Olympic fencer Ysaora Thibus is the CEO of her career, and she’s fully in control. Ranked the number-one fencer in France and third in the world, Thibus has won 14 French championships and seven world championships—and this year, she’s off to her third Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. YTTP first planned to work with Thibus as part of our Beautiful People series alongside her partner and fellow Olympic fencer, Team USA’s Race Imboden, but travel restrictions kept her grounded in Paris—almost 4,000 miles from the shoot in New York. Ahead of the Olympics, she chats with To The People host Alyssa Shapiro about taking control of her career, building a platform for women in sports to share their stories, and what female athletes really need.
Catch up on To The People wherever you get your podcasts.
Hosted by Alyssa Shapiro
Edited by Manna Zel
Produced by Alyssa Shapiro + Manna Zel
Theme music by YTTP co-founder Greg Gonzalez + Hannah Fernando
Read the full conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, here:
Youth To The People Studios presents To The People Podcast.
Greg Gonzalez: This podcast is powered by Youth To The People. We make pro-grade vegan, cruelty-free skincare for all genders, pronouns, skin tones, passions, and people. And right here, every week, you’ll meet friends of the brand who prioritize wellness however it looks in their lives—and use their practice to learn more about themselves and heal their communities. I’m Greg Gonzalez, co-founder of YTTP.
I'm Greg Gonzalez, co-founder of Youth To The People.
Alyssa Shapiro: And I'm your host Alyssa Shapiro. When we initially planned to feature today's guest, it was originally as part of a pair: French fencer, Ysaora Thibus and her boyfriend, Race Imboden—who fences for the US—are an Olympic couple. And I thought, individually, each of them are so cool and to have the opportunity to ask them about the relationship would be totally inspiring.
These are international athletes, Olympians who support each other and make it work internationally. I can't get over that, but everything didn't work out as planned for us and I'll tell you more about that in a minute. For now, I'm excited for the opportunity to speak with Ysa 1:1, which means that we were able to focus more on what makes Ysa tick.
Ysaora Thibus: My name is Ysaora Thibus. I'm a French fencer. I'm 29 years old. I come from a small island called Guadalupe and I'm number one in France, and number three in the world. I'm going to my third Olympic games in Tokyo.
AS: Ysa has won seven world championship medals and 14 national championship medals in fencing. She's also the founder of Essentielle Stories, an Instagram account that, in her words, gives voice to the most inspiring women athletes. And it's so important to give these athletes space to speak on their stories because so often women in sports are not treated equally or fairly at all.
Our original conversation was supposed to take place in New York, alongside Race, who we filmed for Beautiful People, but that didn't happen. COVID travel restrictions made it impossible for her to travel to us from Italy, where she was training before heading to Tokyo for the Olympic games.
She really tried. I mean, she really tried. She was in line to board her flight and was removed, and we were all feeling really bummed about it. But I'm happy to report a few things, and one is that: as of this recording, Ysa has successfully landed in Tokyo. Also, we were able to have an important conversation via Zoom 1:1 about her experience as an athlete, what needs to change for women in sports, and more.
AS: I'm so happy that we're getting to do this. We were in New York so bummed that it didn't work out for you to come. It was really nice meeting Race, and it would have been really nice to get you guys together, but I'm really glad we can speak now.
So thank you for making the time.
YT: Oh, of course. I was so mad when I could not fly and it was such a terrible day, but I'm happy we could make it work.
AS: [00:03:03] Me too.
Tell me about your story and how you first got into fencing because I've read that you started as a ballerina. Right?
YT: Yes. I started as a ballerina. This is a funny story, so yes, I was four years old and my mom's like, “She's going to be good for dancing,” and I really liked it. I really enjoyed it, but then when I tried fencing for the first time, it was such a different world, you know? It was not expected. My mom thought about fencing for my little brother, and I was there with them that day. I entered the room and I was like, “Oh my God, I've never seen this sport before, and I really want to try it.”
We entered right away. It was so different from dancing because it was not the choreography effort. It was more free, and like I could do anything I wanted. It was like a fight, and I used to fight all the time with my little brother. So it was just like, “Oh, this is my way to just finally be fighting, and no one said it's wrong.” And yeah, it's just nice to be good at one. It was like a nice game. I've always liked the sport.
AS: What changed in your life when you realized that you were actually good at fencing?
YT: I think the first time I went to a competition, and I was like, “Okay, I can be good at this” but I was not the best so I cried anyways, and everyone was like, “Oh,it's good for your first competition.”
And this is when I realized I was super competitive because I always wanted to be the best at anything I was doing. I just felt like it was some part of my life that I always wanted to walk hard to reach my goals. I never really dreamed of the Olympic games, you know?
It was when I was at my first Olympic games in London that I really realized this is what I wanted. It was so amazing. I never thought I’d do fencing 100% of my time. I've always done many things at the same time [like when I] went to business school.
So it was not like, “Oh, I'm so good. I want to do that.” It was really just slowly in my life, it took up more and more space.
AS: It's really interesting how a choice you made when you were four to pursue fencing has shaped your life in a really good way. Can you talk to me about that? Like, how this decision that you made when you were little really influenced your life?
YT: [00:05:38] When I was young, I went to the club because it was like a second family. I had a lot of fun and I could express myself. Some of the people that I met when I was young are still my friends right now, and I felt like I could be good at something and it gave me a lot of confidence.
It also gave me a goal in life.
Like, okay, this is what I want to do and I'm going to do everything to be good at it. I’ve done a lot of sacrifices. I left my island when I was really young to pursue my dreams and moved a lot. And then I moved to the United States and then to Italy to then train with many different trainers.
So I think that it helped me to realize that I wanted to do it my own way and to create a path in life, and just step by step, I discovered myself more and more and what I was capable of doing, you know?
AS: Yeah. Does it feel like having this very strong path that you're on is limiting? Or, does it feel expanding? Like what does it feel like to know what you're doing right now and to have that be what you have been doing?
YT: Yeah. Most of the time, it's scary because you don't really know how you're going to do it, you know? You know where you want to go, but you don't know how, so it's more like trying to move forward, even if it's hard all the time, you know? And it feels like when you've achieved something, you're proud of it because you never knew that you could do it.
And I just realized that I'm able to do so much more than what I felt I could do. All these people are helping you, and you will have a team with you and it feels like you're learning a lot. I had the chance to travel all around the world to meet a lot of people from different cultures, and so, in my life, it takes up a lot of space and now I'm going to my solo Olympic games.
So I'm not the same fencer that I was in my first Olympic games. I grew up a lot.
AS: As an athlete, what has fencing and competition taught you about perseverance?
YT: Most of the time we see athletes when they win and we think, “Oh, they are great and it just happened like that.” But it's a lot of work and it's a lot of losses, you know? You lose a lot more than you win and we don't talk about that.
Sometimes you doubt yourself and you have to stop and try to analyze what's wrong and what you can do to move forward. It's about keep going, even if you do have doubts and you don't believe in yourself. We think that a natural athlete has to believe in themself all the time.
And I don't think it's true for me, you know, at least sometimes, I was like “Can I really do it?” And I was lucky because I really was the right person and I found some resources in myself to come back and try harder. And it worked for me some, and I'm really happy about it.
AS: What has fencing taught you about working with others?
YT: I think it's really difficult because it's a really competitive world. It's a really masculine world, and it's an individual sport. So when you are in a group—when I was young, I arrived, I was like, “Oh” especially before they expected maybe women to not be friends with each other and something that I really try to change as I was growing in my career. And I was like, oh, it's possible to have the same goal to help each other out. You know? And now, we are a strong group and all the girls are good with each other. I think it's really better to work like that. So fencing is an individual sport and a team sport, you always have to go back and forth from your individual goals to your team goals. It's really interesting. I have so many good memories about medals that we had in teams, because you share it with other people; so, really special moments.
AS: That's such an interesting point that you bring up. I think as women, we've been trained since we were little that other women are our competition and there's this sense of being pitted against one another, because maybe there's a sense that there's only room for one at the top.
There's only room for one of you, whereas the men have a ton of spaces, but women get one.
YT: Especially because we don't talk about women a lot, so if they talk about one woman, you don't have enough space for other women and you think that you should fight between each other. And this is really something I try to change in the narrative, that there is enough space for every woman on every path.
Even if it's a sport and it's really competitive, and there's one gold medal. I believe that in sports, everyone should be rewarded for what they're doing because you work really hard and you're always learning something.
It's been really great for me to try to build that during my career, too. To be competitive with myself, you know? I'm my own final adversary, but as women, we can just have each other, be a good team, and highlight each other's choice.
AS: What does it mean to you to be an Olympian and has that changed over the years since this is now your third games?
YT: Yeah, definitely. I think the meaning of the Olympic games has changed for me. Definitely. The first one, I didn't know what to expect. When I was a little girl, I was not watching the Olympic games. I mean, sports is really present in my family, but I'd never really dreamed of it. When I was going there for the first time, I was 19 and I realized this is amazing.
You know, you represent your country, you work so hard for this goal and you meet so many people. Everyone is watching. It's a really special moment for my sport because we don't see fencing a lot on TV. We don't talk about it, so it’s a really special moment to compete in front of everyone and try to be the best.
Then when I went to Rio for my second Olympic games, I was aready top five and I wanted this medal so bad and I didn't get it. I think I was a little depressed after that and it was really difficult to come back from it. And I think it's the failure that was the most important for my career because after that I had the best medals of my career.
I stepped back. I realized I needed to be happy too, as a woman in my life. And I did choices for me as a woman and not necessarily for sport. Trying to find a balance and to help me a lot, I took some decisions, too, in my professional life for fencing. This is when I left France to travel and train in America. It was really important for me.
And I think it turned me too, as a woman, and now I'm going to my solo Olympic games and it's still an honor to visit a nice country, but there are so much more than sports, you know?
We realize after this tournament that everyone had struggles and sports was not the main thing. You had to step a little bit and step back, and see how we can contribute to society to make a positive impact.
And I think this is how I see sports right now: how I can make a change.
AS: Yeah, I was actually going to ask you: how do you think sports and competition have made you better in other areas of your life?
YT: So many aspects of sports are great on a personal level because you always push yourself. You're pushing the limits, so it's good, after that, to realize that you can do that too in your personal life.
it's a really good question because you know, sports is a selfish world. You're doing that for yourself. When you have a medal, it's a time to share that with people. But I think that I came to a point that I want to share other things, you know? I think sports is a great way to talk about other stuff too.
I don't really like the traditional concept of, you're supposed to stay in a box and don't talk about other stuff; and for me, I'm a little different from that because fencing is a way for me to express myself, but I want to express other things, you know? And so it's a part of my life, but it's not everything.
AS: I want to talk about you and Race and having a partner in the sport, because I imagine then your life becomes very focused and very much about sport and fencing. How do you support and challenge one another? How does it make your life different to be with someone whose focus is the same as yours?
YT: We went to different places in our relationship because at the beginning we wanted to do the same thing exactly the same way, because we wanted to push each other and do the same things all the time. And we realized that we both needed different stuff to succeed even if we weren't doing the same sport.
So it took a while because at the beginning, we wanted to be the best and to do it the same way, have the same coach, train at the same time every day. And I think we are helping each other right now by giving space to the other one to be themselves. And just support each other in everything we are choosing.
We don't train the same way anymore, we just support each other in that. He finds it is the best way for himself to be good and I found my way, but we are always talking so much about how we want to wish stuff. We communicate a lot and he's the first person that they call if I win, if I lose. So it's interesting too, because, of course, you understand my sport, so it's easy to talk to me, but we don't push each other to do everything the same way.
AS: Have you noticed, especially since you have such a close relationship, the different ways that men and women are treated within sports?
YT: We notice all the time that men and women are treated differently. Some competition for men is way better organized than the competition for women, and we are in the same sport. The way we're talking about the sport, even for fencing, they always consider that men are faster, more entertaining, more stronger than women and they should be respected more.
So in our sport, they treat men and women differently. It's kind of like an old time thing. It's not just like, I only like this question because I feel like I need to release the differences, you know? And it's more like: fencing, it's a male sport; as women we’re allowed to compete in that sport after the men, you know, save a woman or was allowed in the competition in the Olympics in 2004. So it's really recent.
Still today, they considered that the sport is better for men, because all the coaches prefer to coach men than women. There are differences all the time. They're making fun of the women when they fence, but I think it's in everything, you know?
I've always been feminist, and I always wanted to talk about this subject, but I've never really had the courage to maybe talk about it and use my platform.
And he's the one who was like, “You need to talk about it if you really want to talk about it.”
And also because we have differences in America vs. France, and we're talking about those differences, too, in sport, and the way that women and men are treated. We notice all the time. Yes.
AS: You told a French publication—I'm going to quote you back to you—you said, “I've been told many times that I can't do it. When I decided to go to the United States, I was told that I was too sensitive. That my emotions would crack under the pressure or that a man could do it, but I couldn't. In the end, it motivated me even more.”
Can you expand on that? And that experience of coming here and being told that? I know that feeling of “Oh, a little girl, don’t worry about it. You don't have to do it. Let the men do it.”
YT: Yes, it was after I had decided to leave France, something that no one has done before in the French team in fencing. So I took my courage and I was like, “Because this is really what I want to do, and I believe in myself.” I had this project that was to train in the United States and it was really difficult. And because of this or that, I could not do it and I was wanting to do it.
And that I would come back crying and quit fencing. That I won't be able to do it because I was too emotional and sensitive. And yeah, I think it's something that I kept in mind and I was like, “Okay, I'm going to prove them wrong and I'm going to do it. Um, it hasn't been easy all the time and sometimes they—
The bad thing is sometimes it made me doubt myself. And it's a shame because I think if it doesn’t exist in society, there will be more opportunities for a woman, like less barriers, you know? But at the same time it was like, “I’ll never give up. I will never give up because I need to show that it's possible. “
AS: You've called sports “a reflection of society and a way to inspire new generations.” Can you talk about that a little bit and the importance of representation for these new generations?
YT: I believe that if you don't see that someone else can do it, it's harder for you to do it. I come from a small island and before me, there was this fencer that came from Ireland and was an Olympic champion. And I always remembered that I never doubted that I could do it too, because it was done before.
Then I traveled and started to get better. I realized that in fencing, there was not so much diversity. Then international level and then, that a woman was not considered the same way. So I was like, “I don't understand.” I thought that everything was supposed to be possible and you don't see that everywhere.
You don't see that the stories are from all these women that are doing it, or the personal of course, inclusivity in everything. And I think it's really important for people to see themselves and, when they're really young, have this feeling of: if this person did that, I can do it too.
And still nowadays, there's no equity for everyone. And that true too for a female. I think we can improve them.
AS: Is that part of why you started Essentielle Stories?
YT: Yes. Yes. I started Essentielle Stories because I was fed up, I think of all the media that were talking about the same thing. It was also right at the beginning of the pandemic. And we were talking about the same things, about all these same men’s stories in sports media.
There are so many stories about female athletes by now and they need to be told.
I started it with my friends that are Olympic champions or World champions. And I was like, “There’s so many things we can talk about, but it’s always the same subject.” Also, when a woman wins, it’s always the same questions and there's so much more to say. We don't talk about the specificities of what it means to be a woman in sports, how it is difficult, or maybe what challenges they have and how they overcame it, you know?
And I think it's important to see that, and to inspire the next generation.
AS: I spoke with Race, when we had our interview last month, about this idea that people are kind of boxed into a lane. How if you're an athlete, society is like, “Oh, that’s what you are. You’re an athlete, stay in that line” but we're human beings and we're multifaceted. And I often think about how women, regardless of what their profession is, are often boxed into being women first. And they're often given questions about their appearance or “how do you balance it with having children or a family,” or whatever it is.
How do you think we need to change how we speak around women doing anything, like what would you recommend? What would you tell reporters, for instance, to stop asking women or start asking women?
YT: I think we should just ask them what they want to talk about, you know? So many times I came to an interview, and the person didn't know anything about me and just asked the same question over and over again. And I was like, I don't want to answer this question and pushed me.
Last time I was in an interview, they were like, “What you want to win at the Olympic games?” and obviously, I want to be the best that I can do, but I don’t want to say that I want a gold medal because, for me, it doesn't matter anymore; I’m in a period of my life that I don't need to say that I want a gold medal. I had so many medals, and I don't want to judge myself on the medal, you know? It's different; I know that no matter what, I walked out and I'm proud of what I've done and he insisted about “Oh, but you really want this? You want a gold medal, right?”
And I was like, “I don't want to say that” and he pushed me to say it, you know? I think we always asking questions because we want an answer and we don't really listen to what people have to say. For women, they have so many things they want to talk about. They see their performance maybe in a different way than men.
We always want women to talk about sport in the same way as men: I'm the strongest, I am invincible.
I think right now we want to know the real person, you know, how do you go through these things? What are your challenges?
I think it's really important to give that space.
AS: Well, to ask you your own question, what are the challenges that you're facing aside from not being given adequate representation or adequate time in the spotlight compared to what men get? What else do you need?
YT: I want people to know that there is someone behind the athletes. That happiness, it's a difficult wish for everyone. And it's been difficult for everyone doing this kind of make, we face challenges. I could not train as I wanted. And I needed to face myself in that moment of nothing, that moment of silence and no abilities to do anything with yourself.
And you realize, what do you really want to do? And what I realized was that I want to make a change. I want to go beyond sports. I want to go beyond what people expect me to do.
What I want is for people to stop letting these barriers affect what people want to achieve. And to help other people just grow, wish their goals, their dreams, and be happy.
AS: So you went to business school, you graduated in 2016. What led to the decision to go and how has it impacted your life since you graduated?
YT: So I was really happy to be in business school because I never thought that I would do fencing professionally. So going there was a way for me to prepare what I would do after sports. Also, I've always liked to do two things at the same time. So it was great for me to see other people outside of the sport, and when I'd been quarantined after the Olympic games, I changed my mind and was like, “Oh, maybe I didn't perform, because I was not one of the persons focused on sports.”
So I decided to do sports all the time and this is also why I left to America and did this four times. It's changed a lot for me. Then I realized, I'm not this person, you know, and that's only one thing and in many things at the same time. I was not in a Federation anymore. And I had to do all these things: hire my coaches, pay for everything, how I'm dealing with my communication. So, it helped me a lot with that.
AS: I read that when you left the French Federation that changed that now you're financially responsible for your coaching, your travel, everything. Before was the French Federation covering those things?
AS: Did you do that to have more freedom over your life?
YT: I think I left because I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to go out of my comfort zone and I stayed eight years in the Olympic center in France. And I wanted to go beyond that to see if I could do better and get better. So I had to make this decision and it was really difficult because no one did that before.
I didn't have an example. I didn't have someone to help me, so I figured everything out by myself, and I’m really happy that I did it. I learned so much and now I'm floating up in everything I'm doing. I'm moving differently and I love it. I wouldn’t change that for anything. I make my own decisions, you know?
AS: Yeah, it must feel really good to have autonomy over your own life and to be able to decide what's right for you.
YT: Yes, I love it. It's difficult because it's you showing up every day. I consider myself the CEO of my sports career. And you always need people around you to be better. Something I learned: that you need the right people and you can choose them. But it's really nice to make decisions and figure out what's the best for you.
And make mistakes too. I think it's essential to make mistakes and to learn from it.
AS: Much like the defeats are just so important to your sport career to be able to get better and see what you can do to improve.
YT: I learned so much from the failures I had. Even if you don't see how, in the moment, and you're really sad about it or angry, after you realize: it changed me and I'm a better person. I think.
AS: Yeah, that resonates. That makes a lot of sense to me. Wwhat is your hope for the future of women in sports?
YT: I hope that we consider women in sport as they're own and we don't compare them to anything or to men anymore. And we need to try to understand what it is to be a woman in sport, how we can talk about it and how we can help to develop the sport. Because I think that, right now, we cannot do without women in sport.
We are here. Now we have to figure out how we can make it better for all the women. It's essential for me: how we can invest, develop, and create more visibility in sports. How we can help the young girls to not stop sports at a young age and help them to continue.
I think it's important because if they can do that in sport, they can do it in life. It’s for everything.
AS: Okay, one more question. Well, it's a two-part question. What does unity mean to you and what do we need for there to be true unity?
YT: Unity for me is to accept other people's differences, to have compassion and respect. It's really important. If we have that and if we just try to live with people as they are, I think we'll be in a better world.
AS: To The People is a production of YTTP Studios. You can find us online @youthtothepeople.com and get 15% off your next purchase when you use the code TOTHEPEOPLE15 at checkout. For more on Ysa, follow her online @ysaorathibus and add @essentiellestories. This episode was produced by Manna Zel and myself. It was edited by Manna and our theme music is by YTTP co-founder Greg Gonzalez and Hannah Fernando.
I'm Alyssa Shapiro. We'll talk soon, but not as soon as last time, because we're taking a quick break to work on the next season for you. More info on that as soon as we have it, but we can't wait to talk to you then.