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Wednesday, April 25 Sports

Epee fencer Dion has Olympic dreams

Sacred Heart University graduate and Fairfield resident Justin Dion has aspirations of representing the United States in the Olympics in his fencing specialty, epee.

After graduating from college with a degree in math in 2012, he settled in town and began instructing at the Fairfield Fencing Academy. Last August, he was invited to train for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was back in town earlier this month from a break in training to help offer expert instruction at the fencing academy's summer camp.

Based purely on his current national ranking, No. 53, his Olympic dream is a long shot. But factor in his defeat of an Olympic bronze medalist last year, along with the strides he's made in several pivotal areas, and his goal is not so far fetched.

"Justin is dedicated to the sport," said Jim Roberts, the academy's director and former Sacred Heart captain and teammate of Dion. "He has the talent to go far."

Roberts has seen a vast growth in fencing by Dion since his freshman year with the Pioneers, going from a Class C fencer to Class A, and emerging onto the national scene.

Dion was all-conference for four years in college, qualifying for the NCAA Championships as a sophomore and junior and just missing as a senior by one placement. He finished 13th as a sophomore in 2010 and earned third-team All-America by placing 11th as a junior the following year.

Dion, 24, a graduate of Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, Mass., near his childhood hometown of North Attleboro, Mass., acknowledges the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo might be a reasonable goal if he cannot qualify for the next Summer Games. Epee fencers, whose discipline is closest to sword-fighting in the sport with the entire body as a target, tend to mature later in their careers, said Dion, Roberts and Tom Vrabel, his coach at Sacred Heart. It's the view of U.S. national team epee coach Benoit Bouysset, too.

"In epee, the lifespan is pretty long," Dion said.

"Of the top 32 in the world, I'd say 80 percent of them are 28 to 32, 34 years old," said Bouysset, who was so impressed with Dion's potential that he extended the offer for him to train at the Olympic center 13 months ago.

Dion took up the sport as a high school freshman after running cross country and playing basketball in middle school. Plus, he was friendly with some of the fencers at Bishop Feehan. Dion might best be classified as a middle-aged fencer, well beyond a newbie, but far shy in experience compared with one of the world's best, 42-year-old Ivan Trevejo, of France.

Dion defeated Jose Luis Abajo, of Spain, 5-0, while going 4-2 in a World Cup event in Italy in January. Abajo, 36, was third in the 2008 Olympic in Beijing, China. That made the fencing world take notice of Dion's potential.

Dion finished eighth in a competition last October and 26th in another, earning enough points on the United States circuit to qualify for European tournaments. His European experiences earlier this year were not what he had hoped, which prevented him from climbing in the national rankings.

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Still, Bouysset has liked how Dion has grown in his relatively brief time in Colorado, where some fencers have trained for close to a decade.

Besides his athleticism and remarkable growth in the sport after taking it up as a high school freshman, Dion has two potent weapons at his disposal that opponents find difficult to overcome. He is 6-feet-4 inches tall, the same height as Abajo, and left-handed. Elite fencers are able to compensate when facing lefties through their experiences in reaching their lofty status, but the reach advantage on the strip is hard to battle.

"Being a lefty is definitely an advantage," he said.

Dion has gained weight -- close to 20 pounds -- and Vrabel said Dion is making adjustments to being a stronger fencer.

Bouysset has noted his gains in strength and better footwork but his most compelling assessment of Dion is that he is now in the adjustment phase after having become quicker. "He's faster to the target and he's closer (to the opponent)," Bouysset said. "He's learning how to defend against that."

Dion is developing new strategies following his improvements in strength, footwork and speed, Bouysset said. In a sense, Dion is learning how to fence with his revamped physical tools and skills.

Bouysset said Dion had learned epee before he had become as fast, nimble and strong as he is now -- kind of like how a basketball player would approach the changes to his game that would need to be made if one day he woke up six inches taller.

Dion is aiming for the 2016 Games in Brazil, but realizes he might be in a better place when he challenges to make the Tokyo Olympics. Bouysset said he'd have no problem at all in selecting Dion to the team within the next 18 months -- the qualifying trail begins in March -- if he earns it, yet he says Dion making it to the 2020 Games is a more likely possibility.

"Time will tell," Vrabel said. "He has the athletic ability and desire. He needs more consistency and confidence. He is transitioning his game to be more efficient at the elite level."

Dion's got game, but this version of his game is still new to him. He needs time to grow comfortable with it.

Dion made big jumps once before, rising from C to B to A from just before the end of his high school career to the summer between freshman and sophomore years at Sacred Heart.

"I have to be flexible in my game and be able to adapt to the players I'm facing," Dion said from Colorado last week. "The biggest hurdle is that everyone fences differently, so there can be a lot of right answers. It's figuring out a fencer's strengths and weaknesses and taking advantage of what's given to you on the strip."

rwalmark@bcnnew.com; 203-337-4879; twitter.com/ReidWalmark