Fencing and college admissions in NYC

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A former athlete on the inside world of an elite competitive sport


  • The author (right) fencing at a college event. Photo: Bea So

Top fencers have an enormous advantage when it comes to elite university admissions. In order to reach the highest levels of the sport, athletes have to put in years of intense training. Just as importantly, they have to have financial backing. The kids who trained in the Manhattan fencing club I attended had that monetary support. They went to private schools or the selective specialized high schools. They had parents who understood the long term payoffs of high level fencing. These parents closely examined the poster hanging on the fencing club wall which listed the names of the universities former students had attended; Harvard, Princeton, Duke, UPenn, Cornell, Harvard again, Princeton again; not Yale, which doesn’t give the admissions bump to fencers that the other universities do.

The parents of fencers and young athletes in other obscure expensive sports spend money on their children in order to give them an edge. It’s almost not surprising that, as The Boston Globe reported recently, a wealthy father might cross the line of legality and spend even more in order to ensure his son a place on the Harvard fencing team. (The father in question bought the fencing coach’s home at a vastly inflated price, and his son was admitted to Harvard.)

When I talk about money in fencing, I’m not talking about the money that pays for equipment, although that’s no joke. The equipment is expensive and breaks or wears out regularly, which means at least some of it has to be replaced several times a year. But there’s also the training: group classes four to six days a week and multiple private lessons a week. Each private lesson costs extra. There’s also the cost of traveling to competitions to build up performance readiness, even before any winning starts to happen. Later, athletes travel to national or even international events in order to build up points. The better the fencers do in these events, the more points they get and the higher their rankings become. This means paying for tournament fees, cars, planes and hotel rooms. There is an excellent club in New York City which provides scholarships for underserved athletes. But, for most fencers’ families, these costs come out of pocket.

I started fencing at age twelve. My parents weren’t too sold on the extra lessons and travel and I didn’t have a strong enough interest to push it. I started training harder late, in my junior year of high school, when college recruitment starts. I applied to universities with division three fencing teams. In division three, the university coach puts the names of recruits on a list and if your scores and grades approximate the requirements, you get a little boost in admissions. The division one schools, including the Ivies, are more generous toward their top recruits, but you must still have high test scores and grades.

In my freshman year of college, the training I’d put in the year before came through. I medaled twice nationally. That was my peak. In order to improve, fencers need a highly trained coach skilled in teaching their specific weapon. They need to train most days of the week for multiple hours. They need private lessons geared toward their particular strengths and weaknesses. Even the most well-endowed universities can’t usually provide this. There just aren’t that many highly skilled coaches.

The Post-college Experience

The fencers who go on to compete successfully nationally and internationally through college and after tend to choose universities close to their original fencing clubs. This allows them to retain the coaching expertise they need to excel during their college years. For the fencers whose families supported their athletic careers primarily as an in to the Ivies, serious training usually ends in college. After all, fencing can’t help students get into medical or law school.

After graduating, I went back to my old fencing club and tried to regain the skills I had lost in college. In exchange for free training, I taught for the club at a reduced salary. At first, it felt good to focus on a sport after so many years of sitting in school. But after three years of wearing athletic clothes every day, I started to eye women’s business attire on the street. How nice to be able to wear a skirt to work!

At the club, the conversation, of course, was always about fencing. The other instructors discussed who won, who lost, which coach snubbed another. The students discussed their grades, SAT scores and the logistics of college admissions. I liked them, I loved fencing, but I was starting to feel like I was stuck in some kind of high school time warp.

At my last competition, it became clear that the seemingly minor injury I’d sustained a week before was more serious than I’d thought. It took me three and a half months to find a doctor who would treat the painful tendonitis in my hip. Meanwhile, I couldn’t train. Although I kept teaching, demonstrating fencing movements during instruction exacerbated my symptoms. I also didn’t want to show up to teach if the nausea from a cortisone shot, or some other symptom, made me unable to ensure my students’ safety. Children practicing movements with big metal sticks is no joke. It necessitates unwavering attentiveness on the part of the teacher.

I told my coach I was leaving in November. I co-taught my last class in December with a freshman college student I’d been training with at the club. After the class ended, he asked, “How long have you been fencing?”

“Fourteen years,” I said.

“It’s the end of an era.”

“Yeah, it is.”

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