In his own words, Jewish American fencer Jake Hoyle wasn’t a “desirable” collegiate fencing recruit. In fact, Jake had to walk on to Columbia University’s team. In spite of this, he is now the no. 1 men’s epee fencer in the United States, has been ranked as high as 7th in the world, and has qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, his first ever.
Jake’s fencing and Olympic journey first began in the Strath Haven middle school cafeteria. Building on the beginner technique and skills he learned in these after-school bouts, Jake soon began to specialize in epee, the TLDR of which is that it’s a large, thrusting weapon which can make a valid touch on any part of an opponent’s body. After competing in local fencing tournaments throughout high school, Jake decided he wanted to continue fencing in college, but missed the recruiting process. Through his own proactivity, he met with Columbia fencing coach Michael Aufrichtig who told him this: If he was accepted to Columbia, there was a place for him on the team.
In retrospect, it seems as if that place was always meant for Jake. While at Columbia and majoring in economics/business management, he went on to win the 2015 NCAA Championship in individual men’s epee. He then went on to defend that title in 2016 with a stunningly acrobatic final touch in a sport known for balletic elegance. You can watch it here.
Since college, Jake has only continued to rake in impressive accolades. He has represented the United States at the Pan America Games, the Senior World Championships, and the Pan American Championships. At the latter competition, he won a gold medal in team epee and a bronze medal in individual epee in 2018 and won a silver medal in team in 2019. Jake won two additional international bronze medals in 2019, one from the Vancouver World Cup and the other from the Doha Grand Prix; he rounded that out by winning the gold medal at the 2019 USA Fencing National Championships.
It might seem as though everything was falling into place for an athlete set on starting his Olympic career at the 2020 Tokyo Games. And then COVID-19 delayed the Olympics and Jake’s participation in them.
This side of the pandemic, Jake and I spoke over e-mail about his upcoming Olympic debut, his expectations for competition, and the Jewish tradition of being really freaking good at fencing.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What is a favorite or defining fencing memory for you?
One of my favorite memories was fencing against my Columbia teammate Brian Ro in the semi-finals of the 2015 NCAA Championships. Brian and I were extremely close friends from the moment we started school, and had spent every hour of training at Columbia side by side. This is probably my favorite bout that I have ever fenced. An incredibly hard-fought and heavily tactical bout between two guys who knew each other’s fencing really, really well — a classic in my book. I ended up winning in overtime, and went on to capture my first of two individual NCAA championship titles that day.
What does being Jewish mean to you? Do you have a favorite Jewish holiday?
To me, being Jewish means a close connection to my family, and to generations of other families with similar traditions and values. I mostly credit my sister, Ash, for stewarding a strong sense of Jewish pride in our family.
My favorite Jewish holiday is Yom Kippur. The personal reflections and internal growth that come each year on Yom Kippur have shaped who I am. And I find constant comfort in the promise that each coming year will continue to bring the same.
Jewish athletes have won more Olympic medals for fencing than for any other sport. Does fencing feel like a Jewish sport to you?
Many of the teammates and coaches that I’ve worked with over the years have been Jewish. To me, the world of Team USA fencing feels like one filled with support for Jewish athletes.
I’m proud to be a Jewish fencer, and to be part of a community that prioritizes sportsmanship and camaraderie.
How did the postponement last summer affect you, and what has pandemic training been like?
The postponement last summer was tough… Deciding to train for the Olympics is a massive commitment. When I set out in 2016, I knew that I was dedicating four full years of my life to being entirely focused on qualifying for, and performing at, the Summer Olympics in 2020. My entire training plan, really my entire life plan, was predicated on that schedule.
When the Games were postponed I felt that I had been on the one yard line about to score a touchdown, and all of a sudden the end zone got pushed back another 100 yards away. It was difficult, no doubt, but now that the 2021 Games are here, and with everything that the world has been through this year, I just feel lucky that I’m healthy, and that I get the opportunity to compete.
How has the news that your family and loved ones won’t be able to support you in person in Tokyo affected your mindset going into the games?
The news that no international spectators would be allowed at the games was devastating. Whenever I have imagined competing at the Olympics, my family, girlfriend and friends were always in the stands, right there with me. Not having them there will definitely be tough, but it’s just another challenge unique to this Olympics that we’re rolling with.
Tattoos are an interesting point of contention in Jewish culture. Are you planning on getting an Olympic rings tattoo after Tokyo?
I am considering getting the Olympic rings tattoo. Many Olympians choose to immortalize their accomplishment this way. My Olympic journey has left a permanent mark on me, and this tradition among Olympians feels very fitting. I think it’s really powerful that as a Jew, I can elect to get this type of celebratory tattoo. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come, and the agency we now have in our private and public lives — that this is a choice I am able to make for myself.
What are your goals going into your first Olympics, both individually and for your squad?
Goals are to win gold in both.