Monica Aksamit is a saber fencing champion who earned a bronze medal for Team USA at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil. The Brooklyn-based athlete, who is currently training for the next Olympics, spends her not-so-free time recording her podcast, “On the Fence,” modeling with Ford Models, making excellent TikTok videos, and going on long walks with her two dogs, Pongo the Dalmatian and Oro the rescue from Peru.
Did you grow up with dogs?
I’ve always been obsessed with animals. Any Disney movie I watched was always the one with animals—I wouldn’t reach for “Cinderella.” I’d reach for “Lion King.” I was six years old when we adopted a year-and-a-half-old Dalmatian named Orion from a Polish family like ours.
“I don’t know when I realized that I was a dog person, but if we’re having a conversation and a dog walks by—you’ve lost me. I’m gone. I’m running across the street to meet the dog.”
He was incredible. He was a sweetheart who was great with me. As a kid, I wanted to ride him like a horse. I would put my fingers in his ears. He let me get away with everything. And if he did get annoyed, he would bark. He got brain cancer when I was 15, and my mom put him down. I was heartbroken—but I’ve always wanted a dog since then, and I’ve loved Dalmatians since then.
For seven years, I kept trying to convince my mom to get another dog. And then when I was moving back home, on my journey for the Olympics, my mom said, “You know what? You can get a dog. It’ll teach you some responsibility, and you’ll have a companion.” So, we got Pongo. I was planning to move to Oregon for training for fencing, and I was going to bring Pongo with me—I can’t imagine not having him on a daily basis. My mom’s always wanted to have puppies, so she got our female Dalmatian, Nala, to breed Dalmatians. Turns out, she’s not interested in Pongo—so that has not worked out for us.
As for Oro, I was sightseeing in Peru, and I was coming down Machu Picchu. I had been feeding dogs all over Peru. I would eat a burger and see some homeless dogs and cut a piece to feed all the dogs around me. I was sitting on a bench this time, and my teammate had gone to the ATM. I put my hand out, and Oro sniffed it. Then, I petted him. Next thing I know, he has his two paws and head in my lap. And then suddenly, he was in my lap. My teammate was like, “What did you do?” I did nothing! He got into my lap, and he went to sleep immediately.
I fell in love with him. I mean, I fall in love with every dog. I don’t know when I realized that I was a dog person, but if we’re having a conversation and a dog walks by—you’ve lost me. I’m gone. I’m running across the street to meet the dog.
As soon as I put him down, he jumped back up, trying to get on top of me. I was getting sad that I was leaving him, so I posted on my Instagram story, “If you see this dog, send me a photo. Feed him for me!” So many Peruvians followed us during the Pan American Games, so I knew there was a chance that someone would be up there to feed this dog.
He followed me to the train station, so I started sobbing out loud like the end of the world was happening. On the train, people on Instagram reached out to me, asking “Why don’t you bring him home?” I just didn’t know how—but by the end of the one-and-a-half-hour long train ride, I had a vet, a cage, and a flight for the dog.
Usually, I ask, “How did you pick the dog?” But he picked you! So, how do you balance between training for the Olympics and being a dog mom?
I have other people, obviously. Dalmatians are such loyal creatures, and they need to be with you. My roommates have told me that when I’m away, he’s a different dog—he’s a lot more anxious. I’m that dog mom who needs a photo every few days so I know he’s alive. Now that I live in Brooklyn, my commute is only 30 minutes instead of 90 minutes like before, so I get to spend more time with the dogs. I walk the dogs in the morning, go to the gym, eat lunch, take the dogs out again, and then go to practice. When I’m not around, my roommates hang out with Pongo.
That’s so great that you have a support system for your dogs. Have your dogs been a support system for you—especially since training for the Olympics so stressful mentally and physically?
It’s not a commonly known fact, but I battled depression before the Rio Olympics because you give up so much—you don’t see your friends and you’re training, and you have one goal. Failure is always on your mind. I would not have made it without Pongo. With my first dog, Orion, my parents were going through a divorce and he was there for me—dogs can really feel what you’re going through. When I’m super sick, Pongo just sits on top of me. Even though he wants to go out, he won’t leave my side.
“I can’t really run on concrete, but this dog doesn’t stop. You have to drag him out of the park. He’s like me—I don’t like rest days either.”
How would you describe Pongo’s personality?
He’s incredibly intelligent. If you think he’s stupid in a situation, it’s literally him tricking you—he wants you to think he’s stupid. He comprehends so much, he’s well-behaved, he’s well-trained, but he pushes the limits. For example, with my new roommates, he tries to test their boundaries. He tries to get close to their food and when I come out of my room to look at him, he walks away like he wasn’t doing anything.
Is he as athletic as you are?
I can’t really run on concrete, but this dog doesn’t stop. You have to drag him out of the park. He’s like me—I don’t like rest days either.
What does an Olympian feed their dog?
Dalmatians are actually prone to kidney stones, so we have to be really careful with the amount of protein they get. We get him a special dog food from the feed store where you can buy food for horses, too. We lost our first dog to cancer, so I’m super particular about what I’m feeding him. He loves vegetables. This dog loves kale. When I put it in my eggs, he gets the stems. Oro does too—they’re always waiting. They also love carrots and apples and asparagus and watermelon. They eat healthier than most humans. Oro grew up eating trash, so I want to give him good food.
Has Pongo joined you in any modeling or influencer campaigns?
We did one for Halo Top, and we did one for a mattress company, too. They kind of stand out wherever they are, so it’s great when I get to work with them.
Tell us about your podcast, “On the Fence.”
It’s hard to describe because it’s about a lot of things—I have my foot in a lot of places. My first podcast was about the Olympic Village and I talked to another Olympian about parties. My second one’s about dating a narcissist. Then, I did an episode of dating horror stories. The next episode was about how I almost got married. We’re also going to talk to my sports psychologist about how I prepared for the Olympics. We’re going to talk about how female athletes feel regarding body shaming. We talked to my friend, the Polish American model Joanna Krupa, who is big in the dog world—she works with PETA, and she helped me rescue Oro. 90 percent of the proceeds from the episode go to animal charities.
Love how you’re building your own media empire. What about your modeling career?
I hate that athletic women aren’t being put on covers. Why is Karlie Kloss modeling for Adidas? She’s a sweetheart, she’s doing amazing things, but she’s not an athlete. She’s walked down the runways for Gucci and Prada and Victoria’s Secret. These are places I won’t be walking or representing because I’m an athlete. I’m worried that teenage girls will quit sports because they’ll start getting muscle, and that’s not something they want because of magazines and Victoria’s Secret. I want to change that perception.
What is your biggest extravagance on your dogs?
I make an egg white omelette, so they get that every morning. It helps their coat. But for their birthdays, we always give them soft-serve vanilla ice cream. We give it to all three of them—you can’t leave one dog out.
Photography by Tayler Smith