Dynamo fencer inspired by historic swordsman

By Don Fennell

Published 2:11 PDT, Wed October 23, 2019

Last Updated: 2:13 PDT, Wed May 12, 2021

Recounting the adventures of a young nobleman named d’Artagnan who leaves home to travel to Paris and join the Musketeers of the Guard, The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires en Francais) continues to inspire; centuries after the historic adventure novel was written in 1844 by French author Alexandre Dumas.

Howard Zhao is among those greatly influenced by the story.

Like the hero of the Musketeers, Zhao is a focused 18-year-old with the Richmond-based Dynamo Fencing Club. But unlike the young swordsman D’Artagnan, he’s neither impulsive or hotheaded.

“He is coachable, which may be (his) most important trait,” says Igor Gantsevich, president of the club and, as a national champion and Pan American Games medallist, one of its notable graduates.

“I started fencing in Kindergarten, so this is the 11th year of my fencing career,” says Zhao.

“I first learned about this sport when I watched the movie, where the combat scenes fascinated me and I began dreaming of being a bold and flamboyant swordsman.”

Initially, fencing was purely a leisure activity for Zhao. But after he actually won a competition, both his interest and dedication began to soar.

He continues to participate in a wide range of activities such as volleyball, playing the drums, debating and demonstrating his math skills, but it’s clear fencing is a priority. Zhao has enjoyed much success, but placing first in the junior men’s épée at the USA Fencing National Championships in July, 2018 remains his most satisfying result. In a remarkable comeback, he overcame an 11-7 deficit in the last 15 seconds in the final bout to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

“The tears and excitement in winning were unforgettable,” he says.

Reflecting on his achievements, Zhao feels fortunate but also deserving.

“I’ve trained consistently to overcome the obstacles I’ve had to face,” he says. “I have always been very determined and committed to the actions to achieve my goals, and the results proved to be me that my efforts to persevere were not in vain. When I’m in a match, I feel relaxed and confident as I devote everything I have.”

Zhao enjoys building relationships within the fencing fraternity, and appreciates the sense of family and co-operation with his coaches and teammates at Dynamo “where everyone looks out and cares for each other.”

In his quest to compete in the 2024 Olympic Summer Games (ironically in Paris), and be among the world’s most elite, Zhao plans to up his physical training to gain speed and strength.

Each step of the way, he looks to coach Gantsevich for guidance.

“He’s proven to me that all of my goals can be achieved through strong determination and hard work. His character and grit have also inspired me to not give up when facing difficult situations.”

The coach is equally complimentary of his protege.

Asked of Zhao’s greatest strengths, Gantsevich immediately points to his natural cat-like reflexes.

“He moves so smoothly, that even though I think I am a good coach, that comes from him,” Gantsevich says. “I can’t tell you how many times he has been in a match and has come back to win. I will never forget his match for gold at the USA nationals. He never gave up.”

Gantsevich has little doubt Zhao can not only become an Olympian, but a world champion.

His biggest hurdle the past three years has been getting his Canadian citizenship papers in order. He has already qualified for three world championships, but hasn’t been able to represent Canada because he doesn’t yet hold a Canadian passport.

“I love him like my own little brother,” Gantsevich says. “He is not only a world-class fencer, but a world-class student. He has been the poster boy for our club. I have never met a single person who doesn’t like him.”

Zhao may not be the last member of his immediate family to excel in fencing. A younger brother has also taken up the sport, with an aim to one day beat Howard. But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

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