Pip Millett collaborator and former Olympian Race Imboden on fencing, activism, and filmmaking


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Pip Millett collaborator and former Olympian Race Imboden on fencing, activism, and filmmaking

Following Pip Millett’s return to the COLORS stage earlier this week, we spoke to her collaborator Race Imboden, a three-time Olympian, World Champion fencer, social change advocate and artist. He discusses everything from directing Millett’s recently released autobiographical short film ‘Pipsqueak’ to the importance of using your voice to speak up for what you believe in. Read the full conversation below.

You began fencing at age 8. What attracted you to the sport?

One day I was playing with a toy lightsaber at a park in Atlanta. Someone saw me and told my parents that they should put me into fencing classes. I did lessons for a while before we moved to New York. When we got there, the temporary apartment we lived in was directly across the street from a fencing club. It was kind of like fate.

You rose to success quite quickly after that. You entered your first competition at 11, won your first Senior National Championship at 17, and went to the Olympics the following year. What was it like to be so successful at such a young age?

In those early years, when other kids were going to summer camp, I would stay home to train. When I realized I had a knack for it I tripled downed on training. That’s why I picked it up so quickly. I was very lucky to have brilliant mentors and to be surrounded by other people at the fencing club who were incredibly passionate about the sport.

You’ve used your position as an athlete to raise awareness about various socio-political issues. At the 2019 Lima Pan American Games games, for example, you took a knee on the podium. Can you tell us about your journey as social justice advocate?

Taking the knee in 2019 was spontaneous and in response to gun violence in the US. Then, at the 2021 Olympics, my fellow athlete Gwen Barry asked me to write an ‘X’ on my hand as a demonstration against rule 50, a regulation that prohibits political, racial and religious activism at the games. For me, this was a symbol of solidarity with the athletes who are most affected by that rule.

The first time I took action feels like a long time ago, but the cause is still relevant. Now I’m living in France where they’re going through their own social movements, such as fighting against the ban on Muslim women wearing the hijab in public. I believe using your voice in times like these is essential. The actions that follow your words are equally important.

Are there any specific causes you feel particularly connected to at the moment? 

The one I always speak about is gun violence. Gun violence in the US is horrific. While it is something that can affect everyone on a broad spectrum, it disproportionately affects people of color in the U.S.

“I believe using your voice in times like these is essential.”

For people who aren’t fully informed on this topic, or don’t know where to start learning about gun violence, what would you recommend?

Everytown for Gun Safety is the largest anti-gun violence organization in the world. They have meet ups and protests all over the U.S. Moms Demand Action is another powerful and brilliant organization.

Outside of fencing you’re a visual artist working mostly with film. What interested you in this medium? 

As a fencer a camera was never far from my reach: I was always fascinated by film. My experiences in sport informed my first ever project. As a result, a company called ‘Reigning Champ’ reached out to me and asked me to direct a commercial piece for them called ‘The Last Traveling Swordsman’. Since then the opportunities have kept rolling in.

You recently worked with Ysaora Thibus, who is also your partner, on the short film ‘AN ATHLETE IS AN ISLAND’. It was made in partnership with Lacoste and you worked as both the writer and the director. 

I know Ysa better than I know anyone else on Earth. On top of that, we share a sport, so working on this specific project was very intimate. To have her trust me to tell her story on film was a huge deal.

Ysaora Thibus in Race's film 'AN ATHLETE IS AN ISLAND'

Ysa is from the island of Guadeloupe and she fences for the French team. The film is a soft and active portrait of her. We shot it in the Racing Fencing Club in Paris, a location with several layers of significance. It was where Laura Flessel trained, the first woman from Guadeloupe to win an Olympic gold medal and the former French Minister for Sport. She helped develop the sport on her island, and Ysa benefited from her work and successes. Flessel is the narrator of the film—she speaks in both French and Creole in it. To have Lacoste support a work with Creole is a big deal as the language is a huge part of the culture on this island. Of course this holds huge significance to Ysa as well.

Most recently, you worked with COLORS alumnus Pip Millett on a short film titled ‘Pipsqueak’. How did you and Pip first meet?

Around the time Pip did her first A COLORS SHOW, I posted a story saying “I don’t want to invest in bitcoin, I want to invest in this girl’s voice.” I tagged her and she responded. From there we kept in touch and became friends.

How did ‘Pipsqueak’ come to be?

Pip messaged me explaining she wanted to create an intimate portrait of herself. She saw my film ‘The Duality of Sport’ and liked the concept of that, so we worked from there.

Pip Millett in the autobiographical short film 'Pipsqueak', directed by Race Imboden

“When Pip is not performing she’s quiet, her laugh is gentle…

….the way she conducts herself is very soft.”

‘Pipsqueak’ is an evocative peek into Pip Millett’s personal life. It follows Pip through personal environments such as her mothers home, her bedroom, in her shower. Why was it important to the vision to show Pip in vulnerable spaces of comfort?

Those vulnerable spaces are a part of who she is. Those are her spaces; that’s her town and her world. I believe it’s a showcase of vulnerability when you invite people into those spaces. It shows who you really are.

If you know Pip, and compare her private self to the girl she is when she’s on stage singing, you know the audience is just getting a portion of her; a boiled down, compressed version. When she’s not performing she’s quiet, her laugh is gentle, and the way she conducts herself is very soft. I was very interested in that contrast, her on stage versus how I knew her.

Having Pip feel comfortable enough to have me stay in her town built the foundation of trust we needed to create this project together. It was so interesting to be there with her, and to see her in spaces I’d never imagined her in. I began working by photographing the areas I thought we could shoot in and that would amplify the theme. From there, we conducted hours and hours of interviews before going over them to pinpoint aspects of her story that corresponded with those intimate spaces. It was very much a collaboration, one that wouldn’t have been possible without Pip’s trust and control of the narrative.

A still from 'Pipsqueak'

Race Imboden is a world renowned athlete and artist who recently directed an autobiographical short for English artist Pip Millett. This interview was conducted in line with Millett’s return to COLORS on 16 April 2024. You can watch her performance of ‘better’ from her new EP ‘Tell Jimmy’ on our YouTube channel.

Text: Katerina Lytras
Photography: Race Imboden


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