POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. – In the midst of furious clanking metal and vehement victory cries throughout Vassar College’s field house, the men and women of St. John’s fencing were dominating the leader boards. The event was the NCAA Fencing Northeast Regional Qualifiers, the seeding event leading up to the big show: the NCAA Championships. The fencers are seeded according to the combination of their prior ranking and their results in the qualifier.
“We should qualify 11 people when this is over,” said head coach Yuri Gelman. “That is our goal. This competition is a qualifier for the finals, so that is what we’ll do.”
Right before the lunch recess, St. John’s had four fencers ranked first in their respective categories. This did not surprise Gelman.
“There have been no surprises so far. This is what I expect of my team. We’re ready for anything,” he said before reassuring with a smile, “Everything is fine.”
Gelman’s prediction was accurate. Eleven St. John’s fencers qualified for the NCAA Championships after all the pools were completed. In the men’s sabre, senior Luther Clement took gold while freshman Charles Worsham finished third. Worsham made an impressive comeback from ninth place, where he was ranked midday, and commented on fencing with Clement in the same event.
“Luther is a great guy to coach you on the strip, and great to learn from,” he said.
Torian Brown also qualified in the sabre with an at-large bid.
Misha Mokretsov and Stan Vaksman both qualified in the men’s epee, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively.
Meanwhile, in the men’s foil, Henry Kennard finished sixth and Brendan Meyers left with ninth place. Both qualified for the NCAA’s as foil teammate Alexis Landreville missed the cut with his eleventh place finish.Despite being ranked first and second at the halfway point, Kennard and Meyers denied the existence of a friendly rivalry.
“I just want to qualify, and I always want to win,” said Kennard. “But I’m always pulling for [Meyers].”
Meyers admitted that his performance thus far was “so far, so good”, considering there was a lot of fencing to be done. He believes strong preparation is the key to success in these events.
“Practice as hard as you can with the best people that you can practice with, guys like Henry and Alexis,” Meyers said.
He added that they have been practicing hard to build up strength and stamina for a long day such as this.
“You’re constantly squatting and moving while in that position and holding all your weight. It’s pretty fatiguing,” he said while clutching his thighs.
On the women’s side, Monika Golebiewski and Katia Larchanka both took home medals and qualified in foil, finishing second and third, respectively. Both were top-ranked in their pools all day.
In the epee event, Tanya Novakovska received a gold medal, with Reka Szele behind her in third. Reka’s style is unique, as she squats close to the ground, making small foot strokes towards her opponent. She uses her small frame and agility to strike quickly, but she explained that mental composure is more than half the battle.
“You have to focus. If you mess up, you’re out in an event like this,” she said after her fourth duel, which happened to be her first loss of the day. She wasn’t worried.
“I should make it out of this round. My goal is to make it to the finals and get to the NCAA’s,” she assured.
In the women’s sabre, Martyna Wieczorek took the bronze medal, while Tanya Dainoski received an at-large bid. Martyna admitted she had to rebound from a rough first two rounds.
“I have to continue the same way. One bout was off, so I have to keep consistency,” she said during a break in between rounds. “Fatigue wise, it is very different from a national competition. You need more energy as all your focus is put into a few seconds, then you relax.
A shrill victory cry interrupted Martyna’s comments, prompting her to explain the strategy behind the yelling.
“It’s a cool strategy. Whoever pumps their fist and yells first might get the point in a close call,” she said. If the fencers make contact with their opponent at the same time, the referee has a judgment call to make.
Martyna also explained the differences between men and women in this sport, and the role of emotion during a bout.
“I try not to put emotion into it, because it can mess me up. Girls are more about strategy. The guys, I think, put more emotion into it. Their game is all about being aggressive,” she said while watching St. John’s teammates Luther Clement and Torian Brown face off in their pool.
Although the fencers travel in teams, fencing is an individual sport. Martyna says to simply consider the bout between Clement and Brown as friendly competition.
“You have to turn a blind eye and pretend they’re not your friend and teammate,” she explained.
The 2008 NCAA Championships will be held in Columbus, Ohio on March 13-16.