KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
More than 10,000 athletes will be competing in the Rio Olympics this summer, and we are going to meet one of them now. He never thought he would be an Olympian. NPR's Melissa Block spent a busy training day with fencer Jason Pryor in New York.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Just listen to how Jason Pryor describes the thrill of a win.
JASON PRYOR: Lightning - there's just this excitement shooting through you everywhere. There's just this thrill that just explodes. And then it's gone. Just like that, and it's gone. You just have to keep chasing it over and over and over again.
BLOCK: That's the feeling Pryor first came to know as a chubby kid growing up outside Cleveland. He played soccer first, didn't much like it. His parents told him he had to do a sport, so he said...
PRYOR: OK, well, fencing.
BLOCK: Figuring that would get him out of it. But surprise - his parents found a local fencing club, and he discovered he loved it. He fenced all through high school. He says he was extremely mediocre but passionate, got an academic scholarship to Ohio State and helped propel his team to the NCAA fencing championship. He figured his fencing career would stop there. He was making plans for law school.
PRYOR: I don't think I was even brave enough to admit to myself that I wanted to go to the Olympics. That thought was such a fantasy, such a fantasy of a fantasy.
BLOCK: But he ended up getting recruited to join the Olympic training program in Colorado Springs, and that means this unlikely Olympian has spent the past six years focused on one thing - Rio - one day, one shot. Jason Pryor is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in men's epee. That's his fencing weapon. And he's the only U.S. men's epee fencer going to Rio.
I meet up with the 28-year-old first thing in the morning as he makes breakfast. He's in a muscle shirt, compact and strong. A tattoo of a mongoose fighting a snake winds down his left arm. Jason's renting a room in Queens, living with a high school buddy and his wife.
PRYOR: I eat four eggs every morning. I'd eat more because I'm super hungry, but then I go through, you know, a carton in two days as opposed to three, which is too much because eggs cost quite a bit in New York.
BLOCK: Money is a huge, constant worry. Like a lot of Olympic athletes, Jason struggles financially to support his passion. He has a couple of small corporate sponsors, gets paid for occasional athlete appearances. He swallowed his pride and accepted donations from his family church back home. Members passed the hat to help get Jason to Rio.
We take the subway into Manhattan for a full day of practice and weightlifting. He's carrying 25 pounds of gear and trying to explain why those three-minute bouts on the fencing strip are so addictive.
PRYOR: That is one of the sweetest things - when you've broken their soul and you can see that cold, slimy feeling creep up in their chest when they know they've lost the bout. You can taste it in the air when it happens.
BLOCK: You're saying this Jason, and yet you are such a nice guy.
PRYOR: Oh, I am a nice guy. You know, but the strip - the strip's different. It's two dudes trying to ram a metal rod as hard and fast as they can into each other.
BLOCK: It is a combat sport after all.
PRYOR: Oh, no - come on.
BLOCK: The epee is a slim blade of carbon steel. It weighs about a pound, flexes on contact, and it's wired. When you score a touch with the tip, the scoring machine beeps, and a light flashes.
(SOUNDBITE OF FENCING MATCH)
BLOCK: As he fences, Jason is in constant motion, his dreadlocks bouncing on his shoulders. It's like his feet has springs. They seem to hover above the ground. Pryor is short for a fencer - a little under 5-9. He compensates for that with speed and unpredictable motion. For Kornel Udvarhelyi, who coaches at the New York Fencers Club, watching Jason is like watching a dancer.
KORNEL UDVARHELYI: What I tell him usually is just, be the Jason Pryor, you know? Be yourself because I know when he's himself and he's moving like that, he's very hard to hit. And he's capable of beating anybody in the world.
PRYOR: I want to suck people into my motions so that they get desensitized. They don't notice when I creep distance and then finish the action. You know, in and out so that when they think, oh, he's coming in and then they jump, and no, that's the moment when I'm leaving. I want all the motions like my chest and my hips and my hand all moving independent in this sort of weird, flowing, jerking motion that, you know, is really in your face.
BLOCK: After practice, it's another subway ride up to the New York Athletic Club for his daily lesson with his coach, Christian Rivera.
CHRISTIAN RIVERA: There it is. Find that moment that they don't know about.
BLOCK: For the last six years, fencing has been Jason's entire life. I ask if he allows himself to picture it - standing on the podium in Rio, the American flag rising behind him, the national anthem playing.
PRYOR: I'm not thinking about medals or podiums or any of that crap. I'm thinking about being amazing, what it feels like to score those touches when I'm so sharp around the short target that as soon as I feel someone extending - pow, one light for me - pow, one light on the toe. Boom - that's what I'm thinking about - but past the actual touches - no.
RIVERA: Woo - get them - next one.
BLOCK: Jason Pryor will compete in Rio on August 9. Melissa Block, NPR News.
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