Feature | Fencing

Monica Aksamit on fighting financial problems, a fractured back, and why she never gives up

The Olympic bronze medal-winning fencer from USA, who won gold at the 2019 Pan Am Games, joined the Olympic Channel Podcast for an in-depth interview

By Ed Knowles ·

Monica Aksamit’s life seems to consistently throw up challenges that seem impossible.

“I'm like, ‘how are all of these things happening to me?’”

She competes in fencing despite a fractured back, has to crowdfund plane tickets to events, nearly didn’t make the US team at Rio 2016, adopted a dog in Peru, got stuck in Europe as the pandemic started, and has seen some family health problems in 2020.

“This has probably been the worst year of my life." She told the Olympic Channel Podcast,

“We've had family disease. We've had a death. Obviously, the Olympics being postponed has changed everything… A lot of unknowns.”

But, Monica has retained a kindness, allayed with a steely determination, and a warm smile.

“I definitely don't give up.” - Monica Aksamit on chasing her dreams

Read on for the transcript of an exclusive interview as the Team USA fender recounts her incredible life journey.

Monica Aksamit: How I got into fencing

Olympic Channel (OC): Hi Monica… How did you get into fencing?

Monica Aksamit (MA): My Mom found out that it was a great way for a scholarship. And just thought, ‘Maybe she'll like it’. I was about eight, eight-and-a-half. They handed me a sword. They said, ‘Hit the other kid’.

I did. Everybody clapped and cheered. I was like, ‘I don't understand what's going on. But, OK. This sounds like a great time!’

OC: What is your first Olympic memory?

MA: When I was watching the 2004 Olympics, when Mariel Zagunis won the first gold medal for women's sabre for the United States.

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I was sitting on my grandparents’ couch in Poland and I remember watching the entire thing on the super old TV. The fact that we could even pick up these channels was phenomenal. I watched the whole thing I told my grandparents, ‘This is what I want to do. I one day want to be at the Olympics’. And they were like, ‘Yeah, OK. Go for it!’

Monica Aksamit: Qualifying for Rio 2016

OC: Do you remember the feeling then of having your dream come true and qualifying for Rio 2016?

MA: Everyone knew before me. I made it to the last 16 in a competition. And I was like, ‘Why are we making such a big deal about this result?’

[Someone from the team was] taking a photo. He's like, ‘Can you just at least look happy?’ I was like, ‘I mean, I am happy.’ And he's like, ‘OK, just say, Rio or something.’

I was like, ‘WHAT!?!?’

He just stood there like, ‘Why do you think we're taking this photo?’ I was like, ‘Because I made a 16?’ And he's like, ‘No, you idiot, you're going to the Olympics.’

It's so funny telling people, because they're like, ‘How did you not know?’

"Accomplishing your biggest dream is just such a weird feeling" - Monica Aksamit on winning Olympic bronze medal at Rio 2016

Monica Aksamit and Ibtihaj Muhammad from the USA Fencing team celebrating their Olympic bronze medal on the podium at Rio 2016

OC: You went to Rio 2016 as an alternate but ended up - not only fencing - but taking home an Olympic bronze medal. How was that? Was there a big party when you got home to New Jersey?

MA: All these things are just, kind of wild, because accomplishing your biggest dream is just such a weird feeling. I wanted this for so long. There were times I really didn't think it was happening. And here we are. And it happened. And it was kind of like, ‘Did it really happen? Am I really here? Did I really do this?’

[And the parade] obviously was incredible. They had a whole firetruck for me [and] a giant sign in the street congratulating me.

OC: And you had a really bad back injury. Can you explain what that is?

MA: I was actually told about it before Rio. The doctor also tried to downplay it because you also don't want an athlete [who is] about to go to Olympics [to know] their back is broken for their whole lives. So [they were like], ‘This no big deal. [There’s] a little like chip in your vertebrae. It's fine.’

Fencer Monica Aksamit competing at Rio 2016

I was in so much pain I had to wear a back brace. I couldn't change direction really quickly because [I had] this shooting pain but we made it work. After the Olympics, I did take three-and-a-half months off because I kept constantly having pain. Everything was swollen on the outside. It's better now. And I've learned to manage it.

OC: A few months before the pandemic started, I read a story about how you raised $28,000 so you could continue to compete. How has the pandemic affected that?

MA: You just have figure it out. Thankfully, there is Instagram. So, that has helped me bring in deals. And the more followers you have, obviously, the more relevant and important you are in the whole scheme [of things].

We also had almost the entire season before Tokyo, so I used that money [I raised]. I had purchased tickets even for Belgium - money that I never got back. So, I went through a majority of that money.

The USOPC did have a whole stipend program where they did grant funds. Same thing with U.S. fencing. So, I did get a grant, which is amazing. So, I'm fine. Well, I'm fine for the next few months!

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OC: Maybe it’s stubbornness but you never seem to give up!

MA: No, I don't. My family complains about me being stubborn whatever, which I can understand how that's annoying character in people, but I definitely don't give up. Same thing on relationships. I don't give up. I'm the last one fighting for them. Friendship, the same thing. Stubborn is a quality most people don't really want. But I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for my stubbornness.

Monica Aksamit was this week’s guest on the Olympic Channel Podcast. Each Wednesday, we present a story celebrating Olympic values to inspire and motivate. The interview answers and questions were edited and condensed to make them easier to read.