Olympian Insight Series: Sara Calleja – The Long & Revealing Road to Your Dreams

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In the second episode of our Olympic Insight Series, we spoke with Sara Calleja, Spain’s number one ranked fencer, as she walks us through her journey from junior competitions to the World Cup tour. From funding obstacles in Spain, to her move to France and combining her sport with her studies, to overcoming her biggest mental blocks, Sara’s story showcases the unique and inspiring lessons you can learn while chasing your dreams.

Sara Calleja is a Spanish fencer with more than 10 years national team experience; first as a part of the junior team (< 20 years old) and now as part of the senior team (> 20 years old). She has had the privilege of representing her country in the European and World Championships and has turned her focus solely on qualifying for this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Before reading this post, I’d like to preface that if you are looking for the perspective of someone who has already won everything, then this will not be it. Instead, it is more my journey in trying to reach the top: the good moments but also the difficult ones. It is, therefore, more the story of an athlete striving to reach their goals, but recognising the road there is not always straight and smooth.

When I was in the Junior category, I was not one of the best often ranking in the top 16 at international competitions. I felt as though I was close to the top and not a million miles away in my own development from getting there. When I passed to the senior category, the competitions were incredibly hard; imagine each match that you do in a high level competition is against a competitor who has already won everything in their respective country, that trains every day and wants to win as much as you do. So every match is kind of like a final in your country; you know there is little place for the error. I was fencing with the best of the world, with people with 15 years of experience at the elite level. The Champions of the champions! In almost every competition I was eliminated in the first round and when I managed to pass on to the second round I was crushed. But this was the beginning of my experiences at the top level and fuelled my drive to continue improving and competing with the best.

Calleja Electrified by a Spanish Championship Victory
Calleja Electrified by a Spanish Championship Victory

The coach in Spain is excellent, he has the only Olympic fencing medal in Spain, but there were not a lot of other females to train with. In Spain, the financing of an athlete depends a lot on the number of international performances they have participated in but there’s a great deal of support needed to compete at the highest level—training camps, competitions, coaches, physical coaches, medical team, sport psychologists—and the reality, unfortunately, is that most female athlete I used to train with gave up in the absence of this financial support.

At the time I was finishing my Industrial Engineering degree and contemplating where I wanted to go with fencing. After a little deliberation I decided it was the moment to jump in the deep-end and take the risk of going for it all. I moved to France, a historic winner in fencing, in September 2015 in order to give me all the resources to get better.

My initial idea was to train for one year in France and then return to Spain. I had this stupid idea that with only one year I would be strong enough to be in the world’s top 100. How naive! I had this amazing opportunity of training with a group of 15 women that were very strong. There were fencers with world cups and world championship medals. It was not easy; when you train with people who are better than you and you lose, repeatedly in training it is hard to maintain the confidence. But, at the same time, you are doing the same training, you have the same opportunities so why not? What stops me from being at that level?

Calleja Celebrating with her Fellow Countrywomen

This was my first lesson, the excellence around you will push your limits, will give you the platform and incentive to be great too.

The results were not arriving as I thought it would. I was doing all I could: physical, technical and mental training, competitions, video analysis, everything… At some point I thought that maybe fencing might not be my thing and I could not be compete at this level even with all the resources available. 

My coaches, who are all an athlete can dream of, in both a professional and personal way, helped me understand this second lesson: results are the award that we can easily see, but along the way there are a lot of little improvements that should be given the importance that they deserve. Unless you are one of these super talented people, winning immediately and always is rare. You lose 100 times against 1 victory. Taste the victory or little challenges, congratulate yourself. This is the feeling that will help you every day to face tough moments and continue striving for new heights.

Probably two and a half years after I moved to France I started to feel I was prepared to demand more from myself. I was angry and frustrated because in the competitions I had the additional pressure of feeling good enough to doing better results. I had improved my strategy and tactical approach, all the physical, technical and mental training seemed to be paying off. But I was getting the same poor results. I was so anxious in the competitions that each one was a mental challenge. But a retired, very talented female fencer told me one day: Sara, if you choose fencing it is because you love pressure, you love the challenges, so embrace this feeling and learn to love this feeling. I will never forget this advice, it is so helpful! Enjoy the pressure of challenges and run towards the opportunity they present!

Sara Enjoying the Rigours of Training
Sara Enjoying the Rigours of Training

Although fencing is predominantly an individual sport we have a lot of team competitions in which the score of each match is added to the previous one and you’re ranked on the overall team. I have learned to be humble and listen to the most experienced teammates, to encourage, to say the appropriate words according to the person in order to help them… I’ve learned to protect my weaknesses with the forces of my team. I have learned how to be a leader and show we were strong and powerful even when I knew it was not my best fencing day. I have learned so many things with my team and how important it is to teach as well to improve together. Learn as much as you can, teach as much as you can.

In these five years I could not have done this without all the people who I have met and have helped me. When I arrived I knew how to say hello and thank you in French. When the coach and my training mates were helping me to find and apartment or trying to teach me something, I was not able to express myself and express my gratitude. But I knew it was something I could improve on and that I needed to so I could form relationships and reach my goals outside of fencing. With the aid of my teammates and coaches I was able to apply to a Master’s program in Applied Mathematics at the University of Bordeaux and to apply for an internship in a very special company where I have been working for two years right now. So, another lesson be kind, be grateful. I know 50% of the things that I have achieved in my sport, and the growth of my personal and academic life belongs to all these people.

To bring it to the current day, I have passed from the 400th position in the International Ranking to the top 100. I have been Spanish Individual Champion, two times Spanish team Champion, Vice French team Champion. I have won my first medal in a national individual French competition—my first international level medal. Last year, after almost 5 years in France, I was in the top 32 and top 64 in the European and World Championships, things are finally coming together and starting to work. This is my last lesson, good things take time, and sometimes the road seems too long, but you find the result you’ve been searching for and all the hard work makes complete sense.

Maybe I will never go to the Olympics, maybe I will never win a world championship medal but I will always have these lessons and the very good friends, the great and talented people I’ve encountered in my athletic career, and that is truly invaluable to me.

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