Costa Rica- Up until 48 hours before the trip to Costa Rica, Carolyn Schembri-McCord did not know for sure if her son would be able to fence at the FIE World Cup Junior event in Costa Rica where some of the best teen fencers in the world would be attending for international points.
"Ticket prices were going up and down. On top of hotel, food, checking in a huge bag for Kruz's swords", explained McCord. "And we don't have sponsors or funding like some of the other international kids do. So it's always a big decision to goto these events."
For her son Kruz Schembri, the newly turned 16-year-old seems to always take things in stride. Calm, cool, and serene, Kruz did his normal routine the days leading up to his supposed FIE World Cup, consisting of fencing practices and running for his highchool cross country team. Not really preparing in particular for the mega international event, especially a level and size he has never won before, nor any other fencer from the US Virgin Islands or Florida where he currently resides. But a mere 3 days later, astonishingly he found himself the Gold Medalist among world class juniors from Brazil, El Salvador, Panama, South Korea, Mexico, the USA and many more. With the Virgin Islands flag draped upon him in victory.
Kruz's road to the finals started off well in the pool stage where the fencers face each other in a round-robin format divided into 4 groups. Kruz defeated top junior fencers from Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, with one loss to South Korea's Hyunbin Kim. This gave Schembri the #5 overall seed going into the second and final stage of the event.
The second stage was the Direct Elimination where USA's Owen Jin and Korea's Hyunbin Kim tied for the #1 seed as they were undefeated in the pools. Kruz received a bye in the first round due to his high seeding, and then went on a rampage winning by landslide margins over Brazil's Nicky Wu 15-7, El Salvadore's Saul Moris Villacorta Portillo 15-10 and Alexis Ceron Molina 15-9 in the semi-finals. This put the #35 World Ranked Kruz in his first ever World Cup finals.
On the other side of the chart, Costa Rica's Daniel Buitrago Ojeda came into the tournament as the highest world-ranked fencer at #33. He proved why by defeating both top Koreans back to back 15-11 over Hyunbin Kim and 15-13 over undefeated Jiseong Lee in the semi-finals. South Korea is considered one of the elite powerhouse countries in fencing today.
The finals would tip the odds more into the favor of Ojeda as he was the more experienced fencer and competing on his home turf of Costa Rica. The match started off close with a double touch 1-1 at the very start, and then Kruz took an early lead at 2-1, but Ojeda quickly came back to level the match. From there, both fencers went on a streak of 5 double touches in a row, not letting either take any advantage at 7-7. The 18-year-old Ojeda then showed his experience over his younger 16-year-old counterpart by taking and then controlling the lead and further distancing himself till he held a 12-8 advantage. The match was not looking good for the young Virgin Islands fencer as the home crowd roared with every Ojeda touch. Schembri was able to stop the onslaught with 2 back-to-back points to make it 10-12, and a glimmer of hope was rising for the VI fans and teammates. But with 30 seconds on the clock, Ojeda suddenly fell during the next point as the fencers exchanged blows, and a medical time-out was called. This delayed the match for several minutes. This seemed to stop Kruz's momentum as the very next point ended in a double touch, which is a disadvantage when trailing. The score was now 13-11 with less than 30 seconds left in the match, and Kruz would need single light touches and would need to avoid doubles. If time runs out, Ojeda would automatically win the championship. Kruz scored quickly to now trail 12-13. But with 15 seconds left, Ojeda could try to run the clockout or score a double with a defensive counter attack. Kruz attacked and a dreaded double touch gave Ojeda a huge advantage of 14-13 needing only one more point or a double touch to win, or letting the time run out with 11 seconds on the clock. The crowd gasped as Kruz came in with a flurry and scored with 9 seconds on the clock tying the match at 14-14. Both fencers then stood back and let the clock runout to push a overtime of 1 minute giving both fencers an opportunity to reset. The scoreboard randomizer gave Ojeda the priority which again gave him the advantage if the clock ran out at 60 seconds without neither fencer scoring, Ojeda would win. This meant Kruz would likely be the aggressor which indeed he started off pressing Ojeda back, with 3 attacks that were not fully committed and easily parried by Ojeda. Ojeda then attacked carefully, which Kruz easily fended off with distance and retreated back 3 strides, coaxing Ojeda to come forward. The tactic worked , Ojeda went for a lunge which Kruz quickly parried and reposte for the final point and the Gold!
"It was a really great experience. I didn't really come in thinking I was going to win. But I'm very happy I won, and being able to make history for the US Virgin Islands. As well as making all my friends, coaches, and family in Florida proud", said Kruz who is affectionately sometimes known as Kruz Kontrol from his relaxed yet fast paced style. Kruz's eclectic style seems also to be reflective of his heritage, with his Virgin Islands mother and American father, honoring both heritages in his dual last name of Schembri-McCord. While he does virtual schooling, he represents Ridge Community High School in Davenport for other sports, and travels all around Florida and Virgin Islands for fencing training. Which can get quite expensive in a sport where the top athletes aspire to Olympic dreams, but do not make the sums of money that sports such as basketball, football, and tennis receive.
" Kruz is special. Of course there are many talented fencers and athletes out there. But his intelligence, calm, coolness, and ability to improve when the odds are stacked against him. And win when even bigger odds are stacked against him. He has the heart of a lion", said Charlie Williams, CEO of the World Sports Alumni, the world's largest pro athletes association. " This young man deserves support. Hopefully soon from the fencing industry, Virgin Islands government and businesses, and from the Florida community."
To help offset costs, the World Sports Alumni promotes a GoFundme for Kruz to help him continue his Olympic journey. Kruz and his mother also hope that now that he has made history for the US Virgin Islands in one of the oldest, prestigious Olympic sports, that the Virgin Islands government, businesses, and Caribbean associations will lend more weight and financial support.
"I'm trying to organize a fencing camp in the Virgin Islands next year. So I can help kids that are struggling like I did before, and get the knowledge of what they need to do to excel in this sport that I love", said Kruz.
The FIE is the International Fencing Federation which is the governing Olympic body for the sport. Kruz is now #14 in the FIE international standings out of nearly 500 world-class juniors, making him the highest ranked junior fencer in the world that is representing the Caribbean/South America region. Also, he is the 3rd highest international ranked junior fencer living in the United States, and the first fencer from Florida to ever win an FIE World Cup. Respectively, Ojeda moved to #17 with both finalists leaping almost 20 spots from their spectacular finishes.
Kruz (R) has made a name for himself competing in the United States even as a 12 year-old in both sword styles of Epee and Foil.
Kruz recently got his first ever sponsor by ClariGenZ Focus Supplement and was recently accepted as a member of the World Sports Alumni, an association made up of over 10,000 athletes mostly from the NFL, NBA, MLB, tennis, and boxing professionals. Schembri is the WSA's second youngest member ever.
Supporters can donate to his training at this link and for his future events. Sponsors can contact email@example.com 407-782-4978. Follow Kruz on Instagram @KruzFences and Facebook at Kruz Kontrol Fencing