Douglas chases Rio dream with help of famous friends
Published 11 December 2015 (AEDT)
FENCING: Fencing is a sport much like chess, what you can physically do is just as important as guessing your opponents next move.
That’s what drew Australian Sholto Douglas to the sport in his first year of high school at age 12.
“I tried it out because I hadn't yet found a sport I loved. What initially drew me to it was the whole mental game of working out your opponents.”
Now the 19-year-old has taken his athletic ambitions to the next level, chasing his Olympic dream across the globe with the hope of securing qualification to represent Australia at Rio 2016 in the foil event.
Having just returned from the Turin World Cup where he finished 157th in a strong international field, Douglas is upbeat about his chances of realising his dream of competing at the highest level of his sport.
“Most sports in Australia qualify through Oceania, but we have to qualify through Asia, competing against the likes of China, Korea and Japan,” Douglas said.
“It's a very difficult task, I'm currently one place off qualifying through world ranking, and if Japan and China had done a little better last team World Cup, and backed it up in Paris I'd likely have qualified straight through.
“Unfortunately instead I'm vying for Australia’s one spot at the qualifying tournament, where the rest of Asia who haven't qualified competes for one place. It will be a very tough competition.”
Douglas has benefited from overseas experience and a chance encounter with a superstar of the sport.
He’s coached by Antonio Signorello, part of Italy’s coaching staff at the Athens 2004 Games.
“He moved to Australia soon after having his first kid. As a coach with the Italian team he travelled over 200 days of the year, and wanted a closer relationship with his family,” Douglas said.
While Douglas is also thankful he worked up the courage to strike up a conversation with Italian Olympian and current fencing world no. 3 Andrea Cassará in the gym before the Tokyo World Cup in 2014.
“Unfortunately Cassará injured himself and had to pull out of the Turin competition entirely. Regardless, he's been a great host, getting fencers from surrounding Milan and Venice to come train with us, as well as giving us advice and showing us a wonderful time,” Douglas said.
“I think becoming friends with potential mentors in the sport is incredibly important, it opens up training opportunities, giving you a chance to learn from the best.
“Whilst it can be intimidating to finally see your heroes in person, to put it in perspective this is my Federer or Ronaldo, in my experience they're remarkably generous with their time, and extremely personable. Who would've known that striking up conversation with Cassará in the gym before the Tokyo World Cup would lead to training in his home town and warming up with him often before competitions?”
With all that advice and encouragement, Douglas said his proudest moment in his short career has been making the quarter finals of this year’s Asian Championships.
“No-one from South-East Asia or Oceania has ever got that far in Mens Foil before, and on my way through I beat fencers from fully professional countries like Japan and Korea. It also took my world ranking from close to 200 to 72.”
With Australia’s small population and geographical isolation an obstacle to overcome, fencers must travel overseas to take on stronger competition.
“Definitely, the best way to improve is to fence better opponents. Even more important is variety of opponent, you just can't fence a French and a Korean fencer the same, they bring totally different strengths and weaknesses to the table,” he said.
“Learning to adapt to different styles is key, and hard when exposed to a limited pool of opponents in Australia.
“This year I've been to Singapore, Moscow, Tokyo, Italy. And will later be in London, Paris, Rome and Bonn.
“Certainly adds up when you list it out like that. I'm very lucky to have the opportunity to experience all these cultures and places, and I can hardly say I don't enjoy it! You get very good at studying on planes.”
Not content with travelling the globe chasing his dream, the Sydneysider combines his athletic pursuits with a double degree in robotics and engineering. It’s a popular degree with Rio hopefuls with runner Michelle Jenneke also studying the course.
Douglas said the course requires a lot of brain power, but he manages to find time for both academia and fencing.
“It's all about using your time effectively, a lot of my mates agree that if we didn't train then we wouldn't actually do much more work than we already do,” he said.
“Also really make an effort to make friends in your course/classes, having a great network of people to keep you up to date on where class is, brush over concepts and collaborate on assignments makes all the difference.”
But Douglas won’t be giving up his Olympic ambitions if the Rio 2016 qualification slips from his grasp, with some fencers hitting their peak in their 30s.
“Definitely, Tokyo (2020) has been the aim all along, two years ago I didn't think I'd be ready for Rio, but have come far closer than I thought possible, so I'm trying to push that luck as far as it goes.”
Douglas will next compete at the London Under 20 World Cup on January 9.