruse on, encouraging him to improve as an individual while also giving him genuine hope that a team medal might be possible in Rio.
He added: “It was obviously a disappointing situation in London because there was so much pressure on everyone to produce the results.
“I think Richard just loves sport and loves competing, and he can still produce world-class results. Earlier this year he won the Grand Prix competition in Havana and everyone was saying ‘he’s able to beat everyone’. It’s hard to stop when things are going so well.
“I think when he saw James winning St Petersburg in 2013 and he made the top eight, he had some good results which made him believe – and me as well – that he has got it.
“There was a period where Laurence and Richard were working closely together and James was too far behind. Now James has overtaken Laurence and has reached Richard’s level, and they’re pushing each other. Every training session when they were together was the last touch and it was great to see them.
“I think Richard can see that, with James in the team, as well as Laurence, they can produce results and medals.
“That’s probably a factor – that competitiveness and camaraderie with James. They are extremely good friends and they are great competitors at the same time.
“I’m so thrilled that I’ve got two guys who I’ve worked with all my career and they’re at the top of the world, with a realistic chance of a medal not only in the team, but individually.”