Sara Balzer, Fencer
Interview by Celene Senhouse.
• Tell me about yourself.
I come from Strasbourg and I’m Franco-Algerian. In 1964, my grandfather, a former soldier, repatriated to France following the Algerian War. He brought my mother, who was still a child at the time, with him to Strasbourg where she grew up. I have one elder sister. My parents divorced when I about 3 years old.
• Why did you choose fencing?
At first, my mother didn’t want me to fence because she didn’t want me ‘copying’ my sister. But, the coach (Philippe Nicholas), having discerned my natural talents for the sport, insisted and convinced her to let me continue. Three months later, I won my first competition. It was a revelation for me. I’ve been with the same club, SUC Escrime, since 2003.
• In order to excel in sport, one needs not only physichal qualities but a certain amount of will power, too. Where does yours come from?
It’s thanks to my coach, Maître Philippe. He used to be a soldier, so he pushes me. He has always believed in me without question and is always behind me. Training sessions are difficult but from the beginning, he instilled in me values such as the importance of discipline, self-motivation and surpassing oneself. So, even when I fail or I’m defeated, he encourages me.
• How would you say supports you in your sport?
My mother, 100%. She’s always supported me – without judgement or pressure, she makes a lot of sacrifices for me and for my sport. Fencing was the biggest priority. It came even before school.
• Speaking of education, wasn’t she worried about your academic achievement? And did you ever consider a dual training programme as a backup plan?
The final year of high school was a very difficult year for me because I had begun to experience failure in fencing, and this really affected my mental state at school. I had a hard time managing the two. So yes, my mother was quite worried. But she encouraged me to complete my school year and she advised me on how to gradually do better. Once I got my bac (Baccalaureate), I tried STAPS (diploma: Sciences and Techniques of Physical Activity and Sport) but, I didn’t like it. It was my mother who directed me towards psychology. I’ve been taking a distance course in this area at INSEP (National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance) since 2013.
• Why did you choose psychology and how does it affect your performance in fencing? Does it drive you to aim higher in terms of your sports objectives?
My mother did training as a coach and this interested me. A part from that, as an athlete have mental coaches. You learn about yourself and others. I find it fascinating and it’s a subject that people are unaware of today. I’ve been aiming for the Olympic Games since the beginning. That objective has never changed. My studies help me to stay realistic and focused. They help me to better deal with relationships with others, to manage my emotions in sports-related situations and to listen to myself more (fear, tensions, reactions).
• Do you already have an idea of what you’d like to do following your sports career?
I’d like to become psychologist and work within a business or organisation. There are many possibilities in that domaine.
• In general, do you feel properly accompanied for your dual training programme by INSEP or by the city of Strasbourg? Was this the case when you were in the STAPS programme in university or at your high school before?
It was complicated in high school. The administration and teachers weren’t all very understanding when it came to my competitions and absences from school. INSEP is the solution for me because they offer distance courses. This programme allows me to manage my sports career and my studies more easily.
• In terms of your sport, who accompanies you financially?
Luckily, the FFE (French Fencing Federation) pays for a portion of my studies. I’m really happy about this because you spend a lot for competitions and equipment (new material is imperative). Some years, I receive aid from the region and the city however, this depends heavily on my sports results. A World Cup season is expensive, for example. Without this financial assistance, it would be impossible for me to participate in competitions or to progress professionally in the sport.
For the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio, the State established the ‘Pacte Performance’ programme which had the purpose of putting professional athletes in contact with businesses (for sponsoring or partnerships). But, the initiative was only open to those who had attained the best results in their respective sports. In my group, 4 fencers out of 12 got partnerships. Since I was a replacement during the Games, I couldn’t have acces to these opportunities.
• What do you do outside of your sport? Do you have any passions?
I defend animal rights and the environement. I would also like to join Solida’Rio [an association in Brazil through which athletes accompany children from underprivilaged neighbourhoods by having them discover new experiences (like visits to the sea) and sport, of course.]