Kelley Hurley went to the 2012 London Games as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic fencing team. She expected to cheer younger sister, Courtney, and support the women’s épée team.
Instead, Kelley came home to San Antonio with the surprise of her life – a bronze medal she shared with Courtney and two U.S. teammates.
The improbable turn of fortune in London provides hope for the coming Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. The U.S. épée team is ranked seventh in the world and is considered a long-shot to medal.
“We’re hoping for the unexpected again,” Courtney said by phone from Houston, where she is training with Kelley. “Anything can happen.”
Bob Hurley, father and coach, shares Courtney’s optimism. He points out that his daughters, both Warren High School graduates, have won multiple world championships and boast ample Olympic experience. Kelley has qualified for her third Olympiad, Courtney for her second.
“I didn’t see how it could get any better than winning bronze,” Bob said. “But they are better fencers now than they were four years ago. So it’s possible.”
The Hurleys have reason to believe. In London, the U.S. women’s épée team competed without Kelley through the semifinals, where it lost to Korea. Before the bronze medal match against Russia, Susie Scanlan, a fencer from St. Paul, Minn., did the unthinkable. She withdrew from the competition.
Uninjured, Scanlan offered her spot to Kelley.
“She felt guilty about not performing well against Korea,” Kelley said, “and felt I was fencing very well and could help the team win bronze against Russia.”
In short, one fencer decided a U.S. teammate provided a better matchup against the Russians. When does that ever happen?
In the fifth of nine regulation bouts, Kelley defeated Anna Sivkova, 4-1. In the final bout, though, Sivkova beat Courtney, 5-3, to force an extra period. Kelley shut her eyes, nerves tightening, her stomach unsettled, feeling as if she might throw up. Sixteen seconds into extra time, Courtney landed a touch for the winning point.
Fencing runs in the family. Bob, a retired physician, and Tracy Hurley were nationally-ranked in épée, traveling to tournaments with their little girls in tow. Then the inevitable happened. Kelley picked up a weapon, Courtney followed, and soon the sisters were competing and winning under their father, who coached them.
They spent their high school years juggling plane tickets and passports. Kelley (class of 2008) and Courtney (class of 2006) competed in Budapest and Barcelona, Athens and Luxembourg, Sydney and Rome. The Hurleys spent one weekend in Linz, Austria, winning the Junior and Cadet World Championships, another in Acireale, Italy, winning the Junior World Championships. The miles and expenses added up.
In those adolescent years, Kelley and Courtney were fierce rivals.
“Once I realized Courtney was able to beat me and could be better than me it was hard to deal with at first,” Kelley said. “There was emotion and drama.”
The emotion faded in college, the drama disappeared. At Notre Dame, Kelley grew in self-confidence and stopped comparing herself to her younger sister. When Courtney arrived two years later, they became roommates and best friends, winning NCAA championships.
The post-Notre Dame years included more international triumphs, two Olympic games for Kelley, one for Courtney. On occasion, they compete against each other, but without the ferocity that marked their bouts 10 years ago.
Consider the recent Pan American Games. On June 22, Kelley defeated Courtney in the semifinals and Venezuela’s Maria Martinez for gold. Courtney won bronze. How did that feel?
“It didn’t matter which of us won because we had both qualified for the Olympics,” Kelley said.
“Whether she wins first or I win first, we consider it two golds,” Courtney said. “We’re Team Hurley.”
Team Hurley might dissolve after Rio de Janeiro. While Courtney intends to keep fencing, Kelley wants to finish her master’s degree in public health at the UT Health Science Center’s School of Public Health. After graduate school, she’s contemplating medical school. But she’s also considering a run for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“Originally, we didn’t plan on this long of a career in sports,” Bob said. “I thought Kelley would go to medical school and Courtney was interested in law. But after three Olympics, you have to consider this as a career possibility.”
Fencing can be kind to aging athletes. Elaine Cheris competed at the 1996 Atlanta Games at 50. Jujie Luan, an Olympic gold medalist in 1984, competed in the 2008 Beijing Games at 50. Then there was Karl Münich of Austria, who competed at the 1912 Stockholm Games at 63.
The Hurleys are kids, not yet 30. They’re young enough to believe that maybe they can replicate 2012, that perhaps another out-of-the-blue moment will strike.
Four years ago, the Hurleys were thinking, “Do you believe in miracles,” and then Courtney got one. She defeated Sivkova to give the U.S. its first team bronze in épée, and the Hurleys have been believing ever since.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Kelley Hurley intends on completing a graduate degree in public health at UTSA. She will do so at the UT Health Science Center’s School of Public Health.
Top image: Courtney (left) and Kelley Hurley at a national tournament in Portland two years ago (2014). Photo courtesy of the Hurley family.