This month's cover is a 2 X Team USA Olympian, Dagmara Wozniak who won a Bronze Medal in fencing as a member of the Women's Saber team. With the the Olympics a little less than 2 years away, Athleisure Mag is excited to turn our attention to the upcoming summer Olympic games that will take place in Tokyo 2020. Our shoot took place at the Manhattan Fencing Center where she has trained with her coach since 2005, and we talked about her goals for the upcoming season, what drew her to the sport and the importance of bringing positivity to the game.
ATHLEISURE MAG: When we met you at your shoot, you made a great analogy to what fencing is - can you share with our readers?
DAGMARA WOZNIAK: I look at fencing as a sport with three different weapons (Epee, Foil and Saber) and you specialize in one because the tactics and training is so different in an of itself. I compare Saber, the one that I do as the Sprinter of the sport. If you look at the sport like Track & Field you have sprinting, hurdles and marathon, it’s completely different. You may have some athletes that do both, but you’re working on specific techniques for the sport itself which is very similar to fencing. People think it’s one sport and that we just change weapons, but it’s like 3 mini sports within the sport. It differs by target area, differs by tactic, and differs by training, so it’s very specific and different then what most people think.
AM: What drew you to fencing initially and then the discipline of saber?
DW: I actually started off with the original weapon which is Epee when I came first. My dad just took me to a fencing class one day and it was at the Polish Cultural Foundation and I think it was more to keep me busy and to help me practice the language as my coach was Polish. It was an after school program kind of thing and I did it once or twice a week and I just started falling in love with it.
AM: What did you like about it after you started playing in the sport?
DW: I liked how different it was. People laugh, but I was definitely a tomboy, still am and beatng up kids and not getting in trouble was great. I did karate before that and I had a lot of fun with that. I had friends who were in it with me and when I had to go up to get a new belt or whatever, they would say, “don’t hit me too hard.” I was very ready to go all out. There is something on the line, “sorry we’re not friends right now.” The whole aspect of combat sport is just very appealing to me and I liked it a lot and it’s challenging. One of the things that I have grown to like about it is that there’s a lot of unpredictable factors. You might know what someone generally does and let’s say they are having a bad day or they’re fencing much better than they have ever done before, you need to be able to adjust to things like that. So the fact that you’re not sure how someone is going to necessarily compete, you can make a plan, but that’s not what’s going on and you need to adjust or you are going to lose.
So not to take away from swimming or track and field, but the ground is never going to move from you, the water is never going to dip and become a crazy wave. It’s the fact that it’s really a battle against you and yourself. And fencing and combat sports is a battle against you and yourself and you have the variable of someone else who also has a brain and can adapt to situations and make mistakes as well and capitalize on your mistakes. I like the cliché way of explaining fencing that it’s a physical chess game and it’s spot on. I love that about it.
AM: So what was the moment that you went from enjoying this personally to realizing that you could compete professionally and go to an Olympic stage?
DW: It came very late for me I guess! It was only when I qualified as an alternate for the Beijing Olympics that I even thought about it because people said that that would be my next step to go to the games and I would say, “you’re crazy.” But in the end it was like, if I wasn’t gunning for the Olympics then why the hell was I training so hard? For me it was the whole idea of wanting to be the best and doing something that I was good at and I loved it. I was nev-er upset or felt forced that I was going to practice – I was excited. The losses were so personal for me that I would cry for hours and keep telling my mom that it would never happen again, but even though it did – I was just driven to it without having a goal. I just wanted to win and that was the first goal. But then when I was graduating highschool, I had some teachers that were like, “you know what’s next – the Olympics,” and I was like, “no my God, don’t push it.” But shortly after that, my coach was like you should start thinking about it and I thought, “wow I didn’t know that this was possible for me.” Once my coach and I kind of made a plan, it was up from there.
AM: Your first trip to the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008 was as an alternate, how did that affect 2012?
DW: I qualified in 2008 as a replacement athlete and the only way that I was able to compete is if someone from my team got injured. That didn’t happen and they got the Bronze medal and because I never set foot on the actual playing field, I went home with nothing. I remember a lot of people were saying that that was as far as where I could potentially reach and what was I expecting and why I was so upset. They kind of wrote me off from ever being an actual Olympic athlete and I told my mom, "I was there for the experience and I saw how it was and these next 4 years it will be different.” I made sure that I made a plan that was going to get me there as an actual competing athlete. So qualifying for the team for the Olympic Games in London 2012 was a highlight and so much more meaningful because of the people that said I couldn’t do it.
AM: We know that you have a 4 year gap between each Summer Games. There are a number of championships and tournaments that you do in a given period of time to get onto the team for your sport (the process is different for each of the Olympic sports). What is that snapshot like for you in terms of qualifying when you are getting into the next Team USA as we’re looking for The Road to Tokyo 2020?
DW: Right so there are many sports that just went to one competition closer to Rio and it could be as soon as just a month out! But that’s just what they are used to and it’s a completely different stressful situation. For us, it’s a year long process so when we start the actual Olympic year, we go to about 10 International competitions where we compete and we get points based off of that. Because now, all the team events are allotted under one big medal, before in 2012, our team event was rotated out so the IOC didn’t allow all of the events to compete at the Olympics so 2 of the team events – all of the individual team events were there so that’s 6 events and then we only received 4 team events the - relay. So in 2012, Women’s Saber got rotated out and we only got to qualify individually. In 2016, we had the opportunity to qualify as a team and we did. It’s a different qualification process, but now we have team events for everyone which is amazing and everyone has the opportunity which is more chances for Team USA as we’re doing well right now and we can bring more medals home, and it’s great for fencing, the sport and the development.
The qualification process is different. We go to competitions, we get points based on how high we rank and it’s the first 4 teams that qualify automatically and then to finish the bracket it goes by zone!
AM: So your Olympic year would start summer of next year. But yet, you are still doing championships and competitions leading into that.
AM: You’re having a well deserved rest.
DW: Right. Our season typically started in Oct and then we have 1 competition every month. It was ok, but then I felt like it never gave me an opportunity to necessarily peak. Now, they're giving us quite a bit of an off season which is going to let us have more competitions condensed together, but right now there is an opportunity to kind of change the training style, to change the schedule and to be able to capitalize physically and mentally and then just to ride out how much work you have put in through the season. You won't feel the need to play catch up and your peeked and you're ready to go.
AM: What is your training like when you’re preparing for a typical tournament, an Olympic one and then just maintaining in general?
DW: I don’t necessarily treat the Olympics any different then any other competition. I just think that you can’t treat it differently because of the environment because that is when you are going to put the pressure on yourself and I know that there are differences as there are more people, there’s more press and more points – everything that’s for sure. That’s why going into the Olympics for London 2012 which was my first time competing, I told myself that I wasn’t going to do a lot of interviews because we don’t usually get a lot of that stuff usually during the competition and I know that that’s at least how I work as an athlete as I would get distracted by trying to give everyone a story and all of that. I felt that if the result was going to be there, then people would want to talk to me after.
I focus on preparing just like I would for any other competition. I know that a lot of people function better when they are exposed to something for the first time. I’m not going to say beginner’s luck as they go in with no expectation and for me, it’s the opposite I put more expectation in when I am doing something for the first time. Now if I qualify for Tokyo which I am very confident that I will and that it’s going that way.
I feel more confident the more times that I have been on the Olympic stage. Through loss, through heartbreak, through everything all together it’s learning experiences that make me stronger.
AM: What does your workout look like?
DW: Right now, I’m not fencing so I am taking a small break from that, but I am working with my trainer on capitalizing on endurance. Fencing during competitions lasts throughout a whole day. There is a lot of stop and go! You compete and sit around for an hour and a half, then compete and sit around for another hour and a half. Not necessarily until you get into the finals you win and keep going and you have about an hour and a half and maybe even 2-3 hours before the next match. So it gets tedious in terms of keeping up the endurance, the stamina and the focus. What we have been doing right now as you can’t really simulate an actual competition, but we have been training really early in the morning, I have been doing a lot of crossfit lately and catering more to fencing specific stuff. I’m not going really crazy with the weight, but focusing on building short muscle and fast push muscle – going down and up. I am driving really fast up and again focusing specifically on what will benefit me and my sport, but at the same time, having the intensity of the class and the timer. The repetitiveness is all there and that benefits me. I like to change things up when I feel that I am pushing myself a little too hard. There was a good portion of the time that I was doing pilates with the reformer and some mat work. What’s great about fencing and in fitness in general. Your body is always changing whether you’re in your 20’s, 30’s, a women, a male, come down with a sickness etc – there are so many things that are constantly changing. I never really like to stick to something all the time and kind of plateau. Keeping the body not in a rhythm in terms of a workout which is why I like crossfit so much as there is always a way to challenge yourself. It’s not more weight in terms of taking more time if there is a 12 minute gap, so maybe you get less rounds in or you put less weight and you gauge how many rounds you get in and next time you can keep the same weight and just try to push how many things you can do to fit in the time frame.
I like pilates, I was spinning for awhile but it’s about more sport specific stuff. Making sure that the right muscles are firing.
AM: What are three go to foods for the gym and what are your splurges?
DW: You say splurge foods and it’s the first thing that comes to my mind! I love donuts – I have loved donuts forever and if you give me one, I can’t resist. The homemade ones are amazing. I love how pretty they are and how creative they can be. I’m not a fan of cupcakes or cake, but donuts – yes donuts are my thing. It’s first, second and third. I can’t choose ha!
My go-to in terms of what I’m eating when training. I like protein shakes. They are something that I definitely include post workout as a meal replacement. There is a company I like, Athletic Greens and they are safe for athletes to use and they have dehydrated greens that you can throw in your smoothie as well or in your shakes and it’s easy on your stomach and doesn’t have a metallic aftertaste like most of them do. I’m all about safety and a clean sport. Having a trusted product like that makes me feel great and since I started using that which has been awhile now – maybe a year. I have really decreased how much coffee I have been drinking. I love the taste of coffee but sometimes I forget when the last time was that I had it because the proteins and the greens give me so much energy. Thats what I'm about.
Clean food yes – I think I’d have to say that I am a Paleo/Ketogenic diet – obviously not Keto like what people are doing out there limiting carbs etc., as I think after what I have read a lot about as athletes, it's not the best things especially for women. But keeping high protein and high fat and carbs is something that I have found has given me the optimal training and recovery.
AM: We enjoyed shooting at the Manhattan Fencing Center. How long have you trained here and do you have responsibilities there as well?
DW: There aren’t necessarily responsibilities, but I do think of it as a helping hand in terms of talking to my coach about athletes and my opinion. I am more of a mentor. My fencing gym is my second home. I’m a big stickler for organization, cleaning up after or organizing the lost and found and even small tasks. I love to be respectful of it and take care of it. I hope that others do the same.
I’ve been with my coach since 2005!
AM: Beyond your sport, what else are you interested in doing?
DW: For me, I feel like I have definitely gotten involved in and interested in clean eating and watching documentaries about processed items that are in our foods and how we are slowly killing ourselves with the items that are in our foods. Like a bunch of fries that are really filling is $1 but healthy vegetables for a little snack pack is $6 or $7. A family that can’t really afford too much will go for McDonald’s and fast food stuff. It breaks my heart that there are all these monsters in our country that are destroying food. So healthy food has been a huge working area for me. I love learning about it and I am very intuitive with my body. The second I eat something, I can feel how upset my stomach is and I know it's not good for me. It sucks because donuts have a lot of sugar, not just in terms of weight gain, but it upsets my gut bacteria and I am in tons of pain. Just seeing that I want to spread the knowledge because even healthy peanut butters are actually not healthy. People think that they always have to work out and work out to do so 2-3 times a day to get to whatever your fitness is, but there is so much that can be achieved through diet and what you put into your body. I’m passionate about that.
In terms of athlete preparation, I would like to be a strength and conditioning coach myself and it has become dear to me. Not necessarily just for fencing. I think being able to compete at the highest level mentally and physically – I may not always do it, but being there and known what it takes, and having that knowledge because of my experience, I would like to take that step and prepare those athletes that want to take it to this level and if not higher.
AM: You travel a lot. What have been your favorite places?
DW: I get that question a lot and people are always surprised at my answer. I have fallen in love with Belgium. I’ve never said that I could retire and live in Europe but it’s the first place I went to when I was like, I could see myself living there in terms of the food, the culture, the people are so nice and the architecture is beautiful. There’s a coffee shop and then there is a castle around the corner, you don’t get that in the United States. It’s very interesting to see that kind of setup. This past summer, we had a training camp in Japan before our World Championships in China and I have to say that Japan is such a cool place. The people are so cool and it's just a different world over there! I enjoyed my time in Japan and you know, my heart is in Cuba and I love that place and it's the top three of where I would love to go to.
AM: Where can we find you eating and shopping?
DW: The things that I love about Jersey City and Hoboken is that there are a lot of boutique places in terms of clothing that you can find great stuff and I'm not into labels, but when I do shop for that, I love All Saints - they're rugged and raw with colors that aren't too bright. I love denim with raw materials in terms of dressing up. So I love jean shorts and a black tank top which is my go to. I'm about comfort while still being able to express myself.
There are a lot of cool cafés here. Recently, my boyfriend and I got interested in some refreshing drinks, cheese and meat platters which I love. There is a place called The Archer which has a great selection of this. Down by Grove there are a lot of cool restaurants. We don’t go out too much because we try to just focus on eating healthy and when we go out, I love outside dining and the gardens. There is a lot of that here and it’s fun to jump around.
AM: Do you do any philanthropy?
DW: I find myself getting involved with the athletes in my club and giving advice. I have worked one on one with girls in my club. The pressure of being a female athlete and it’s interesting as everyone always deals with their problems and I don’t necessarily showcase what is going on with me as I have gone through some troubled times. When they talk to me and say, "how do you seem so calm and confident?" I'm like, "woo you have no idea! That's so far from the truth." I am a thankful that I come across that way and everyone is dealing with their issues and I try to impart some wisdom on the girls and the guys at the club.
I talk to my middle school in Avenel, NJ and I have done a few high school talks in terms of setting goals and how many times that people have come and said I couldn't do something. If you listen to what people say, you're just going to dig your own hole and never crawl out of there. Especially when you're doing well, people seem to have more things to say. I think I did a lot of listening to those people for a long time and at 21, I thought that I had it all figured out, by 26 I thought I knew more and now at 30 I'm like, "damn I'm so far from when I thought I did have it figured out!" Life is a constant learning experience and being able to walk away from people that aren't good for you and are negative – I just get involved with the kids at my club. I have had the harsh talks with other coaches on what I am capable of and am supposed to do but when you follow your own plan, that’s when you can really blossom!
AM: What are your goals for the Summer Games?
DW: I’ve set the goal of coming home with 2 gold medals for individual and the team. It’s that goal or no goal for me. Maybe it’s my last time competing or I go another 4 years, who knows. I’m doing everything I can now and not looking back to say shoulda, coulda, woulda and I have a new game plan now. I don’t have injuries, there are a lot of things that are different then when I was training for Rio than how it is now. I may not be the kid that went to every Olympics and medaled in every one, but I have the opportunity to go out there and do some damage with an individual gold medal and team gold medal - even if it's one time. That's very important to me and that puts the icing on my cake in terms of a career.