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Daryl Homer believes he's the best fencer in the world. And that's why he won an Olympic medal

The brash fighter willed himself to be an Olympian, and then willed himself to the first Olympic silver in saber since 1904.

Fencer Daryl Homer poses with saber Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Fencing is one of the world's fastest sports. A point ends in a few seconds, and the difference between the winner and loser is often so thin the human eye can't distinguish the winner. This is why each fencer wears a sensor-filled suit linked up to an electronic system that determines whose sword touches first. Who wins and who loses can be decided by mere milliseconds.

And for those precious milliseconds in Rio, fencers like Daryl Homer have devoted thousands upon thousands of hours.

"Everybody has trained their whole lives for the Olympics," Homer says. "Every touch, every movement has an extra meaning to it. You can feel your opponent's soul kinda leaving when your sword touches. It's that slow, whooosh." He pauses, simulating the opponent's soul leaving. He smiles. "You can feel it."

It’s May, a bit over 100 days from those all-important instants. And yet as Homer trains at a New York fencing club, nobody is coaching Daryl.

"We're a few months from Rio," Homer says. "I know what I need to get done."

As the Olympics approach, Homer gets attention from sources that ignored fencing for the better part of three years. He was featured in an A$AP Ferg video, holding his sword, surrounded by flames. Vogue had him pose with model Karlie Kloss, him in his fencing gear, her in a $1,000 Ralph Lauren skirt with Marc Jacobs boots. And his abs earned him a shirtless spot in US Weekly for their SOLID GOLD GODS Olympic spread. ("Core strength is essential" for fencing, Homer says about his six-pack.)

But today, there are no cameras snapping.

A few beginner fencers are receiving instruction in the corners of the club where Homer and his teammates are fencing.

Homer’s sixth-place finish in saber at the 2012 Olympics was the highest finish for an American man since the heavily boycotted 1984 games. His silver medal at last year’s World Championships was the first ever in saber for an American man. But the beginning fencers don’t seem to care. It's like if Kobe and LeBron decided to get up shots in a local gym and the 3-on-3 pickup game on the other side of the court just kept on playing.

* * *

When I first met Daryl Homer, I didn't know he was going to be one of the best fencers in the world. He said he was the best at everything.

He told us how good he was at basketball. He was not very good at basketball, one of the few players I wasn't totally outmatched against. ("I had that stepback jumper!" It's been ten years, and he still insists his very bad stepback jumper was actually very good.) He bragged about everything, and rarely backed it up. He didn't really seem to take anything seriously.

Homer also sometimes told us he was good at fencing. To be honest, I don't think I believed him.

"You guys were like, 'this kid's a joker," he says.

At best, I thought he was as good at fencing as our school's basketball players were at basketball -- some of whom were even good enough to play for very good Division III colleges. At worst, I thought it was just another thing he was lying to us about. I never imagined that he was one of the best fencers in New York, or one of the best young fencers in America, or that he had the potential to be the best fencer in the world.

We went to a school called Friends Seminary, an increasingly expensive private school in Manhattan. The school prides itself on its diversity, but at no point did our class of roughly 60 students have more than five black members. And by the time he transferred out before senior year, there were none.

My family could afford to send me there because my mom worked at the school. As a member of a merely well-off family, I sometimes felt out of place, since many other families seemed like legit millionaires with houses in the Hamptons. I can't imagine what it must've felt like for him, a black student on scholarship whose commute from the Bronx could take up to two hours each way.

But the long train ride was the least of it. Homer was also attending fencing lessons for several hours a day after school. In an article for The Players' Tribune, he described the odd sensation of going from a school with the richest kids in the city to a fencing club with kids who were even richer.

So how does the son of a single mother from the Virgin Islands become an Olympic fencer? Homer first learned about fencing when he was five years old and he saw a picture of two fencers in a children's dictionary. A few years later, he saw a commercial promoting New York's push to host the 2012 Olympics, in which two fencers fought each other over a cab.

The passion was instant.

"The dude in the white outfit. He looked swagged up," Homer says. "And you put a sword in any kid's hand, they're going to like it."

He could've seen a picture of snowboarders or motorcyclists or badminton players, and he might've been out of luck. But Homer's mom found out about an organization called the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Westbrook, a black fencer who won bronze at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, started the organization in the 1990's with the hopes of spreading fencing to New York-area children who otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to fence.

Westbrook's foundation is not the only one that teaches kids about a sport generally played by people much richer than them. You can scan the country and find organizations teaching inner-city youths how to play squash or golf or even polo.

These groups often find success teaching kids to explore non-traditional athletic pursuits and dream higher in life, but I doubt any of them have had the international competitive success as Westbrook's. Since 1991, the organization has trained 4,000 fencers. Eight have gone on to become Olympians, including two medalists. In a sport typically reserved for America's whitest athletes, all eight have been black.

Homer will be joined by two fellow Westbrook trainees in Rio. Nzingha Prescod will represent America in the women's foil competition, and Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will be the first American woman to compete in an Olympics wearing a hijab, will participate in the women's saber event.

When I watch Homer fence, over half of the fighters in the room are black.

"This isn't how most fencing clubs look," Prescod says.

Membership at this club costs $950 a year. Training Olympians like Homer brings prestige, but it doesn't bring the club money. To do that, they have to cater to the beginning fencers ignoring Homer over in the corner. They're paying $80 per lesson, gear rental not included.

The system of developing fencers in the U.S. is geared towards the rich, and Homer hopes that changes. But he also feels the sport's upper-class cachet has value. It showed him a world he never knew existed.

"A lot of kids don't have the expectation to go to college," Homer says. "In fencing, the expectation isn't just that you go to college -- it's that you go to an Ivy League college. It ups your standards. It exposes you to different things, different resources, different people."

But while fencing can expose athletes to a world they didn't know existed, it can't necessarily keep them there. Homer's opponents from Russia and South Korea earn full-time salaries fencing, but in America, that's not really an option. Perhaps a fencer from a blue-blood background could afford two spend two years not generating income in order to pursue an Olympic dream, but Homer had to work. He spent two years after college working 50-hour weeks at an ad agency.

"I was training any time I could get it in," Homer says, "but nowhere near as much as I needed to train professionally."

Homer took a leave of absence to pursue the Olympics, and is getting by on sponsorship deals, stipends from the USOC, and prize money from tournaments. But when the Olympics are over, he'll have to make a decision on whether to spend another four years chasing the thing he loves or figure out his next career.

* * *

For years, Homer told us all how good he was at things and we had no reason to believe him. But in order to understand what he sees, I figured he'd be the best person to explain specifically why he's good at fencing.

So I asked: Let's say you win gold in Rio. What will the people you beat say about you? What will they say about how you won?

The first thing they say is, 'he was just so fast.'

There are three swords in fencing, the saber, the épee, and the foil. Each sword has its own rules, and each plays to a particular personality. And although he respects everybody in the fencing world, Homer totally looks down everybody who isn't a saber fighter.

"Saber is an archetype," he says. "We're super-alpha, super-aggressive. It definitely matches my personality. Épee guys are a little bit stranger. Foil guys are..." he pauses, trying to think of something nice to say about foil guys. "Usually pretty cool."

With the other two swords, you can only score by touching the tip of the sword to your opponent. This leads to points that are tens of seconds long, the two fencers hopping back and forth, seeking the perfect moment to make a precise strike. But in saber, any part of the sword can score a point. Any slash or cut that touches the opponent counts. This makes saber a free-wheeling, aggressive discipline.

And Homer is the master of its most aggressive move.

At last year's World Championships in Moscow, Homer was tied 14-14 in the semifinal with Romania's Tiberiu Dolnicianu. The next point won the bout, and the winner of the bout was guaranteed a medal, and no American man had ever won a medal at the World Championships.

Here is Homer scoring the point that won the match:

Daryl Homer leaps to strike an opponent's mask

It looks like he's discovered a new dimension. His ground-bound opponent tried to stretch out to catch Homer with an attack, but Homer floated away and smacked him in the head with a sword. He'd eventually take the silver medal.

So much of fencing is back-and-forth, but Homer adds another direction: up. He's known for his flunge -- a shortening of "flying lunge." He didn't invent the flunge, but he's made it his signature move.

In saber, fencers are allowed to cross their legs while backpedaling to avoid an opponent. But when moving forward, their legs cannot cross. Their front leg has to remain in the front, and their back leg has to stay in the back. So you can't just run up on an opponent, thrashing your sword.

But you can jump, and Homer does it better than anybody. His arms aren't as long as his opponents, but by explosively leaping towards them, he can get himself within striking range before the opponent can react.

Second? He's going to say, 'He gave me no time to think. I reacted, and the next thing you know, he scored on me.'

Penn State fencer Khalil Thompson tells me about how when he was younger, he watched Homer competing and aspired to his success. But at the bouting session, Homer is the one watching Thompson -- and although he praises Thompson's potential, he's getting upset watching him fight.

"Watch this," he tells me a few feet from Thompson's bout. "He's going to go in" -- Homer gestures -- " but instead he's going to go out" -- he gestures again -- "and that's how he's going to lose."

Sure enough, Thompson goes in for his first attack, but when it doesn't land, he backs off. His momentary relent allows his opponent to strike back and score. Homer points -- "see! Now watch, it's going to happen again" -- and it does happen again.

Homer likes being right, and when he watches fencing, he's right a lot. Part of him is upset that his fellow fencer isn't fixing this apparent flaw in his game, but part of him is deeply satisfied with his accurate preview of every single point.

Twenty minutes later, it's Homer bouting Thompson. The collegian gives the Olympian a run for his money, but Homer scores the last five points to win, before telling Thompson what he was doing wrong. "You can be such an asshole sometimes," a voice chimes in from the sidelines.

For Daryl to be successful, he has to predict the seemingly unpredictable split-second decisions of his opponents. If he can guess correctly, acting instead of reacting, he's a step ahead of his opponent. And he's phenomenally good at it.

"Yeah, he's on the faster side," says Jeff Spear, a teammate who was Homer's roommate at international fencing competitions for four years. "But what makes him stand out is his sense of tactics. He can't even express it. But he knows what I'm going to do before I do. He can feel my patterns, he can feel what I'm about to do, and he can execute something against that."

A lot of fencing is physical, obviously. Homer and his fellow Olympic fencers put in thousands of hours training their bodies, developing stronger legs, faster feet and quicker hands. But no matter how much work they put in, there are some traits they simply have to be born with. And Homer's instincts are something you can't learn with any amount of training.

Third? 'I just couldn't hit him. I was running him down the strip, and he kept getting away.'

Daryl Homer leaps to score a touch to the head against Renzo Agresta of Brazil at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

And last? He's going to say 'Fuck, he's good. God.'

Daryl is ranked 10th in the world. At the London Olympics, he finished sixth.

Try to imagine being the sixth best person in the world at anything. I personally can't. I write at a pretty small company, and I know I'm not one of the best six writers at my company.

I'm happy to say I made the playoffs in fantasy football last year, making me one of the top six fantasy football players in my league. Daryl was one of the six best fencers in a 100-year-old Olympic discipline practiced across the globe, and that wasn't good enough.

"I went in there having fun, which is great," Homer says. "but the biggest regret is I wish I'd just gone in there a little bit more like, 'you're winning the gold at 22.'"

In fencing, finishing sixth just makes you another person who didn't win a medal. The goal is to be the best. And Daryl believes he is the best fencer in the world. Ask him.

"There was a period of time when I watched fencing videos before I went out with my friends, after I came back, at lunch, in class, whenever," Homer says. "But I realized now is the level I'm at, people are more likely adjusting to fence me. Quite frankly, if I fence my game, I'll beat anyone in the world."

Ask his fellow competitors.

"He honestly believes that he is the best," says Spear. "And he fences better when he honestly believes that he is the best. He has a certain amount of confidence in what he's doing. and that's going to draw out the best in him."

Fencers truly believe the way they carry themselves in the critical seconds of a bout are as important as any technique or physical attribute. And nobody carries themselves like Daryl does.

"He has balls. He has swag," says Pryor. "He steps on the strip and he brings this aura of confidence. His opponents feel the weight of him knowing he's about to smack the crap of them. He's explosive and strong, and he's unconventional. in how he figures out touches. But the silver bullet for Daryl is his confidence."

* * *

Hearing some of the best fencers in the world say this about Daryl, I flash back to the ninth grade. I remember this kid who said he was the best at everything, but only seemed like he was the best at bragging.

Maybe you think the Boy who Cried "Wolf" is the story of a super-annoying kid who gets all his village's sheep eaten. But honestly, it's just about the most alert watchboy in village history, and a bunch of people too stupid to listen to him.

Daryl was the Boy Who Cried "I'm The Best In The World." He seemed foolish at the time, telling us how great he was at everything and never backing it up. But being great at anything requires the absurd belief that you actually are great. And man, does Daryl have that.

Yes, he has the requisite speed and physical attributes to be an top-notch fencer, excelling in aggression and explosiveness. And he has the unteachable instincts that allow him to outmaneuver the world's elite fencers. But he wouldn't have a shot at being the best in the world if it wasn't for his absurd confidence, the same confidence I misread back in middle school.

Daryl believes he is the best fencer in the world. In Brazil, he will have a chance to validate that belief.

"The Olympic games are a peak for everybody," Homer says. "Everyone wants to compete there, so if you win on that day? You're the best," Homer says. "There will be no prisoners in Rio."

* * *

Olympic fencing explained