Compatriots clash in early matchups

The early showdown between two of Russia's best underscores one of the great tensions in Olympic fencing, which kicks off on Saturday.

Timur Safin won a bronze medal at the 2014 World Championships.   -  Getty Images

Russian fencing teammates Timur Safin and Alexey Cheremisinov are ready to take on the world together, but their first foes are closer to home: each other.

The early showdown between two of Russia's best underscores one of the great tensions in Olympic fencing, which kicks off on Saturday.

While scores of fencers at the Rio de Janeiro Games will compete in team events, the first challenge before them is an individual tournament with everyone out for themselves. Friends and training partners are fighting to eliminate each other one day and then have each other's backs the next.

For the world's top-ranked foil fencer, Alexander Massialas, Thursday's draw means his second opponent may be U.S. team-mate Miles Chamley-Watson, the first American man to take individual gold at a world championship.

China's top two foil fencers, Ma Jianfei and Chen Haiwei, may also cross swords in the last 16, while British teammates James-Andrew Davis and Laurence Halsted are lined up for a quarter-final clash.

“It's a very tough thing to balance psychologically. One day you're fighting your heart out and giving everything for your teammate, and on the other day that person is your competition," said U.S. Olympian Daryl Homer. He and the other men fencing saber will avoid that dilemma in Rio, along with the women fencing foil, as those weapons' team events rotated out of the Games this year.

Although many fencers say they have learned to flip the switch between friend and foe, the relief was palpable on Thursday when the U.S. women's epee team learned during a news conference that they would avoid each other in early rounds.

“We're all in different brackets!” Katharine Holmes told team-mates Courtney and Kelley Hurley, sisters who have never faced each other in a world competition.

“Alright!” they exclaimed of the fact they can not meet until at least the semi-finals.