In our ongoing series,
When Race Imboden was 19, he reached what most would agree is the pinnacle of a young sporting career: representing the United States as a fencer in the 2012 London Olympics. The American men's foil team placed fourth, a historic achievement for a country not known for its swordsmen, and one that was especially striking considering the average age of the athletes was around twenty.
Imboden is now comfortably in the top ten in the international rankings (rising as high as second earlier this month), and has a busy modeling career on the side thanks to a sharp eye at Re:Quest Model Management (he was discovered when an agent saw him fencing on TV). He has become a familiar face thanks to his numerous runway turns, editorials, and campaigns, and recently launched a lifestyle site, Have Foil Will Travel, to cover style, fitness, and travel from his unique perspective. It's all part and parcel of being a young athlete who considers himself rather fearless thanks to his early experience: "Nothing compares to being on the Olympic stage competing with a dude who basically wants to kill you."
Hometown: New York, New York
Agency: Re:Quest Model Management
How were you discovered?
Someone from Re:Quest saw me on the television at the Olympic Games and reached out to me and asked me to come to the agency and the next thing I knew, I was a model. I had actually been approached before on the street by another agency, and I went in and talked to them, but I felt like I was going to be just another face on the wall. It was before the Olympic Games and I had so much stuff going on, and I didn't get a good vibe from them and I didn't really want to do it. But when I went into Re:Quest, they got my situation and they understood that I was going to have to play the balance game.
What expectations did you have for your career before you started?
I guess I thought they'd only use me if they wanted a fencer. The day I signed with Re:Quest, they sent me right to my first casting and I sat down in this line of dudes and I was looking around and everyone was fucking handsome and I thought, "Oh, everyone here is a model."
When I got to the front, this lady didn't even look at me and just told me to walk. I went to the end of the room and back and she still didn't look at me, but she said, "Could you do it again, but act like you give a shit?" She happened to be the casting director for Marc by Marc Jacobs and I ended up getting the show, but I was like, "What did I get myself into? I just signed and now I have this lady yelling at me."
What was your most memorable modeling job?
Getting flown to Paris and being exclusive for the Louis Vuitton Fall 2013 show was definitely up there. The show was actually right after a competition there—I flew home and then I flew right back to Paris.
How did you start fencing?
I was in a park when I was little, playing with lightsabers or sticks or something, like any kid, and somebody was like, "You should try fencing." I was a kid and I loved to play with swords and I read a lot of samurai books, so I was like, "I can do this as a sport? Hell yeah, definitely, let's do it." When we moved to New York, our apartment was right across the street from a fencing club. When you're a kid, you try a bit of everything. It could have been a soccer field, it could have been anything, but it was a fencing club. I kept doing it, and now it's just what I love to do. When I was 14 or 15, I switched to a very serious coach at a serious club. I didn't want to play soccer, I didn't want to play the drums, I just wanted to train, and that's what I did.
Do you feel like you missed out on part of a "normal" childhood in devoting yourself to fencing?
Definitely. By the time I started high school, we chose that school because of fencing. Everything in my life revolved around fencing. I missed my prom to go to a competition in Korea instead. I also missed out on regular things like being with my friends. I didn't really get to hang out with them. After school, everybody went to the Great Lawn and I was like, "Alright, I got to go to practice." But I wouldn't say I regret it at all. My life is this whirlwind of incredible impossibilities, and I'm just riding the wave.
What was the highlight of your time at the London Olympics?
There's no competition like the Olympic Games. It's like being in the NBA finals, with the loud crowds and incredible energy. Doing the thing that you've worked so hard to do and being there competing against everyone else is incredible. The feeling you get when you walk out into the big stadium for the opening ceremony is also indescribable. It still makes me shiver.
What sort of compromises do you have to make with your schedule between fencing and modeling?
I'm really lucky I'm in New York, because we have a lot of jobs in New York and people will come here, but I've missed some big campaigns. I'm used to travel and I'm used to rushing around and being in constant motion, but adding in modeling pushed it to another level. The two worlds are so different that it's very hard to be a model and be an athlete at the same time. One world is all about being yourself and having character and then the other one is about being reserved and focused, and you're going from one to the other in a matter of hours. When I go to an after party for a show, I know I have to be at practice the next morning, so I weigh my options and I pick and choose. But fencing usually comes first.
What's the most surprising thing you've learned about the industry?
I was surprised to find out how young the guys are. You have a few big older guys whom everybody knows, but most of the kids are all so young. I guess the big ads you see are usually like Ralph Lauren ads with guys with beards, so that was my image of a male model, and I was like, "What am I going to be doing? I'm just this skinny little redheaded kid." I was 19 when I started and I was like, "Everyone's my age, this is awesome."
What's the biggest difference between your fencing fans and your modeling fans?
If you're at a competition, a fencing fan will come up and ask for your autograph or ask you to sign a shirt or something—maybe a body part on the rarest of occasions—and maybe a tear will be shed if they're very excited. But a modeling fan will come up to you and pull your hair or hand your their cell phone and ask you to put your number in and then call you at four o'clock in the morning, stranger things. I spend my every waking hour, twice a day, training for this sport, and I have a good group of fencing fans, but they're all fencers: they all watch fencing, they compete in fencing. Then I was in a couple advertisements and boom, I've got all these new fans who can get a little crazy. It's annoying, but at the same time it's flattering.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
My mom tells me all the time, "Take everything one touch at a time." In a bout we call a point a touch, and you just have to take everything one step at a time. You get too far ahead of yourself in anything and you mess up, especially in modeling, especially in fencing, and in life in general. If you're thinking about your next bout when you're fencing and the guy beats you, then you never get to that bout. If you're always thinking about your next job, you're going to fuck up the one you have or miss something. So it's just one at a time.
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—Jonathan Shia, follow him @JonathanShia