RIO DE JANEIRO - Alexander Massialas crouched on the fencing strip, fists on the ground, face still covered by his mask, head shaking from the sobs. No American male fencer had won an Olympic individual gold medal in the modern era of the sport. Massialas, ranked as the second-best foil fencer in the world, had come so close to changing that. But now Italian flags waved, and music pulsed through Carioca Stadium 3 for the other man.
Massialas felt a tap on his shoulder. His coach and his father, Greg Massialas, had scurried from a folding chair, up the steps to the strip. Greg knelt and slung his arm around Massialas, the son who used to tag along to his fencing center when he was 5 years old. "It's okay," he said.
"Those two words, they don't sound like a lot," Massialas said. "It meant the world to me."
In that moment Sunday night, Massialas's dejection began to transform to elation. He had lost the men's foil gold medal to Italy's Daniele Garozzo, the ninth-ranked fencer in the world, his comeback attempt falling short in a 15-11 defeat. But he had won silver, a massive milestone for fencing in the United States. American men had won no individual fencing medals since Peter Westbrook in 1984, and no silvers since 1932.
Massialas, a 22-year-old Stanford mechanical engineer major, squashed both of those streaks. On the medal stand, he looked into the stands and saw his mother, Vivian, reaching out her arms, as if trying to hug him from across the arena. ("My secret hero," Massialas said later.) He saw his sister, Sabrina, the loudest voice in Carioca all day, still wearing a U.S. flag like a cape. He sniffed to hold back tears, the only emotion in them joy.
"It was overwhelming," Massialas said. "I couldn't be prouder to bring back any medal for the United States. I stood up, tried to keep my head held up high. I couldn't be a prouder son. I couldn't be a prouder brother. I couldn't be a prouder teammate."
In one afternoon, Massialas reversed the United States' undistinguished fencing history. The only American who to won a gold medal remains Alberton Van Zo Post. He won at the 1904 Games in singlestick - essentially fighting with canes. The event would be discontinued in the next Olympics, and Van Zo Post occasionally would fight in future Games under the Cuban flag. After 1904, and before Sunday, just four American men won individual medals.
Greg Massialas had worked for years to change it. He fenced in two Olympics, 1984 and 1988, and would have in three if not for the 1980 boycott. He opened Massialas Foundation fencing center in San Francisco in 1999, when Massialas was 5. Massialas started training at 7, and ever since he has remained ahead of schedule, pushing national barriers and emerging as a global force. He won the national championship at age 16. He made the 2012 London Games at 18, the youngest man on the American team, and finished 13th.
Massialas entered these Games with the clear intent of winning gold. Really, he shouldn't have even had the chance. In the quarterfinals, Massialas fell behind Itlay's Giorgio Avola, 14-7, one point from a crushing exit. Massialas reeled off eight consecutive points - pretty much the equivalent of a Hail Mary - and won. Sabrina rushed from the stands, crying, and wrapped Massialas in a hug.
"Just belief," Massialas said. "I've seen bigger comebacks before. I've made a few myself. The whole point of the Olympics is just kind of being able to succeed against the odds. I think that demonstrated just believing in yourself and making sure you make the right actions, at the end of the day can actually help you get out of these seemingly impossible situations."
Massialas dusted Britain's Richard Kruse in the semifinals, setting up the final against Garozzo. Massialas had fenced Garozzo for years - in cadets, juniors and seniors - and never lost. In the final, though, Garozzo introduced a new tactic.
Garozzo came forward while hiding his blade. Massialas needed to stand straight in front of Garozzo in order to see the blade. Instead, he would react to Garozzo's attack and get hit before he had a chance to counter. Throughout the match, Greg shouted for Massialas to adjust. Massialas kept turning around, unable to hear him over the din. He fell behind, 14-7, by the end of Round 1.
In Round 2, Massialas made the change and attempted a second miracle. He scored four points in a row, Sabrina hollering at each one. But Garozzo made the touch he needed, ripped off his mask and sprinted to the Italian cheering section, arms raised. Massialas fell to the strip.
"My adaptation came a little too late in the bout," Massialas said.
"It's a tremendous day for U.S. fencing," Greg said. "Just coming home with a medal, that's a tremendous thing."
Massials still has a chance to win gold in the team event, in which the U.S. claimed silver at London. He plans to return in Toyko 2020 for an individual gold, unwilling to appear in fewer Games than his dad.
"For the longest time, we weren't a power in fencing," Massialas said. "As my dad likes to say, we are in a golden era right now in men's foil in the U.S."
Underneath the stands, after he'd walked off the medal stand, Massialas was mobbed by his teammates. Greg walked over and slapped him on the back, smiling wide.
"Hey," Greg said, pointing at the silver medal. "Do I get to touch it?"
Massialas turned and spread his arms wide. His father embraced him and squeezed tight, the only thing between them the hunk of silver hanging from the son's neck, everything so much better than OK.