When Romain Cannone first moved from France to New York in 2005 at the age of 8, swimming and rock-climbing were his two main hobbies. Then in the seventh grade, his cousin Zoe came to visit him from France and wanted to go to a fencing camp.
“I didn’t have anything to do, so I tried it,” says Cannone, 16, who discovered two things that changed his life.
First, he really enjoyed the sport.
“Fencing is different from most sports, it’s very physical — you’re constantly moving,” says Cannone. “But there’s also a lot of strategy, you’re always trying to figure out your opponent, you need to be smart, that’s why I like it.”
The second was that he was darn good at it.
“My coach at camp said that I was pretty impressive for a beginner,” he claims. “It came naturally to me, I didn’t know many tricks or moves at the time, but I could see things automatically — I was good at predicting what my opponent would do.”
After camp, Cannone took some lessons and his passion for fencing continued to grow. There was no middle school team for him to join, but he won a competition that qualified him to join the French national fencing team.
He started competing in the “age 12 and under” category, then the “age 14 and under” category, and, now in the “age 16 and under” category. When he turns 17, he’ll compete as a “junior” until he’s 19. After that, he’ll reach the highest level of competition, called “Division One.” Most Summer Olympians are plucked from Division One.
There are three types of fencing — foil, épée, and sabre. Cannone participates in épée fencing, which means that the tip of your sword can touch your opponent everywhere from the bottom of his or her foot to the top of his head (not just the chest, as is true with foil and sabre styles).
Today, fencing has become more than just a mere hobby for Cannone, it’s a huge part of his life. He has a serious training schedule that requires a lot of time and energy. He works out five days a week, three or more hours at a time, splitting his time between the Fencing Academy of Westchester and the New York Fencing Academy in Brooklyn.
He practices his footwork during workouts, and stretches to make sure he doesn’t get sore or injured. His coaches place him in various high-pressure situations.
“They’ll say, ‘There’s five seconds left on the clock and you’re up by one. What are you going to do?’ It gets me used to feeling like I’m in a competition,” says Cannone.
Cannone admits that his busy schedule means that he has to make some difficult sacrifices.
“I don’t have a lot of free time and I do lose a little bit of the high school experience,” he says. “I have a lot of friends, but I can’t go to as many parties as other kids because I have to train.”
But his mature focus, discipline, and dedication paid off in a major way just before Thanksgiving, when Cannone traveled to Chalons, France to compete in the most high-stakes competition of his fencing career — a contest commonly dubbed the world cup of fencing.
“It was a big trip, there was a lot of pressure on me to do well,” says the teen, who competed against 171 other teenage fencers from 15 countries, some of whom trained differently than Americans, keeping Cannone on his toes — literally and figuratively.
“Germans are strong, Italians are sneaky, so you have to improvise,” says Cannone, who came in first among the French fencers, and third overall, behind two other Americans.
He even toppled the defending champion, German fencer Broun Rico.
“I was surprised every time I won, I would say that it was a dream come true, but I never dreamed I’d go that far, it was the best feeling,” he says.
Cannone’s father, Arnaud, and his New York Fencing Academy coach, Misha Mokretsov, traveled to the tournament to cheer him on. His mom Cecile, who runs three French pastry shops in Manhattan — all of them named Macaron Café — has also been supportive, as has his brother Joshua, 14, he states.
Given Cannone’s success so far, it’ll be exciting to see what the future holds. Does he dream about competing in the Olympics someday?
“I never really think that far ahead for some reason because I like to live in the moment,” he says. “Thinking about the Olympics puts too much pressure on you, you lose the fun of it — I just want to enjoy what I’m doing now.”
Jane Bianchi was an editor at Seventeen, Family Circle, and Good Housekeeping, and now freelance writes for a variety of publications. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn.