“It wasn’t about how much money I had left, it was how much debt I was getting into."
Team GB fencer Marcus Mepstead gambled it all to keep alive his dream of competing at a second Olympic Games in Tokyo, after his UK Sport funding was taken away after Rio 2016.
This story has a happy ending - he did regain the support following a silver medal at the World Championships in July 2019 - but only after enduring a couple of years of struggle where there was a balance to be made between training for the Games, running a personal fitness business, and being able to pay his rent.
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Mepstead moved to New York in 2017 when he settled on an American coach after his previous one had to step away from British Fencing’s performance programme. China was a possible destination, but the now 31-year-old chose a move to NYC instead.
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“At the end of 2016 we were getting ready for a new season but then the performance manager at the time told us our funding was getting cut and that we were no longer a funded sport,” Mepstead told Eurosport.
“We’d gone from our best qualification period and our best run of tournaments running up to the Rio Olympics all the way down... I was pretty disheartened.
“Funding is a privilege, it’s amazing to get it, so you always feel very grateful and lucky but when it was taken away I knew how hard it was going to be.
“I had in my mind that I had until July, August 2017 to secure a move and raise enough money and figure out how I was going to get ready for the next two or three years.
“I decided on America, and I didn’t know how I was going to afford it, I didn’t want it to be a short-term thing, I really wanted to commit for the next three years.
I moved to New York and I thought I’d raised enough money but I hadn’t! It was just so expensive here and with the competitions and everything. I was just struggling, the only thing keeping me afloat was the fencing club here, the Brooklyn Bridge Fencing Club, every time I went into training it was my life jacket.
“It was my secluded area of happiness, I could dive into learning everything with my new coach and put it into practice, really fall in love again with my sport and create that passion.
“Every time I stepped outside it was more about how do I pay my rent, how do I pay for my food? How can I get to competitions?”
Mepstead says the first few years were difficult to get through, admitting he faced a constant mental battle about whether it was all worth it, but he was seeing results working with his new coach and knew the sacrifices were paying off.
“Part of why I’m so proud is that I decided to jump in at the deep end,” he said.
I was able to stay afloat and now I feel like I’m swimming. It wasn’t about how much money I had left, it was how much debt I was getting into.
“Before my World Championships result and getting that funding back from UK Sport, it was costing me a lot of money, I was in debt trying to make it work and trying to balance that out was really difficult, and not get too consumed by those figures.”
Mepstead’s second place finish at the World Championships was enough for his support to return, and allow him to build a proper network around him for the build up to Tokyo.
The sacrifices he made by moving to work with his American coach have paid off and the improvement has been there for all to see. He completed the qualification period in Doha in March, an elongated process because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ranked 14th in the world, he secured a place at the Games - his second after competing in Rio.
“The event in Doha, it didn’t go as well as I’d have liked it to have gone to be honest," he said.
"I didn’t feel competition ready. Technically, I felt really strong and felt physically fit. But when it came to the competition there was maybe one or two things that I’d missed out on over that last year, that I needed to change.
“That’s what my coach and I are looking to do between now and the Olympics, to make that result a lot better.
“There was a lot of processing and a lot of challenges to overcome. My story is to do with sport but everyone else has been through a lot of loss and a lot of challenges over the past year - we’ve all had to, one way or another.
“I’m confident that the Olympics is going to go ahead and I’m hoping that Team GB, myself and the other athletes, can give everyone a little bit of hope and a little bit of comfort that things are slowly going back to normal and there are blue skies ahead.”
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