By Bill Landon
After devastation struck Puerto Rico in the form of Hurricane Maria in September, members of Puerto Rico’s national fencing team reached out to anyone willing to lend a hand.
Hearing of Team Puerto Rico’s plight, Rocky Point’s Mission Fencing Center owners Jeff and Jennie Salmon quickly opened their doors so the team could train for an upcoming international competition, and many of the fencers were more than thankful.
“As my family and a lot of my friends said it was like a blessing for this family to reach out to us and give us the opportunity [to train],” said 17-year-old épéeist Freddie Rivera, who calls Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico home. “Ever since I got the news that we had this opportunity, I wanted to meet them. They gave us their house too, and to take us to this place [Mission Fencing] — that takes a lot of effort.”
Salmon, a Comsewogue High School graduate and varsity boys fencing coach for Ward Melville, said housing and feeding the fencers, as well as providing transportation to his 30,000-square-foot subterranean training facility on Route 25A, which he said is the largest in the country,
wasn’t as difficult as it might sound.
Mission Fencing Center owns a bus that already transports athletes from across Long Island to and from the center, and the Salmons have plenty of space in their old mission church home in Mount Sinai, from where the center got its name. He said this, along with local contributions, made accommodations for the four-week stay accommodations simple. Karina Del Mar Pagan, a 19-year-old from Carolina, Puerto Rico, said each member of her eight-person group paid for his or her plane ticket, and the Salmons took care of the rest.
“Fifteen years ago Jennie and I bought our home and ran a fencing clinic out of the extra space,” Salmon said. “We didn’t have the finances to support [Team Puerto Rico], but we live in an old church, which we still run camps out of in the summer, so we have a bunch of beds and have plenty of room. We have some pretty nice housing for them.”
The fencing community demonstrated its generosity by holding food drives and 50/50 raffles since the guests landed Dec. 11, as well as by donating hats, gloves and other cold-weather items to help the Caribbean team adjust to the temperature. The group also received home items like paper towels and laundry detergent.
“It was like a blessing for this family to reach out to us and give us the opportunity [to train].”
“Today we went to the laundromat and the minute one of the girls stepped outside she said, ‘Oh my God, here we go again,’” Jeff Salmon said, laughing. “The team doesn’t like the cold, but they all have coats and gloves because everyone really stepped [up]. Everyone is so excited that they’re here and the whole Long Island fencing community has been great.”
His wife heard of Team Puerto Rico’s predicament through Iris Zimmermann, who co-owns the Rochester Fencing Club, and said she immediately knew she wanted to get involved in any way she could.
“I guess I just took the bull by the horns,” Jennie Salmon said. “And now USA Fencing federation is even involved in helping them.”
Carlos Quiles, a 24-year-old Carolina, Puerto Rico, resident chaperoning his group of eight fencers, said he was connected with the Salmons after pleading to his fencing federation president that they needed a place to train after seeing his club’s flooded headquarters.
“When we saw that our club was completely destroyed, the head of our fencing federation went to a meeting to make a plan as to what we were going to do,” Quiles said, adding that the organization reached out to anyone in the United States and beyond. “That’s when Mission Fencing found us and [Jeff Salmon] told us he wanted us to come here. We couldn’t be more grateful.”
Team Puerto Rico took to the strips of Mission Fencing Center Dec. 15, where its members showed off their international flare while competing against local Long Island fencers like Ward Melville épéeist Ben Rogak.
Rivera said he was excited to challenge himself and partake in a unique experience, one that provided a first for the young athlete.
“I’m so thankful for this opportunity,” he said while fencing inside the center as snow began to fall. “This is my third trip to the United States — [having previously visited] Mexico and Costa Rica — and this time, I’m a proud member of the junior national team. This is also the first time I’ve ever seen snow.”
Rogak said he also enjoyed competing against fencers he’s never seen before, and said that he admired their dedication. Jennie Salmon agreed.
“They’ve been awesome guests,” she said. “We’ve had press based on our success as high school coaches, and at some level we’re very proud of that, but that isn’t even close to our biggest success. What we’re doing here is so meaningful.”
Before returning home, the Mission Fencing Center bus will take the team to Virginia, where it will be joined by its other members from around the country to compete.
Rivera reiterated how happy he was to learn from Long Island’s established athletes, adding it’s been helpful as programs at home begin to take flight.
“In Puerto Rico we are starting to have leagues in high school — we are taking baby steps,” he said. “This is a super club, [Mission Fencing]. It’s complete with a gym, trainers, and I’m thankful for this opportunity. Jeff and Jennie like to help people, and there are not a lot of good people that open their homes like that in the world. I have to say that they have big hearts and they’re full of love.”