When Harvard men’s fencing captain and 2016 Olympian Eli Dershwitz first observed newcomer Geoffrey Tourette in-person, he quickly realized that even to his standards, this California native was going to be “special.”
Tourette had been no stranger to the medal podium before joining an already nationally-acclaimed fencing cast on its third-floor home inside the Malkin Athletic Center. The freshman foil competitor took home gold in both individual and team competitions at the 2016 Cadet World Championship, was a six-time national champion across several age groups, and is currently ranked by USA Fencing as the No. 1 American junior fencer in foil and No. 5 at the senior level.
This plethora of achievements would raise eyebrows for any college coach and program, but it was ultimately the strength of past relationships with current Crimson members that drew Tourette to Cambridge. Sophomores Erwin Cai and George Haglund, namely, were cited by Tourette as critical lobbyists toward persuading the young recruit. Others such as Dershwitz were not further behind, paying close attention to his high school tape and following his slew of accomplishments.
“I think I started my first international competition five or six years ago, and some of the people who were on the team now were actually traveling with me at that time,” Tourette said. “That’s how I got to know a lot of the team. I made a lot of close friendships that way.”
Even with such attention and interest, Tourette made it immediately apparent in his first fall semester that there was no sense of entitlement in his work attitude. In the frigid, raining dusk of an early fall-semester Saturday, team captain Dershwitz inquired his team via text about taking a run up the steps of Harvard Stadium. The only respondent? Tourette.
“We were the only people on the stadium that morning, and I told him that nobody else was willing to put in the work on that cold, rainy morning that we just put in,” Dershwitz wrote. “I really think that workout and that day resonated with him, and I truly hope that after I graduate, he will pass down those words to future generations of our team as he tries to instill the same work ethic in them.”
This level of commitment before the official start of the season quickly translated on the fencing mat. In Tourette’s first career college meet at the Penn State Open, the Cupertino, Calif., native executed a weekend high plus-23 touch differential to win his bracket 15-6 and capture gold. It was during this first tournament that Tourette rationalized he could truly surpass even his initial expectations.
“I think it was probably after my last round of pools [when] I kind of settled myself into the atmosphere of college fencing with all the different schools cheering,” Tourette said. “But having the Harvard team behind me, everything just helped get me comfortable and that’s when I felt like I had joined the team 100 percent.”
Tourette quickly solidified himself as a near-unbeatable adversary. In the Traditional Tournament on Dec. 3, the Crimson challenged five schools—Vassar, NJIT, NYU, Penn State, and Sacred Heart—where Tourette achieved a team-high 10-1 record. The freshman was undefeated at the Beanpot Tournament two months later with a plus-21 touch differential and 7-0 mark.
“The thing that impressed me the most about his game was how confident he was in his ability to win, which stemmed with his confidence in the amount of work he has put in,” Dershwitz wrote. “His amazing attention to detail and to the absolute fundamentals to the sport of fencing, as well as his amazing work ethic are what set him apart.”
At the Ivy League Championships, Tourette cemented his place as the best fencer in foil within the Ancient Eight with a perfect 15-0 individual record. Collectively, the Crimson delivered its 10th Ivy League men’s title in history, its fifth in the last decade. It is this feeling of team success and achievement, Tourette emphasized, which has made college fencing so distinctive from his years of traveling internationally as a solo competitor.
“Everybody needs to support each other, and a huge part of that isn’t when you are fencing, but when you are cheering and when you are just rooting for your teammates,” Tourette said. “The support that you get from your teammates, and the support that you give teammates is what really makes college fencing what it is, which is super enjoyable.”
To cap off the season, the freshman broke through again at NCAA Regionals with a top-of-the-leaderboard outing of 20-3. Qualifying for the National Championships, Tourette ultimately concluded his season with a top-10 finish at seventh overall. Among his competition at the national level, only two freshmen finished ahead of Tourette in foil.
Even with these accomplishments in stone, Tourette’s aspirations continue to enlarge. In sight for the future include U-20 Team USA competitions and other commitments that will take him from Paris to Shanghai this year.
The ultimate goal, what Tourette called his “top priority,” still remains qualifying for the Olympics. With a participant in Dershwitz inside Tourette’s own locker room, the freshman emphasized the importance of the continuing guidance of his junior captain in striving to reach Tokyo in 2020.
“Eli has been a great mentor as far as fencing goes and honestly as far as everything in my Harvard experiences, he’s in there for me,” Tourette said. “It is just really amazing what he has been able to do, the discipline he has...just trying to keep up with him and hopefully one day I hope to reach his level, that is the goal.”
For his fellow young stadium-runner, the Olympian fencer did not hold back in endorsing the freshman’s bid for international stardom. Fencing within the walls of the Malkin Athletic Center appears, for both Dershwitz and his young mentee Tourette, to be stage one in the quest for success at the highest level of competition.
“Given these traits, and the level of discipline that is required to be a successful athlete at an amazing academic institution like Harvard, I strongly believe that he has what it takes to take gold at the U20 World Championships next year and to one day make an Olympic Team.” Dershwitz concluded.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.