It is a phenomenon that happens on several Ivy League campuses each year. Maybe it’s a freshman student, a fellow student-athlete, or maybe it’s a graduate student or professor who has been around campus for years. Or it could be the team’s newest sports information director or another administrator. Inevitably though, some Ivy Leaguer finds his or her way to a fencing meet for the first time and is struck by the newness of it all.
First the sounds are heard emanating from a gym, back room or what had been thought of as a basketball court. The unmistakable clink-clink-clink of metal meeting metal with force and intent, the feet shuffling on grates or sneakers squeaking on strips, some electronic beeping and chirping followed quickly by, on most occasions, two loud protestations claiming a touch. And beeping. Always more electronic beeping.
Venture forward and the frenetic sights augment the sounds. The meets and bouts turn out to be ordered chaos that includes the whirring activity of sabre charges, of foil ripostes and of the epeeist’s patient bounces followed by swift and exacting attacks. All told it can be quite a sensory overload.
The world of fencing is often mysterious and quite surprising to those who stumble upon it for the first time because most people have had less exposure to the sport than, for example basketball or swimming. Walking by a gym and seeing students shooting baskets or walking past the pool and seeing people swim laps does not incite the same kind of wonder.
That sense of wonder is part of what makes fencing so interesting. Most people cannot recall the first time they witnessed a basketball being shot or a baseball being tossed. But some of us can recall that first time we saw swords clash as part of a fencing competition.
And it is even more interesting to consider how these student-athletes picked up their epees, foils and sabres in the first place.
By world-class fencing standards, current Cornell head coach Iryna Dolgikh got a late start. She was 15 when a woman named Nelya Kovrizhenko presented a member of Dolgikh’s class with the opportunity to join a local fencing team. After Kovrizhenko left, Dolgikh was excused from class and noticed Kovrizhenko crying in the hallway because, after similar visits to seven schools, nobody had signed up to join the fencing team. Dolgikh immediately joined and also convinced 10 of her friends to do the same.
Thus the career of world champion was born. Just two years later, Dolgikh was invited to attend Ukraine’s Olympic Reserve Training School. Dolgikh, who had been taking classes at a school for gifted science students, decided to pursue her fencing career instead.
“My dad was supportive but my mom was a little upset,” Dolgikh laughed. “She thought I’d be a professor.”
Dolgikh went on to claim the women’s foil gold at the 1976 World Championships and was also a gold medalist at the 1977 World Cup. She has been leading the Big Red women’s fencing team since the summer of 2005.
In terms of starting age, Princeton’s Jonathan Yergler beat Dolgikh by eight years as he began fencing at the age of 7 but admits he did not compete seriously until he was 10. With the help of his parents, Yergler found the sport by virtue of a trial and error process.
“I was always a toddler who ran around with sticks and all the traditional stick sports were not that interesting to me,” recalled the 2010 All-Ivy first team selection. “We found a local fencing club and I started trying it out. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Overcoming a lack of training options became a mere obstacle, which Yergler dealt with on his way to getting into Princeton and joining the fencing team.
“Plenty of other people, even on our team, have had just as much working against them and they succeeded in their endeavors too,” Yergler asserted. “I’ve always had very supportive parents and people who believed in me along the way.”
Columbia’s Alex Pensler got involved at an even younger age and would have joined earlier if only he had been allowed to do so.
“I tried to start fencing when I was 4 but the coach at the fencing club told me to come back in a year, not expecting to see me again, because I was too young and could barely hold a blade,” Pensler shared. “The next year, on my fifth birthday, I told my dad that I wanted to go back to the fencing club and try fencing.”
Pensler, a freshman foilist, attributes his interest in the sport to several factors including what his mother approved of as far as toys were concerned, King Arthur and his father’s keen eye.
His mother disproved of Pensler having toy guns as a kid and, “As a result I got into fighting with play swords and reading about King Arthur.”
Pensler’s father noticed the more than occasional swordplay and thought of fencing. “I loved the idea when he told me about fencing. After going for a few times after my birthday I fell in love with fencing.”
Looking back on his journey thus far, Pensler admits some surprise, “But as I got better and learned about college fencing I knew I wanted to go to Columbia so I could be a part of the long success that the fencing program has had.”
Penn’s Danielle Kamis found the sport at the suggestion of a Hebrew tutor while studying for her Bat-Mitzvah in the fifth grade. The sons of her tutor’s friend were avid fencers and so Kamis began attending a weekly fencing class on Friday evenings at Harcum College, a local community college outside of Philadelphia.
“I did not even have a weapon in my hand for the first six months of training until I earned it,” said Kamis. “As my skills improved and I became more involved in the sport I started to travel into the city of Philadelphia to the actual fencing academy where I fenced three times a week.”
Kamis fenced foil at first but after a few years decided that sabre was a better fit. It seems the senior made the right choice, having made the NCAA women’s sabre field in all three of her seasons thus far. She even earned honorable mention All-America status in 2008.
“One of the happiest days of my life was when I found out about my acceptance to Penn that [meant] I would be able to be a part of the Penn fencing community,” Kamis said.
Yale’s Peter G. Cohen’s fencing beginnings are draped heavily in Bulldog blue. His older sister, Hilary, also attended Yale and when she returned home for a break during her freshman year, she brought along some friends including classmate Michael Pearce.
Cohen, an eighth grader at the time, listened to Pearce talk about how he was on the Yale fencing team and about how, while in high school, he attended the 17th Maccabiah Games — a sort of international Jewish Olympics that have been held every four years since 1957. Pearce went on to earn All-Ivy recognition in all four of his seasons at Yale, including three first-team nods.
“[I] was really excited about it after talking to Michael and a few months later I tried it,” Cohen remembered. “It was really lucky because there is an excellent fencing club only 10 minutes from my house and I went over right after eighth grade and took a lesson with Alexy Cheremsky, who has been my coach ever since.”
To bring the story full circle, Cohen, now a junior, not only followed in Pearce’s footsteps as far as fencing at Yale is concerned but between his junior and senior years in high school, Cohen was part of the American epee squad that captured silver at the 18th Maccabiah Games in Israel. Joining Cohen as part of that epee team was Pearce. The duo also squared off in the individual championship, with Pearce edging Cohen 15-14.
“It was really exciting for me to come so close to winning because only four years earlier he had been talking about his experience in Israel when I had no idea what fencing was.”
But Cohen exacted revenge this past fall, topping Pearce in the semifinals of Yale’s annual Dernel Every Open, in which the current squad faces off against alumni. Cohen went on to capture the championship.
“Looking towards the future, I hope that I can live up to Mike’s collegiate success.”
For Brown’s Caitlin Taylor, fencing has been an intricate part of an uplifting story of how hard work and dedication can pay off. Originally motivated to take up the sport by the swashbuckling scenes of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and his cast mates in 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” Taylor began fencing at the age of 12. But was soon forced to give up her newfound hobby.
“Unfortunately, six months later, my arthritis caused my knees to collapse and I had to use a wheelchair for close to six months,” recalled the current sophomore. “After physical therapy and various conditioning, I taught myself how to walk again and picked up fencing once more when I was a sophomore in high school.”
The California native has been fencing for the four years since she learned to walk again and is ecstatic that the opportunity to continue that career presented itself at Brown, where she enjoys her studies just as much.
“I adore the curriculum and was overjoyed to know Atilio Tass was the head coach and had an NCAA fencing team.”
The recollections of just this small sample of student-athletes make it clear that being introduced to the sport of fencing, as either a participant or spectator, often has lasting results.