Ben Bratton is a world champion Épée fencer. He started fencing at age 10 with the Peter Westbrook Foundation and was a #1 ranked junior. At St. John’s University, he was a 3 time All American and won two individual silver medals and one silver team medal in the NCAA Fencing Championships. Ben and the US Men’s Épée Team made history in 2012 when they won Gold at the World Team Championships, a first for any USA Men’s Fencing Team and he became the first African-American fencer to win a World Championship title. In this episode he talks about channeling his energy and passion into the sport, what it’s like to be on the strip with him, and why he’s excited to give back to the next generation of fencers as a coach at NYU and the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia.
Ben Bratton [00:00:01] Over time, I kind of realized, like what I was doing was was actually special and that I was doing it because it was bringing me, you know, pure joy. And, you know, I didn’t really need the approval of others to justify what I was doing. And once I kind of found that, I found a lot more comfort and peace, and in my own space, that voice in my head really quieted down.
Justin (Host) [00:00:27] This is (Un)Common Threads, a TinnCann podcast featuring extraordinary people in open discussions about their defining moments from failure and heartbreak to triumph and fulfillment, (Un)CommonThreads is a weekly examination of the experiences that distinguish individuals of remarkable achievement. I’m Justin Paul Villanueva. And on today’s episode, I talked to Ben Bratton, a world champion fencer. Ben started fencing at age 10 with the Peter Westbrook Foundation and was a number one ranked junior. At St. John’s University, he was a three time all-American and won two individual silver medals and one silver team medal in the NCAA fencing championships. Ben and the U.S. men’s Epee team made history in 2012 when they won gold at the World Team Championships, a first for any USA men’s fencing team, and he became the first African-American fencer to win a World Championship title. With all of these accomplishments under his belt, he’s passionate about developing the next generation of fencers as a coach at NYU and the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia. So, yeah, how’s it feel to hear that all that?
Ben Bratton [00:01:43] Man that’s a crazy intro. Thank you for all that, I’, like just sitting here listening to it and totally humbled, like crazy career. But yeah, thanks for having me. I’m excited to chat with you guys.
Justin (Host) [00:01:56] Yeah, for sure. I mean, you’ve had quite the trajectory. I mean, one thing that we knew that we wanted to start with was kind of getting into this idea of how there actually are three types of fencing, because in that description, I described the U.S. men’s Epee team. Not many people know that there’s actually three types. So can you just take us through those and actually how you chose your specialty?
Ben Bratton [00:02:21] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so it’s like basically fencing 101, right? For anyone that’s not familiar with the sport, it’s a common question, so I’m totally used to answering it right? Like there’s three weapons, three distinct weapons in fencing. They’re separated by how their points are awarded and the tactics that you use in scoring them. The first one I’ll discuss is Foil. Usually, this is like an introductory weapon that people take up. It’s target area for foil is the torso. So basically everything up front and from the waist up, excluding the arms counts, and you have to score using essentially a rule called the right of way, which means you have to be attacking in order to score points. The second is saber. Saber’s kind of derived from cavalry weapons that you would see and it probably is the most associated with what people think of when they hear about sword fighting like lots of slashing. It’s got like the rounded guard that kind of looks like a like a rapier from, you know, the three musketeers. And for that weapon, it includes that right of way ruleset, right, where you have to be the aggressor in order to score. Also from the target areas, the waist up, but it includes the arms and the head. And, you know, it’s a very fast paced weapon. My weapon, which I specialize in, is called Epee. It’s kind of a funny name, but Epee is what I do, and Epee fencing is totally open. There’s really no rules. There’s no constraints to where you can score, how you can score. It opens itself up to like a ton of creativity. It’s a it’s kind of a fun weapon just because you can sort of leave your own imprint on and like personal imprint on the sport. I mean, I was really I kind of gravitated to it because I didn’t like the confines of the of the other of the other weapons. I found it in the other two, a lot of the touches are decided by a judge that’s watching on the outside and determining what’s happening and like reading the outcome of what they’re perceiving. But I just like that I could be accountable for myself. And you know, what I was doing really was in the environment around me, wasn’t really playing into like how I was scoring touches. And so it really kind of struck me. I started fencing foil when I was 10 and kind of recognized some of those traits that would lead someone towards that end. You know, like, I’m a tall guy. I was a little and, you know, I just wasn’t really into into the right of way stuff and, you know, the specific target areas. And then that’s how I kind of found it. It just kind of took off from there.
Justin (Host) [00:05:08] Yeah. And even going back to that age of 10, I watched a couple of your fights. And I mean, your footwork is phenomenal. At the Peter Westbrook Foundation they kind of quickly noticed that your footwork was way ahead of some of your your peers. Actually, how did you even get to the Peter Westbrook Foundation?
Ben Bratton [00:05:28] So finding the Peter Westbrook Foundation, was like this act of like cosmic serendipity, you know, like my mother, she was working in advertising at the New York Times at the time. I was probably five years old, and she met Peter Westbrook, who who was just starting PWF. So it was like in its infancy. I was like, I said, I was like, just a little guy, like really like four or five. But my mother was so enraptured by Peter and his story and this idea that he wanted to give back to like the next generation. This kind of struck her, and she never forgot that, she never forgot her experience in meeting this guy. And he kind of told her like, you know, when I was old enough, at the time it was like 10 years old, kids start much younger now, but he said, when your son is 10, bring him to the program and we could teach him how to fence. And so from probably from like five to that to 10, my mother always kind of like reminded me that, you know, when I was 10 years old, you’re going to you’re going to be a fencer or you’re going to you’re going to go and at least try this out. I didn’t even know what fencing was, right, like, I’m this kid from from Queens, and like I thought I was just like, is she talking about like fences around the house? Like, I do not understand what she means by fencing. It was just always something that was like kind of present. So fencing has always been a part of my life, even since I was, like, really, really young. And when I was 10, she she brought me down to the program. Peter remembered my mom. He was excited to meet me, and it all kind of fell into place like that immediately. Like, Well, I won’t say immediately. It took a little bit of a learning curve to kind of get going with the sport. But it was it was fun and knew from the beginning. And yeah, that’s how I came. That’s how I found the Peter Westbrook Foundation.
Justin (Host) [00:07:21] Even though she was telling you at the age of 10, like, Yeah, you’re going to get in the fencing. Were there other sports that you were also playing at that time as well?
Ben Bratton [00:07:28] Yeah, I was. I was a pretty active kid and my family tried to keep me and sports really to kind of keep me out of trouble and to kind of steer away from some of the stuff, some of that like negativity that you can kind of get trapped by living in and like, you know, New York City. So I think, you know, I played baseball for a little bit. I played basketball like I had crazy hoop dreams. I thought I was going to go to the NBA for awhile, I like, I really like loved all the stuff. I did gymnastics for a little while, I was like the tallest kid in the gymnastics class, but I think all that stuff really helped to prepare me for for like this, the experience of fencing, of specializing in fencing, taking it seriously and like pursuing the level that I ultimately got to, you know, so. So it was all one story, right, that all kind of culminated in, you know, in a in a crazy journey.
Justin (Host) [00:08:22] Yeah, yeah. And then that kind of brings me back to the footwork just because when I was reading about it, it seemed like you just had this natural ability for it. But it was like, Wait, I mean, I had known that you had done drills in your basement or something, but I was always curious as to if there were other sports that helped facilitate those skills and hearing about gymnastics or basketball or even basketball where you’re like defensive stance, you’re on those toes similar to how you are in fencing.
Ben Bratton [00:08:52] Yeah, exactly. I was always moving and like, you know, just like that, body awareness was kind of conditioned from an early age, but it was just, it’s not, it sounds, I’m making it sound like more serious than it was, like I was really just a kid having fun and like participating in lots of sports and learning different things. And then when I found my niche, it all kind of kind of integrated and worked together was pretty cool.
Justin (Host) [00:09:15] So then it’s always weird there’s always this push and pull, especially when you tell people that you want to pursue a sport as your career throughout your life, because the normal person, whatever you want to refer to them as is is going to high school and they’re just, you know, getting the grades and then doing all their courses and that kind of stuff. How did you find that balance to to be able to, yeah, get through that.
Ben Bratton [00:09:40] Yeah. I mean, what you’re describing is are like normal feelings like especially when you’re doing something that’s unique in recollection, like when I was when I was really kind of starting to take my fencing seriously, probably like around like 17 or 18, I was so locked in that I almost couldn’t like, you couldn’t tell me that what I was doing was strange or weird. Like, Yeah, I really was just about that, about the lifestyle. And like, I liked it. And that’s all I knew. I wasn’t thinking about anything itself except for just just fencing. But I think, you know, to a certain extent, I’m still that way, like fencing, it’s like, it’s just the ultimate passion, right? Like, for me, nothing. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning, but as I got older and after I graduated, after I graduated from college for sure, and people started to go down a different path, I started realizing like how like, unique what I was doing was. And for me, I became insecure. I wasn’t like getting getting the job and settling down the same way I saw some of my friends were and like, there was always this, there was this kind of pull or secret desire that to to to be normal right? And you kind of had to to battle that a little bit and it became a bit of an obstacle. But then over time, I kind of realized that like what I was doing was was actually special and that I was doing it because it was bringing me, you know, pure joy. And, you know, I didn’t really need the approval of others to to justify what I was doing. And once I kind of found that I found a lot, a lot more comfort in peace and in my own space, that voice in my head really quieted down.
Justin (Host) [00:11:34] Yeah. As you were saying, that’s got to be a tough hurdle to get over. And so, yeah, you’re this African-American kid who is coming up in Queens who’s telling people that he wants to get into fencing, which is from the public perception, fencing is typically like a, I don’t know, Great Gatsby type sport, you know what I mean? Yeah. So yeah, I mean, was there ever any points where you would walk into the gym or to these competitions where like, Oh man, like, what’s your mindset?
Ben Bratton [00:12:02] All sort of the period of time you’re describing I’m like basically like a teenager or pre-teen? So you combine it with all this teenage angst, the idea of being one of the few, if only black faces in these rooms. It can be really challenging. Right. So trying to kind of, I’m balancing, you know, the culture shock of of of being isolated this way with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and like, you know, different different levels of access to great things. It’s crazy hard, right? How do you deal? I tried to channel it through through my through my fencing, to be perfectly honest. And what better way to do it than through a combat sport to like, kind of get off some of the some of that aggression or or like legitimate like anger that you might feel, right? And so, you know, like, I fenced really hard. There was a part of me that always wanted to prove that, you know, at least on the strip, I’m equal or better, regardless of whether where you come from, like you can’t, you can’t buy a victory on a fencing strip. And so, you know, I worked really hard and I I was able to kind of channel it that way. And that was really I think that was the most positive way to to handle those feelings, if that makes sense. Yeah.
Justin (Host) [00:13:30] Yeah, I absolutely love that just because it’s so easy to compare yourself. But then there comes a point where you just need to let your work speak for itself. And you had mentioned this idea of aggression, which kind of brings me to this point of your unique trait. And I wanted to talk about. Which do you want to let our audience know? Kind of know what it’s like to be in the ring with you? Or if I don’t even know if that’s the correct term?
Ben Bratton [00:13:56] Yeah, it’s all good, when you’re on the strip with me, I am a I get very excited, to put it mildly. So I celebrate a lot after after my touches. Fencers do this, if you watch Olympic fencing, world class fencing, typically they’re yelling a lot. I am very demonstrative and I celebrate a lot. My energy and my passion comes out when I’m there. When you meet me or talk to me, I’m a pretty soft-spoken guy and kind of chill. I’m the exact opposite on a fencing strip. I’m moving like crazy. And they get and I and I get loud. That’s the experience.
Justin (Host) [00:14:34] Was there anywhere that you picked that up from or that it just kind of happened naturally as you developed your own skills?
Ben Bratton [00:14:42] It kind of happened naturally. I saw a lot of like a lot ofthe guys that I looked up to were actually weren’t Epee fencers. So the Peter Westbrook Foundation was full of a lot of a lot of black saber fencers. And so those were the guys that I kind of looked at and emulated. And Saber at the time had been always the one, the discipline where they yelled. And Epee guys were traditionally a little bit more more reserved, right? But I I try to, you know, I’m picking like little little advantages that I’m seeing in the other weapons and stuff as well. They were loud, so I was doing it too. And over time it became an advantage to me just because it kind of helped get me oriented and in the correct mindset. Like lots of times, people hear the yelling, they see it. They think it’s aggression that’s directed towards them. Like, my opponents might feel like a little bit resentful, but to be perfectly honest, I really do it for me, it’s like to get myself pumped up and and and in the bout, and I can’t really do it another way, you know? And so it’s just that’s my pure expression and how it comes out when I’m when I’m fencing.
Justin (Host) [00:15:54] For our listeners, if you want to just Google Ben Bratton fencing, there’s one in particular, I think it’s at the beginning of 2020 and you beat your opponent and off camera. It’s just focused on your opponent, waist up and you just hear this loud or like epic little raucous yell of victory. And it’s the cameras just on your opponent who just throws his arms up, rolls his eyes and just puts his puts his elbows together into defeat. Yeah, and it’s great. But just to be clear, too, as you were saying this kind of yelling, it’s it’s not you losing control. If anything, it’s almost another way to kind of center yourself as well, too. And as you said, like pump yourself up once again.
Ben Bratton [00:16:43] Yeah, it brings everything back and like, and fencing is such a intense sport as well. I mean, you’re alone, right? When you’re fencing, it’s a totally individual sport, so like you and you’re taking risks and rewards. And then as you get better, the stakes get higher and higher and higher. When you’re fencing for like World Championship medals, Olympic teams, all that stuff. And so like, I mean, if you’re not yelling, then I don’t know. It’s like, I don’t know if you’re even into it, right? It’s like the craziest ride. So that’s where it all comes from.
Justin (Host) [00:17:16] And you had mentioned doing it alone, but you’ve also done team events as well. For some of our listeners who might not be familiar, like what is what is it like doing team versus individual events?
Ben Bratton [00:17:28] Team fencing’s a little bit different than individual fencing. Essentially in an individual bout, it’s you and your opponent, and you fence to any given score. In a team setting, fencers take turns. There’s generally three. There’s three fencers on each team and as a team goes head to head events to accumulate a cumulative score of 45, each fencer basically fences to five, right, and you fence each person on their team. But team fencing is cool because fencing just traditionally is an individual game. When you add this team component and you’re fencing like this large bout together, it lends itself to some interesting strategies that I find fun. Like my, my mind’s always kind of going to strategy, and I find that really interesting. And then the the biggest component is when you take essentially three guys that are at a very high level at doing something that is an individual sport, and you force them to try to learn how to work together, right? And so that has all of these wrinkles that that can kind of come up. And it’s when you have a successful team in fencing, it’s it takes quite a lot to kind of get to that. So it’s fun.
Justin (Host) [00:18:49] So when there’s there’s three people just to paint a picture for our listeners, there’s three people on each side and then, yeah, is it the same two that are going at each other like you’re stuck with the same person or are you alternating with the person on each side?
Ben Bratton [00:19:03] You’re alternating. So one bout happens at a time. Right? The other two guys on a team are would be, you know, on the sidelines offering advice or cheering, and then they basically just take turns. So you’re having an individual bout, but it’s going the points scored or going towards an overall, yeah, team score.
Justin (Host) [00:19:22] Right? So then does that give you kind of a chance to analyze each individual on the other side and like, Hey, you’re going against this guy? He did this move last time. Something kind of similar.
Ben Bratton [00:19:34] Yeah, you’re watching the bouts play out and then trying to like learn how to maybe manipulate the gaps or holes that you see in your teammate’s opponent because you know, you’re ultimately going to have to fence them. These bouts are all happening, everyone seeing them and then it’s kind of like may the best team win. But the the part that is, like, really interesting. It’s like it’s the you want to help your teammates improve as well. But these are the guys that are on your team or people that you also compete with. So like, there’s this balancing act that happens and it takes like a lot of humility for a good team to be effective because it means that you are willing to be open with someone that you kind of view as a competitor. Not kind of, that you do view as a competitor and like, what does it take mentally to to get to that point? For me, I think it’s like, it’s like this ultimate confidence, right? Like, you’re so confident in your own game that you know that it means nothing to share, like it means nothing to improve like your your your teammates slash opponents game like you’re ultimately like, you just feel like comfortable in that.
Justin (Host) [00:20:44] Yeah, yeah. And so you’ve spoken a lot about kind of your mentality and your strategy in the sport. So I wanted to talk about kind of mental fitness. It’s something you’ve said you’ve gained from fencing, but you use in all aspects of your life. I mean, it’s such a nice term, but how does how have you really cultivated that.
Ben Bratton [00:21:06] Overall in fencing the strategy? Well, at least in Epee fencing, patience, you have to take your time, have a strategy before you execute. You don’t just run into situations. And so like, it’s it’s really impossible once you kind of learn the skill sets that are effective at winning fencing bouts to not try to institute them in your everyday life. So, you know, it’s like we always used to say failing to plan is planning to fail. And like, you have to prep for your bouts, you have to. And the preparation for your for your bouts and for these competition starts weeks, months in advance. Right, and you’re fulfilling like a plan that’s going off on this along this huge timeline to ultimately get to like the top of a podium and to do that like that just applies and has parallels in so many different functional areas of life. So it I’m like applying for a job right, I map out the plan or try to figure out how to do it if I’m just planning on my day, like, how am I going to like, how am I going to get my kids fed? What’s the order of operations for all of this stuff, right? How do you stay organized and so that it’s it’s all there, you know?
Justin (Host) [00:22:26] Was there any pinnacle moment when you realized that you really had to start doing that?
Ben Bratton [00:22:30] I’ve always got this like critical eye, right? So any failure like stands out like even like even the touches that are scored against you in the moment, right? Like, that’s how you assess, assess it. That’s how you win the bouts. It’s like if someone hits you, you, you have to think, why and how did that occur? Was it me? Was it him? Did he trick me? Did I make a mistake? Right? And then you have to be honest, and it takes a moment of introspection where you have to be honest with yourself, and not everyone can do that. If you lie to yourself, then because you’re too proud to admit how you failed, right? Then you cannot win the bout, right? You have to say, like, I blew it on that, I got dropped my hand. Or, I was actually scared to to make an attack on that, on that one action. So that’s why I lost. You kind of like develop like this, the scar tissue, you know, they just kind of builds up on top of itself over time and it hardens you and you and you get better by being introspective and being real with yourself. And so, in life, you can do that, right? You can say like, I didn’t get a callback for that job. Sometimes people would say, like, you know, you can make up any sort of excuse for something like that, right? But what did you do wrong? Like, can you look inside yourself and honestly tell yourself like why? Why it didn’t work out, right? Why didn’t my relationship work out? Like, what did I do wrong? I could just go on and on like, there’s it really covers, like, this huge thing. But fencing is there’s no stakes really to fencing, it’s just a game, right? So you can learn a lot about yourself, you know?
Justin (Host) [00:24:07] Yeah, I mean, that quick introspection is such a good tool to have because once again, to our listeners, like as you YouTube, these these videos, it’s such a quick jab here and there. There were times when I was like, wait, who hit who there and how did that happen? But you’re doing it within a matter of seconds with that introspection of how did I feel like, what could I have done better in the next one? And how do I compensate for that? Wow.
Ben Bratton [00:24:34] Yeah, it happens in a split second. It’s super fast and you have to make those calculations immediately, right? So like if you could do that in fencing and be successful, then I think that, you know, when you get to life right, like the real world and you have time to reflect and you have time to make those decisions, you can you can apply it and that that successful will will resonate in other aspects of your life as well.
Justin (Host) [00:24:58] Yeah, yeah. And that actually brings me to 2012, because around that time I think I have it written here, that was when you won the 2012 World Team Championships. And yet you won gold. But then I think something interesting happened around that time. Did you take some time off from the sport, I believe?
Ben Bratton [00:25:19] I did, yeah. So I stepped away. 2012 we won worlds. It was like the top of the world. But my event wasn’t included in the in the 2012 Olympics in London. The team event wasn’t included in the 2012 Olympics in London, and I wasn’t ranked high enough to compete as an individual at the time and I wasn’t included in the Olympic program. It was like a huge disappointment for me. I definitely needed to step away to kind of take that time as I’m describing it to reflect right and kind of sort through it and determine where where that failure came from. Right? And like how much of it was on me, what was on the environment? How realistic were my goals? Like there’s a total, a whole litany of thoughts and feelings that I kind of needed to process. And yeah, super challenging. But I, I’ve never really been hesitant to step away if I needed to. It wasn’t the first time I’ve done it. If you have to, you should like I said that introspection. It was empowering to do that, right? And I think I became a better athlete for it when I ultimately did return to the sport. You know, I was like a totally different man, but I had like a, I had the experience of fighting back like some of my mental demons that I that I am facing those head on.
Justin (Host) [00:26:57] Yeah, because I feel as though, especially when you’re some kind of athlete, some people think that that is just synonymous with your character and as you said, who you are as a man. But here, here you are, like stepping away and really taking that time to yourself. And I think in one of the interviews that I watched about you, you’d mentioned just you were so in the sport that you hadn’t really met anyone in a while who you weren’t just competing against. To some degree, it would be crazy to think about.
Ben Bratton [00:27:28] Yeah, well, we live in like the the competitive environment is, especially at the high level is like. It’s just a crazy you’re always competing, and I actually realized that I had, like, lost a lot of balance in my life, like what I perceived as balance, you know, so I think everyone, every athlete has to find their own way. For me, it’s important to recognize that there’s a world outside of the sport. I always put in an importance of like making connections with people that weren’t involved with my discipline and with with my sport and learning how to interact with others that weren’t like pursuing these lofty Olympic dreams. That balance helps me to kind of characterize fencing the way I think it is, it was just like something that I’m passionate about that I want to do. When I was just immersed in competitive fencing and again with like high stakes, it just felt like like it was the entire world, right? And that and it was defining me, and I didn’t like that. So, you know, stepping away was always important and know making those connections was was really great. My wife was like, you know, fundamental in that, meeting someone that wasn’t an athlete, well she would say she’s an athlete, but like, not like, you know, like an Olympic athlete. It’s important to to kind of get out of your box a little bit every once in a while.
Justin (Host) [00:28:57] Yeah, yeah. And it’s kind of this mindset that’s as you said, as kind of like led you to see the world as a whole. And and what is it right now? You’re an assistant coach for the men’s and women’s fencing team at NYU, and you’re even currently coaching the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia, where you’re kind of like kind of blazing the trail for the next trail like series of kids that look like you in a way.
Ben Bratton [00:29:24] Yeah, for sure. I feel like fencing is you get to live kind of two lives and learn. And still have stuff to learn. And I have had and currently am having a successful competitive career, but the next challenge for me is going to be the coaching side of things, right? I’m actually surprised just by the different challenges that there are in teaching as opposed to actually competing, because now I’m trying to tell people how to do things that I feel like I’m doing intuitively. There’s a kind of weird nexus point in fencing, probably in sports in general. And I just feel like it’s a transition where a lot of guys that I’m competing with or have competed with are like making similar transitions. So it’s an exciting moment to kind of move into coaching. The NYU team is a lot of fun. And the group that I get to work with at the Fencing Academy in Philadelphia are, you know, they’re world class. And so, you know, the idea that I can kind of pass things along to the next generations of fencers to potentially connect with the young people that look like me that kind of were in the same situation, especially in Philadelphia. There’s a ton of there’s a lot of need there for sports like fencing, I think. And yeah, I can’t wait to see what the what this next phase kinda looks like.
Justin (Host) [00:30:54] Yeah. So as you’re passing on this knowledge and as you said, like a lot of other fencers or athletes are getting into that phase where they’re they’re teaching the next generation. I mean, you have all these championships under your belt and all these physical feats for these kids, like what? What do you think makes you uncommon that you can offer?
Ben Bratton [00:31:19] I mean, I think the thing that makes me the most uncommon is just the experience, right? Like when I was looking for coaches, I was always looking for experience that would translate into the to the level that I that I wanted to achieve. Right. It’s very hard to to learn from someone that I don’t think has been there, right? And so, you know, I’ve been to the highest levels, you know, I’ve seen what that looks like and I know the mental physical approach that it takes to get there. And so I think that what I have to offer that’s the most valuable for sure. You know, the the X’s and O’s and like, how you fence? I can teach that. And you know, I’m excited to pass it along to especially young people. And it’s just see them light up as they get there. But you know, I want to be I want to coach competitive guys. And you know, I want to, I like seeing someone that wants to be competitive, reach the levels that they’re aspiring to, and I think I can help people get there.
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