AF officer turned athlete shows Olympic mettle

  • Published
  • By Randy Roughton
  • Air Force News Service
Capt. Seth Kelsey stared in disbelief with his facemask in his hands as his South Korean opponent celebrated a last-touch victory in their bronze medal épée fencing match at the 2012 Summer Olympics. But while Kelsey's third Olympics competition ended in disappointment, he still left London with much to celebrate.

On the way to his fourth-place finish, the best by an American in individual épée fencing since 1956, Kelsey captured his first Olympics victory, followed by two more wins before he lost both of his final two matches by a single touch. When his final match against South Korea's Jung Jinsun was tied at 11 at the end of regulation, Kelsey asked his opponent if he wanted to decide the medal with a final touch in the sudden-death overtime period. One slight touch on Kelsey's yellow athletic shoe ended his shot at a medal.

"The last touch is very intense, and the thing you have to train for is how to hold your focus for a very long time," said Kelsey, a reservist with the 310th Force Support Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo. "In a normal match, you can hold your focus for a great distance, but knowing there's one touch on the line, one key moment where you can lose focus for just a fraction of a second, that's when that person is going to attack. We drill on this situation every week in practice, so it was something I feel pretty comfortable at doing."

Earlier in the competition, the 6-foot-4, 209-pound Kelsey, ranked 17th before the Olympics, defeated China's Guojie Li in sudden-death overtime and followed with a 15-11 win over former world champion Nikolai Novosjolov of Estonia and a 15-9 victory over Silvio Fernandez of Venezuela. He lost his first match in the semifinals to Venezuela's Ruben Limardo Gascon, who later won the gold medal.

"I was very excited about my results, that I was able to beat the No. 1 ranked guy in the world and win two other bouts," Kelsey said. "I would have loved to have gotten a medal, but I came super close and lost in overtime. I was happy with how I performed and how I represented my family, my country and my unit. So, at the end of the day, I was disappointed that I didn't get a medal, but I was proud of what I did and how I achieved it."

Kelsey has been fencing for 20 years and full-time since 2004 before he competed in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics. He moved to épée as a young teen and prefers the more deliberate strategy over the other two fencing styles. Unlike foil and saber, the entire body is a target area in épée, and the fencers have considerably more control over the action.

"A lot of people start fencing in foil, partly because the weapon is a little lighter and a little easier to handle when you're younger," he said. "I knew I was going to move to épée as soon as I could because I'm fairly tall, and it's pretty straightforward. You just need to hit your opponent more than he hits you, and you can find your own creative solutions on how to win. As soon as I switched, I started having some pretty good results for my age category, so after I switched, I never went back. In épée, you have to find a way to make it work, and the ref's not going to get involved. It's just you and the other person out there."

Kelsey felt more comfortable at this year's games, partly because of the support he received, from his squadron, including his commander at Buckley AFB to family members who made the trip to cheer for him. He also credits his national coach, Sebastian Dos Santos, for helping to get him ready for the 2012 games. But despite his Olympics success, Kelsey said he's more proud of the U.S. national team's world championship in Kiev in April, the first ever for a U.S. team and first in almost a decade for a team from outside of France.

When Kelsey returns from London, he will spend much of September on duty, with annual tour and unit training assembly days in his squadron. He plans to take a break from fencing before he returns to training to get ready for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Kelsey's career at the Air Force Academy helped him develop the team concept that serves him well with the U.S. team. In fact, some of the same skills he learned and uses as an officer also are useful in fencing, especially at the national and international level.

"The one thing I've found that serves me well in both places is how important planning and preparation is," Kelsey said. "We were planning for these Olympic games 12 to 24 months ahead of time. I feel like it's the same in the Air Force. If you're going to deploy your people, whether downrange or just for an annual tour, you have to do all that stuff ahead of time so when you actually get there, you can perform at your best. I think that has served me well, both as an officer and as an athlete."