Two years ago, the biggest opportunity of Ohio State fencer Marc-Antoine Blais Belanger’s career was met with disappointment. After reaching the men’s epee finals in the 2016 NCAA Fencing Championships, Blais Belanger fell just short of the title, losing to Jake Hoyle, the top seed from Columbia.
On March 25 in State College, Pennsylvania, Blais Belanger once again found himself one victory away from becoming the NCAA men’s epee champion.
In the waning moments of overtime, with the hard-fought title bout against Sean White of St. John’s nearing its conclusion, Blais Belanger trailed 14-13. It looked like history was doomed to repeat itself.
Then, in the final bout of his career, Blais Belanger turned the tide.
With the clock winding down, Blais Belanger scored a touch on White to tie the score. Moments later, Belanger scored the touch with three seconds remaining that clinched his 15-14 victory.
Disappointment turned to triumph.
“Two years ago I came so close,” Blais Belanger said. ”If I wouldn’t have won [this time] it would have been really hard to swallow.”
Blais Belanger’s four-year Ohio State career reached a redemptive conclusion, but he does not plan on letting his fencing career come to an end. With a successful and memorable college tenure now behind him, Blais Belanger has turned his attention to the sport’s greatest competition: the Olympics.
Although Blais Belanger’s NCAA eligibility has expired, he plans to remain at Ohio State for one more year to complete his degree in mechanical engineering. He will still spend countless hours honing his skills in the Steelwood Athletic Training Facility to prepare for the final push to qualify and represent Canada in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“[To qualify] you have to do almost every international competition and try to bank up on international points,” Blais Belanger said. “You have to be amongst the [best] in the Americas.”
But Blais Belanger believes his collegiate career, during which he has competed at the NCAA championships all four years, has prepared him for the challenge of qualifying for and competing in the Olympics.
“There’s so much pressure [in NCAA competition] because everyone’s [trying to] go out and be the best for their school,” Blais Belanger said. “There’s always so much intensity in every tournament … I think that’s going to help me a lot to handle pressure.”
Blais Belanger also has competed for Team Canada at international competitions. Though he said the talent level is higher in international tournaments, they can’t match the intensity of NCAA competitions where team comradery and school pride inspire passion.
“During international competition you focus on yourself,” Blais Belanger said. “Obviously if your teammate from your country does well you’re happy, but it’s not the same thing because you don’t depend on each other to win.”
There are plenty of great college fencers who fail to reach the Olympics. While experience and preparation are important, a certain degree of natural talent is necessary to compete among the world’s greatest fencers.
Ohio State fencing head coach Vladimir Nazlymov has an eye for Olympic talent. His lengthy resume includes three Olympic medals of his own when he competed for the Soviet Union in 1968, 1976 and 1980. He has been a member of the coaching staff of both the United States and Soviet national teams, and was the Soviet national team’s head coach in the 1988 Olympics.
Nazlymov said he believes Blais Belanger has what it takes to be an Olympian.
“[Blais Belanger has an] unbelievably strong neural system,” Nazlymov said. “He can be patient until last millisecond. It’s not timing. It’s [instincts]. In this case he’s unbelievable talent.”
Maybe it was four years of learning to handle intense competition that allowed Blais Belanger to land the winning touch with three seconds remaining in his final college bout. Maybe the final strike was the type of instinctual response that his coach believes makes him a special talent.
One thing is certain: as Blais Belanger comes closer to reaching the ultimate goal of his athletic career, he will need to thrive in big moments. If how he fared in the biggest moment of his collegiate career is any indication, he’ll do just fine.