Fencing travels to Ohio State for Midwest fencing conference

This past weekend, the men’s and women’s fencing teams traveled to Columbus, Ohio, where Ohio State University hosted the conference matches Saturday and Sunday.

. I interviewed head fencing coach Michael Hall and asked how he thought the performance as a group varied from Saturday to Sunday. Coach Hall answered, “There were different events depending on which day. The event on Saturday was an individual event. Most of my team did really well individually. They began the day well, but then when they hit the top two or three schools, which were Ohio State and Northwestern, they struggled, which is common. But it seemed to me that overall their spirit and mental fortitude seemed to be a lot stronger at first on Saturday compared to Sunday. On Sunday, the team event took place. The team overall seemed to struggle more on this day. I think a lot of that had to do with the fatigue of the two-day event, but also because team events can be more stressful than the individual ones. This is because there is more pressure. For example, they may feel like they are letting their team down if they lose. Also, yelling and cheering happens a lot more during a team event than it does in an individual event, and that can be upsetting and create some dysfunction among individuals, especially the freshmen who are not used to it. However, the overall results on Sunday were good for us.” It makes sense why the team overall would do better the first day with “fresher legs,” as Hall commented on.

I also asked what Hall believes is key to having a successful match and what the hardest thing to maintain is. He said, “I think it is always mental. Certainly, for some people it’s the physical aspect, but I think if you are strong mentally and emotionally, you can overcome physical weaknesses, like when you’re tired or have an injury. However, anything physical can become an impediment or a blockade for your performance. The mental and emotional game is key to success.”

I asked him: Are you happy with the team’s performance and who do you think did really well and what did they accomplish? Coach Hall responded, “Everybody on my team had a great performance. We’re a very small program. There are even some clubs out there like Michigan and Michigan State who have a much larger number of fencers. It always helps when you have more teammates because that means there are more people that can help you improve, but considering how small our numbers are, I am very proud of our performance. There are certain individuals who really stepped up this weekend, like [senior] Arianna Calderon who is the women’s team captain. She started fencing for the first time four years ago. She worked so hard over the past four years and she has improved not only as a player, but as a teammate. She is now a team captain and she’s shown and developed a tremendous amount of leadership. This past year she struggled in her conference events earlier in the season, but this year she really turned that around and her individual events were very strong. She led her team to a very high placement, which I haven’t seen in a long time. She had some personal victories where she beat people she hadn’t beaten before. She won her first reclamation bout ever—that’s a 15-touch bout as opposed to a 5-touch bout. So she had some great personal successes this past weekend. I am very proud of the effort they have put in.” It’s enlightening to see how much growth and passion the team and coach possess, and that is why both the men and women fencers are becoming even more successful every year.

Finally, I asked Hall what is something that he thinks the group as a whole did well at conference. He said, “They are very supportive of each other. That’s been a growing theme with my team over the last couple years. It’s easy as a fencer, being that fencing is an individual sport, to wander off on your own and be sad or happy about it. It’s a different thing to be able to stay right there with the rest of your team and cheer them on and provide support when necessary and even provide some coaching. I am a solo coach, and at team events there’s maybe four or five team events happening at the same time. Because I am not always able to be at every bout, the team has really stepped up by providing coaching advice, and emotional support when there’s a bad bout, so I am really happy with the way they have developed along those lines. Of course, they have improved as fencers as well, but the growth as a cohesive team unit has been what I am most proud of and that really showed this weekend.”

 In talking with senior captain of the women’s team Ariana Calderon-Zalvala, I asked why she chooses to use the foil as her weapon as opposed to épée or sabre. She said, “The pacing in foil is very distinct. In épée, there is a lot of patience and pacing back and forth, since the entire body is a target. In sabre, it is very fast-paced since any part of the blade (not just the tip) can contact your upper body. In foil, however, it seems like an equal balance for me. I can be patient in setting up an attack, since the tip of the blade needs to make the contact, and still be a pretty aggressive fencer.”

Regarding the differences of a conference competition, Calderon-Zalvala said, “Conference is different in that there is an individual event. For every other tournament we travel to, it is a team event. We compete as a women’s team and a men’s team in our foil, sabre and épée squads. This is to say that the Lawrence women’s foil squad will compete with the Northwestern women’s foil squad. Once that is finished, we fence the next school and the next school. In the individual event, you are alone fencing in ‘pools.’ ‘Pools’ are where you are assigned to fence anywhere from five to seven other people in your gender and squad. You fence each person for up to five touches. At the end, they look at how well each fencer did, and we are assigned a seed. This is where direct eliminations (DE’s) happen. You fence your assigned fencer for up to 15 touches or finish once three separate three-minute periods are over. If you lose, you are done for the day. If you win, you keep fencing until you lose. On Sunday, we have our normal team event, except you fence until the first school makes it to five wins. This is different from normal events because everyone keeps fencing until you fence everyone representing that school. It is also different because at Conference, we aren’t allowed a one-minute time-out to help coach our teammates against whoever they are fencing.”

In regards to how the conference match went, Calderon-Zalvala said, “Saturday went pretty well! It was my first time beating someone in DE and it was awesome. I beat this girl who was seeding higher than me, 15-4. After that, I fenced the girl who was placed third in the tournament and lost 15-1. Even though I lost, I kept up with my initial seeding by the end of the tournament which, for me, is a lot. I made it to the top 32 which is a big accomplishment considering how many people were there and how this is only my fourth year fencing. On Sunday, my squad did very well. We placed seventh in the tournament behind Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan University. Our épée squads did great! Both the men and women seeded third at the beginning of the tournament, which is fantastic! Especially since they are squads made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores in addition to our shining juniors. By the end of the tournament, our men’s épée squad won third in the tournament behind Ohio State and Wayne State. For women’s épée, junior Carson Becker placed 22 out of 56 and sophomore Maggie Wright placed 25 out of 56. For men’s epee, junior Jakub Nowak placed ninth out of 61 fencers, sophomore Vinzenz Mayer placed 12th out of 61, sophomore Cameron Maas placed 25th out of 61 and freshman Noah Bradley placed 17th out of 61. For foil, freshman Sammi Hansen placed 17th out of 45 and sophomore Bea Gee placed 21st out of 45 despite having an injury this entire season. In men’s foil, senior Nathan Schlesinger placed sixth in the individual event. Overall, men’s foil placed fifth at conference! In sabre, junior Allison Kim placed 10th out of 46 and freshman Lexi Praxl placed 15th out of 46. Despite having an incomplete squad, our women’s sabre placed fifth in conference.”

Now that is a big accomplishment, especially when considering how small Lawrence’s team is compared to other schools and all the benefits that athletics in other schools may get because they are going to Division 1 schools. Despite this accomplishment, there are always going to be setbacks or difficulties, so I asked Calderon-Zalvala what was challenging about conference and what she struggled with. She said, “Having to compete against fencers on the Canadian national team or schools with seven to ten people on their squads. There are schools like Ohio State or Northwestern University who attract Olympic fencers—fencers on the national teams of several countries. It’s a lot to go up against, especially when you want to fence your best and represent Lawrence proudly. Personally, I know a few other fencers and I struggled with performance anxiety. It is very real and scary, especially with how fast-paced the environment is and how much is happening around you. People are cheering, people are screaming, people are yelling advice to you, your opponent is trying to ambush you, etc. It is a lot to process when you only have three minutes to win. What makes it worse is the individual event. We only have one coach and your teammates are fencing in their own pools at the same time as you, so you are virtually alone, and it can be very unsettling at times, especially if you lose against a person you thought you could beat or if it was a very close bout.”

Considering how she has been playing for four years now at Lawrence, I asked Calderon-Zalvala how her other experiences at conference compared to this one, and how her struggles changed over time. She said, “Personally, I fenced better at conference than I ever have in previous years or even this season. Since I started fencing my freshman year at Lawrence, I have  been pretty behind skill-wise. My teammates have been fencing for nine-plus years and, when we compete, we go up against other very talented fencers. In previous years, I always felt as though I didn’t contribute to my team’s success. It is thanks to my teammates this year and last that I have become a better fencer. Thanks to them, I have been able to use more skills and can comprehend more fencing concepts. The years on the team and the experience I gained at tournaments have also given me a better sense of how to manage competitions. More importantly, I think the big difference between this conference and previous years, besides more experience, is my role as a team captain. As women’s team captain, I have had to give lots of pep talks to fencers who felt as though they didn’t fence well or who felt like they let people down. This is obviously not the case, and we are proud and lucky to have them on our team. I think all these heart-to-heart conversations that help bolster team support helped me relieve some of the burden I have felt in the past. I found myself taking my bouts more lightly and being more confident than previous years because I know that no matter the placings we get or how many times I lose or win, my teammates are there for me and they believe in me.”

I asked Calderon-Zalvala how she got into fencing, why she started and why she still plays it today at Lawrence. She said, “I have to give credit to Beth De Stasio for this one. When I was a freshman she asked what my typical day would look like. She looked it over and asked where my wellness activity was. Coming from north Georgia, wellness is not something we talk about. Funnily enough, the activities fair was going on. I walked over to Warch and ran into the fencing team. I had never heard of fencing before and my friend thought it would be fun to do it together. I did the beginner’s lessons and, after finishing them, the captain of the team asked if I would be interested in joining. I said yes, and the rest is history. Since I started as a beginner my freshman year of college, many people ask why I keep doing it. I also say the love and support from my teammates, who I now consider family, has kept me from leaving the team.”  Since Ariana is a senior and is leaving soon, I asked her to reflect upon her time here at Lawrence and asked what her favorite fencing memory has been. She said, “Wow, there are just so many. From having Secret Santa to birthday parties, there are so many memories to choose from. I would have to say when we won third place overall as a team at Conference. After a long day of team events, we had the awards ceremony. The guy with the microphone kept announcing Ohio State University or Northwestern University winning first place and second place. Then they announced the overall team awards. The guy said, ‘And this year, earning third place overall as a team…the University of…’ and so we all tuned out. Out of nowhere we hear, ‘The University of…My bad, Lawrence University!’ The entire team looked at each other, and everyone goes, ‘Is that us?’ Our coach said, ‘Go up there!’ We all scramble to zip up our jackets and the next thing we know, here we are amidst the sea of red and purple jackets—roughly 50 Ohio State fencers and around 30 Northwestern girls. Since the award ceremony was over, everyone wanted a photo-op and Lawrence was striking all the poses.”

Lawrence’s fencing team in general is a prime example of how you can defy the odds. Sure, they are still struggling with numbers, resources and only having one coach, but it is the limited resources that they do have, partnered with the love and support that they have for each other, that will guide them to even more success in the future.