'The Olympian Keeps Going'

A star athlete talks about the skills he imparts to his students - and why fencing is good for body and mind

04 Nov 2019 | 09:48

Tim Morehouse is one of the Upper West Side's most accomplished athletes. In addition to winning a silver medal for fencing at the 2008 Summer Olympics, Morehouse runs a non-profit called Fencing in The Schools, has appeared as a special correspondent for E! News, and owns the Tim Morehouse Fencing Club, an elite fencing school which recently opened its fifth location at 77th and West End. But Morehouse has not always been this successful. He started his career in fencing at a division three school, and often lost more matches than he won. But through hard work and tenacity, Morehouse made it to the Olympics, and became one of America's most famous fencers. We sat down with him last week to talk about how he made the Olympic team, the life skills his students learn at his club and why he fainted when he won the silver medal.

How did you start fencing?

I started fencing in seventh grade, which is maybe older than when kids start now. Most kids start between seven and eleven. But I saw a sign at my school that said "join the fencing team, get out of gym." And without even knowing what it was, I wanted to get out of gym, so I went. And it was sword fighting. In the beginning, I got excused out of gym, and I didn't go to fencing practice either. And I almost got kicked off the fencing team as a result. But there was something about the coach, and the sport. It kept me coming back. But my first coach Martin Schneider really got to me over time and he started to tell me like, "If you wanna be really good at fencing, I think you could be really good." And by eighth grade, I was coming every day to practice.

You have somewhat of an underdog story. You went to a division three school, and ended up winning an Olympic silver medal. What did you do in your practicing to achieve that goal?

I think I was always a hard worker. At least one of the things my parents taught me was to work hard. It sounds overly simplistic, but I think a lot of people have a hard time consistently putting in hard work. I was always able to put in hard work no matter what was happening. If I had a lot of schoolwork, if I had things happening in my life, I was able to just continue to put in work. I think that's a big part of it is consistent hard work. Some people can put in spurts of hard work, but to do it day in and day out over years and years and years ... I was never someone that made huge jumps. I was always just kind of like, small improvements, small improvements. But I kept improving, and one of the things that made me think I could try to make a run at the Olympic team is I got better every year of college, like significantly. In my mind I was like, "I want to see: how far can I go with this?"

I think perseverance is a big quality of people that make the Olympics. Anyone can be really happy when everything's going well, but how do you handle times when things are not well? When you're doubting, when you're struggling, when it looks like all hope is lost? The Olympian keeps going. That's the Olympian's moment ... when there's no hope. That's where you find your Olympian self.

I had many of those moments where [I thought] "Did I even have a shot at this?" But there was something that pushed me through all those struggles.

And you fainted when you won the silver medal. Tell us about that.

I had never fainted in my life. But when my teammates scored the point, [and] we knew we were winning a medal, I think the moment just really overwhelmed me. And I think I stopped breathing. I was so excited that I just forgot to breathe. At a certain point I just passed out on the floor. My teammates like jumped on top of me and were celebrating. They thought I was just celebrating, like laying on the floor. For like a week, I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking that I had dreamt that we won the medal. I would check for it, so it was really, like [an] unbelievable experience.

You've been quoted as saying that fencing is really good for the body and mind. How do you think fencing can benefit someone who wants to try it out?

There's a cool study actually of senior citizens who fence who have higher mental acuity. So it's probably one of the best studies for the fact that fencing really is impacting your brain as well as your body when you're doing it. It's a lot of puzzle solving. Think about crossword puzzles, trying to solve a puzzle. It really gets your brain always thinking about what move do you have to do? What data was there? What did my opponent do last touch? What do I have to do next touch?

And we see in kids, on the physical side, kids who are 7-11 we really focus on motor skills, coordination, balance. If you don't have those three things, you can't do any sport. Even if a kid doesn't stay in fencing, they're gonna leave us with much higher motor skill function. Because we really do a lot with the body: teaching kids how to use their body, [and] how the body works separately and together.

What direct benefits have you seen fencing have on your students?

The biggest compliment a parent can give us is they see their child more confident. What we do here is teaching fencing, but we are teaching life skills. We are teaching how to compete, but not just on the fencing strip, but I think in life. This is my story as well. I was a very introverted kid. I was very shy, I was picked on, and when I put on a fencing mask, over time I took on this whole different personality. I had confidence, exuberance. And I experienced confidence first in fencing, and then I was able to translate that to other places in my life. And so I feel like I want our club to be a place where kids can come and grow and learn, know that they're improving, and feel that confidence of, you know, "hard work helps me get better." And they're able to take that confidence and bring it to other parts of their lives.

Getting to the Olympics is such a tough feat that requires a lot of time, hard work, and often involves several major setbacks. What kept you going in spite of all these challenges?

I loved fencing; it's what I was passionate about. I guess one of my values is if I'm gonna do something I'm gonna see it all the way through, and I'm not gonna make excuses. And if I don't get it done, I'll take something valuable enough from it that it was worth it. So I try never to live with any regrets. People always kind of put one foot in the water to make the Olympics. [But] you really have to just go in. You can't be in half way. You can't be in 90 percent. You have to go all the way into what you're doing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.