COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A crowd gathered around one of Ohio State junior fencer Mona Shaito’s round-robin NCAA Fencing Championship matches Thursday at French Field House. A voice cried, “Let‘s go, Mona!”
Did the encouraging shout come from a Buckeye fencing fan or family?
In her case, probably both. Among the spectators were Mai, Mona’s twin sister who is also a junior at Ohio State, and Zain, Mona’s older brother who is a senior at Ohio State and an Olympic hopeful for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games in modern pentathlon.
“It’s rare,” said Zain Shaito, who will begin play in the men’s portion of the championships Saturday. “I consider it a blessing for them to be on the team with me.”
“We’re pretty lucky,” Mai Shaito said. “Not many people get to compete on a team with their siblings, but we have the privilege to do that.”
And that means there’s always somebody yelling. Zain kept a close eye on Mona’s matches while also volunteering his time because Ohio State is the host school for this week’s championships. Mai stood at the edge of the spectator ropes at one end of the competition area.
After the first three rounds of the women’s competition Thursday, Mona Shaito was in a medal position. She won 12 of her 15 matches in women’s foil for third place behind defending national champion and 2012 Olympian Lee Kiefer of Notre Dame and Jackie Dubrovich of Columbia. Two more round-robin rounds will be held Friday, followed by the semifinals and finals.
A two-time All-American and bronze medalist at the 2013 national championships, Shaito is already an accomplished fencer individually.
But it is a second team national title that she covets.
“I honestly think it’s more of a team thing. It really is,” she said.
“This is really important to me, to win as a team That’s what I’m hoping.”
The last time the national championships were held at Ohio State was 2012. The Buckeyes won the national title. Zain Shaito was already on campus as a sophomore. Mona finished up high school early and began her freshman year in spring 2012, just in time to join the team and help it win NCAA’s biggest team prize in fencing. A few months later, she was headed to London for her first Olympic Games.
“It was amazing. An amazing experience,” Mona Shaito said. “It was a rush. Coming to Ohio State, winning the championship, qualifying for the Olympics, going to the Olympics. I mean, 2012 was my year. I don’t know if I can top it now.”
The memorable year began when Mona and Mai decided to follow Zain to Ohio State from Garland, Texas, where they grew up and three younger sisters still live with parents Talal and Kim. All are fencers. And Zain, a four-time member of the USA Fencing national team, is hoping all three (Malak, 18; Manal, 16; and Summer, 10) also attend school at Ohio State and join the fencing team.
For both Mona and Mai, having their brother with them on a big campus like Ohio State made a difference.
“I thought it would be hard to adjust,” Mona Shaito said. “Coming so quickly into college, I didn’t get a summer break. The transition was hard, but since my family was here, they really helped me through it.
"When I went to practice, the team was really welcoming.”
“You always have a friend. Your sibling will always be there for you,”
Mai Shaito said. “We never have to worry about drama with each other.
If we fight, the next day it’s like we’re over it. We always have each other’s backs and support each other in every competition. … It‘s just nice to have support coming from your family.”
The rest of the family will arrive from Texas on Friday to cheer for Mona and Zain. It will mark the end of an era. Once the national championships are over, Zain’s collegiate fencing days will be over and he’ll instead focus on training in the pentathlon for the 2016 Olympic Games.
“We’re all fencers,” said Mona Shaito. “So to see one go off, especially into a completely different realm, it’s hard. I’m not going to be able to watch my brother anymore at fencing competitions here. It is hard, but everyone changes, time changes. I just hope he does well and has a great last competition.”