Blake DeGroot remembers early in his fencing career when Darren Marks told him he had a potential future as a member of the national team.
Turns out the Stratford Fencing Club head coach was right.
“I always thought, ‘Yeah, it’ll happen,’ but when it happened, I realized I’m better than I actually thought I was,” DeGroot said.
The 16-year-old from Stratford recently qualified for Team Canada’s contingent that will travel to Lima, Peru, next month for the Pan-American Championships.
DeGroot was one of four teenagers selected for Cadet men’s foil.
“I always want to get better at everything I do,” he said, “so I just got better and it happened.”
Marks said it was DeGroot’s psychological development that allowed him to grow into a national-calibre fencer. The technical and tactical elements were already in place, but being able to perform on a particular day requires mental resiliency, he added.
“Blake is a pretty gifted athlete and naturally athletic, but because fencing is an individual sport, you stand by yourself,” Marks continued. “There are no teammates to hide behind – there’s nobody to rely on – so his psychological development and dealing with stress has been remarkable.”
The last two years have been difficult for the St. Mike’s student, who missed out on multiple high-level events because of the pandemic. Ontario had some of the strictest COVID-19 measures in the country, while American fencers, by comparison, missed two months, Marks said.
“His training was substantially compromised,” Marks added. “The simple fact is being competition-ready is a process.”
Instead of six to eight qualification tournaments, DeGroot had to perform at his best in three while also dealing with daily COVID-19 tests at events that could have derailed his dream at any time.
One of those competitions was a North America Cup in which DeGroot had three weeks of in-salle training after a lockdown. He also placed third at nationals, losing to the event’s most dominant competitor.
“It’s quite remarkable,” Marks said.
DeGroot has dedicated himself to the sport, which he took up in September 2016 when he was in Grade 6.
“It’s different,” he said. “It’s intelligent. You have to have a plan. It’s like physical chess.”
He’ll have to make the right moves next month in order to achieve his goal of a top-16 finish and perhaps advance to the worlds in Dubai in April.
“Just be really disciplined and don’t think about it too hard,” he said. “Let it happen. The more I think, the more I make mistakes.”