Pipe Dream spoke with Courtney Hurley, a three-time Olympian fencer and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist. Hurley was also a two-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pipe Dream: Tell me about yourself.
Courtney Hurley: “I’m from Texas. I was born in Houston, grew up in the Hill country and made my way to San Antonio. My parents were fencers, that’s how they met and [how] my sister and I both became fencers. We did a lot of sports when we were younger but eventually realized we had a talent for fencing. We were traveling all through high school and got full scholarships to [The University of] Notre Dame. My sister is a four-time Olympian and I’m a three-time Olympian. We won the bronze medal in the London [2012 Summer] Olympics [and] we both won NCAA Championships, and currently my sister is in [medical] school and I am pursuing fencing again.”
PD: When did you know you wanted to be a professional fencer?
CH: “It kind of just surprised us. We really didn’t think about anything until my sister nearly missed qualifying for the Athens Olympics in 2004. And at that time I was 13. When that happened we were like, ‘Woah, we can actually do something.’ Like, it was an accident. We didn’t even plan for it but she did really well in a couple international tournaments and, yeah, that’s kind of when it took off. We were like, ‘Wow, we can actually do something in this sport.’”
PD: What was it like having your sister alongside you throughout this whole journey? How did that impact you?
CH: “Well, when we were younger it was pretty competitive because I’m the younger sister by two and a half years and, when I got old enough to finally be able to beat her, we were butting heads. But we both went to [The University of] Notre Dame together and we were on the same team. That’s when we put our differences aside and were on the same team. We were a little more mature, so having her, from then on on the same team, we’ve lived together ever since and we really have each other’s backs. Without that, I don’t know if we could have made it as far as we have. In fencing, it’s such a competitive individual sport and to have somebody in your corner 100 percent is really a valuable asset to have.”
PD: Pulling away from fencing, you’ve traveled a lot. How has that impacted you as a person and as a fencer?
CH: “Back in the day, there was a lot more competitions. Now there’s less but there’s still a lot of traveling. Back then we were literally just training in Europe and we’d have a base in Budapest and we’d go to different World Cups in Europe for the weekend and come back to Budapest to train. It really opens up your eyes to different types of people, different cultures [and] seeing different parts of the world. You can’t get that any other way than seeing how other people live, other ways of life. It opens up your eyes and you can really empathize more and understand more of just different ways of life. We traveled so much. It’s not really for vacation. Fencing is more of a business, but we’ve definitely seen all of Budapest. We go to Barcelona every year. Rio de Janeiro we’ve been to many times. It’s just really cool to go to these cities and see different cultures and different people.”
PD: Do you have a favorite bout?
CH: “Yeah, it’s definitely from when I won a bronze medal at the Olympics for sure. It’s also a cool one because it’s on YouTube and you can watch it. Prior to London there weren’t too many recordings of fencing. There wasn’t the technology so there weren’t many ways to watch my international bouts online. Just the way I won too was very inspiring and beating the Russians was really inspiring. The situation is called a ‘priority’ but it’s like a sudden-death situation where one touch wins the bout so it was really high-risk. It was a really entertaining bout.”
PD: What did winning that first bronze medal mean to you? How’d it make you feel?
CH: “We made history. Fencing has three different types — epee, foil and saber. I do epee, and women’s epee has never won a medal at the Olympics. That was the first and last time a woman epee has won a medal. We just felt so cool, so honored to be a part of history.”
PD: What do you hope to get across to students with your talk?
CH: “[My talk is] about the Olympics but kind of from a different perspective. It’s about how the [COVID-19] pandemic played out at the Olympics and how it was such a unique experience for everybody. The pandemic in general but also dealing with the Olympics in the middle of it. The Olympics is kind of seen as this amazing thing but I’ll try to dive in a little more into my critiques and the different perspectives of the Olympics. It’s not just cakes and rainbows. There can be a lot of problems from within the Olympics and how that’s changed from my young age in London where I was just young and happy to me now thinking more critically about the Olympics and how it’s played a part in my life.”
PD: Lastly, what are your plans for the future going forward?
CH: “As far as fencing, I’m still training a little bit. I took a long time off since Tokyo. I just started fencing [again] like a month ago. Part of the talk is about me trying to find happiness in my day-to-day with fencing and not really worry so much about the Olympics and the future. I’m helping with coaching a little and I started a fencing business, so I’m just seeing where that takes off. Yeah, just taking it day by day and trying to be happy and fulfilled in my day-to-day life.”