The frustration still lingered in Ivan Lee’s voice as he stood on the gym floor following the last practice before going to the NCAA Championship. “Last year we lost by four points, but this year we want to win the championship without any doubt.” Lee and his teammates went halfway across the country looking for redemption and it earned a national championship.
The team that almost won last year capped off a fabulous stretch with the victory. They blazed through the field in the IFA Championships in Boston and previously sent senior Keeth Smart and sophomore Arlene Stevens to Sydney for the summer Olympics.
Thanks in large part to the stability coach Yury Gelman has brought to the program, St. John’s began the week as the best team in the land. The fencing team made history, becoming only the second team at St. John’s to win a national championship. But it definitely did not come easy.
“I know we worked very hard for it and coach worked really hard with us and we put in a lot of hours,” said Lee. “But we were able to get the job done under a lot of pressure.” Pressure like competing without its top fencer in the women’s bracket when freshman Irina Khouade went down with an injured ACL at the IFA Championships. At the time, Gelman was concerned and confident in his group. “It’s unfortunate that she is injured, but that just means that everyone is going to have to fence better and we are going to win one for her,” he said.
Clearly, the confidence that overflows Gelman’s demeanor and his almost casual approach to championship-level competition have rubbed off on his young team. Some of the members dyed their hair for the tournament. “I got the red hair, a couple of guys have blond hair…it was just to show a little team unity. It was fun,” said Lee. And yet, Gelman sounds as if a great weight has now been lifted off his shoulders. “Everyone is really happy. We’ve been trying to do this for at least the last three years and finally we did it,” he said.
On Friday, the first day of the competition, the men’s team set the pace when Lee and Smart finished first and second respectively in the sabre. They finished the day with a 14-point advantage over a field of 29 teams. By the time the women’s competition began on Saturday, the lead was down to eight points. The women got off to a slow start, but managed to deliver under pressure and hold on for the title. “The women didn’t fence very well [on Saturday] but they did a great job for us in the end. It was a total team effort and every fencer was a part of this win,” said Gelman after the end of the tournament.
For his part, Lee saw the victory from a wider scope. “I hope that the school fully appreciates all the hard work that we have put into this,” he said, referring to the fencing team’s lost identity in the hustle and bustle on a metropolitan campus.
For now – and forever – both Lee and Gelman can finally sleep easy because the team finally has come home with something that was long overdue: a title.