23 Mar NEVER FOILED
Jamie Douraghy came to fencing late in life as a refuge from the pressures and regimentation of British boarding school.
He’s now a three-time national champion.
In the world of fencing, competitors must keep a level head while having swords thrust in their face at 90 miles per hour. Their brains must remain focused, despite the fear and intimidation of an elegant but inherently violent sport. The chance for serious injury is very real. Yet some combatants return to compete for decades after most athletes have long since retired. What keeps them coming back?
Ask Jamie Douraghy, a three-time USA Veteran National Fencing Champion and a six-time member of the US National Team at the Veteran World Fencing Championships. He’s been competing at the top level for over 40 years. Jamie began fencing in an English boarding school, an experience he describes as being like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
“It was a challenge not being British,” says Douraghy, who is of American and Iranian parentage. “Boarding schools are filled with aggressive young men who got sent away to get some discipline and I was one of them.”
Needless to say, the regimentation of British boarding schools and Douraghy wild spirit weren’t a perfect fit. “You have to cut your hair. You have to wear a uniform. You have to wear a uniform. You have to go to religious services several times a week.” Additionally, the school required sports from all pupils. This is where Douraghy found his release. “The discipline of sport helped me escape the drudgery.”
Douraghy compares some sports to scenes from Braveheart. “It was very physical and rough. Let’s just say the objective wasn’t always to strike the ball.” Not a fan of cold, muddy British fields, he opted to take up fencing, in part because at least it was indoors.
“I didn’t start fencing until I was 17, which is quite late to the sport.”
At 17, Douraghy was already a bit of a senior citizen among fencing novices. However, he had a few natural advantages. “I have a smaller frame, I’m left handed and I’m fast. Without a lot of real coaching, I was having success at the beginner level.” While he enjoyed both the mental and physical challenge of the sport, he concedes that it wasn’t until his 30s that the mental part of fencing really started to click in his mind. “I wasn’t focused on strategy and mindset,” he says, “I just liked the exercise.”
Still, even early on the mental challenges were there. Douraghy points out that beginners in any sport must get accustomed to losing. “My biggest challenge early on was thinking I wasn’t good enough,” he says. He had to learn that losses represented an opportunity to learn, not a failure. “Sure, you lose, but every new day is a new opportunity.” A thirst for new dragons to slay inspired Douraghy to keep pursuing tougher and more difficult opponents each time he bested the last crop.
“You can’t fence with your body. You have to fence with your mind.”
Fencing happens faster than the human eye can see. Fencers must learn to feel what their opponent is about to do. If a fencer waits to see what they’re opponent is doing they’re already too late. This makes fencing a sport where the mental aspect is even more important than the physical.
While Douraghy had fast reflexes and fast feet, he learned that these alone weren’t enough to make a champion. “I could have been 6’5”, had a great reach and it wouldn’t have mattered, because I still would have been losing to people who were smarter than me.” Fencing is, after all, a competition without any weight or height restrictions. Athletes of all sizes compete together, separated only by age and choice of blade.
“In a sport like fencing, no one cares how your day went.”
“All that matters in fencing is the moment,” says Douraghy. “Your opponent has one goal: To hit you with the tip of their weapon. If you’re thinking about anything else, you’re going to get hit.” Douraghy has put this ethos to work in the rest of his life. “To me, being on the main stage in a gold medal match requires the same mindset as giving a presentation. The moment matters.” Douraghy says he’s learned three main lessons from fencing: “Preparation, presence and performance.”
“Fencing gave me the mindset to be able to perform in life.”
Douraghy says that fencing is about discipline. The continuous repetition of the same motions, was something that he used to find boring. “Once I saw the beauty in practice, I realized the importance of focus.” While repetition of moves is a constant, the actual moves themselves are always changing. Fencing is always evolving and what is the top tactic one year is outdated the next when a counter move is developed. However, the fundamentals are always there, how they are applied is in continuous flux.
“While motivation can wane, determination doesn’t leave you.”
“Being unbreakable means having internal determination,” says Douraghy. “People say ‘never quit,’ but that doesn’t just mean during the game. It means everywhere in life.” This sense of determination is what keeps him coming back to fencing, even after injuries and setbacks. “There’s always one more mountain to climb, one more person to beat. And that ‘one more person’ might just be yourself.” This incremental pursuit of perfection isn’t just what makes him feel unbreakable — it’s what makes him feel alive.
Motivation, explains Douraghy is, at least for him, an external phenomenon. Discipline, says Douraghy, is the bridge between motivation and discipline. “What I learned from my mentor is that discipline doesn’t care, it simply does. When I don’t feel like doing the work, I have to stop caring and just do it.” Douraghy believes this can start a positive feedback loop. “The more you do it, the more you feel it and the more you feel it, the more your believe it and the cycle continues.” This ultimately leads to an unbreakable mindset and spirit that feeds our determination to overcome very real challenges in life when we need it the most.
“Motivation gets you to the starting line, determination gets you across the finish line.”
Douraghy believes an unbreakable spirit can be cultivated like any other muscle in the body. “The more confidence you gain, the more you spirit asks your body to step up to the next level.” He recalls a time where he was down 12-4 (fencing matches go to 15) and came back to win 15-13. The event itself was unimportant — just a local tournament. However, Douraghy simply put himself into the mindset where he wasn’t going to lose. “Mindset isn’t just about the day of the event — it has to be there all the time.”
An unbreakable mindset, fueled by determination, can win tournaments according to Douraghy. In a recent preliminary, he was up 4-2 in a contest going to five touches. He thought he had it sewn up, but lost his focus, allowing his opponent to tie the match. The match went into overtime, meaning that a time limit is set and in the event of a tie, the winner of an earlier coin toss wins the match. Douraghy lost the coin toss, meaning that to qualify he had to get that touch. With six seconds left, he did it, which set the tone for the rest of the day’s tournament. He won all subsequent bouts decisively. “I blurred out everything else mentally. The only thing that mattered was getting that next touch.”
Douraghy recently competed in a tournament where he won the gold. He credits his mindset with getting him through that. “It was all about that next touch, whether I was ahead or behind. I had to be determined to get the next touch, Nothing else mattered.” Coming off an injury, Douraghy made a conscious decision to fence with his mindset above all else. He credits this with winning the final against an opponent he had faced before but never bested. It was here that he drew a deeper understanding of the nature of motivation and determination.
“Determination is more about calmness and motivation is more about explosiveness.” Which is more important? “You need both,” he says, and in the end, determination is what makes a champion. “Motivation gets you through the first couple of rounds in a long day, determination is what places you on the podium.” Determination is what makes Jamie Douraghy unbreakable.
Douraghy brings his unbreakable spirit with him everywhere in life. He’s run his own companies for the last 20 years, often times against larger, better funded competitors. But what really matters to him is using that spirit to help others. “What shows up at the tournaments and onstage is fleeting,” he says. “What matters is what you do when no one is watching.”