Portraits by ChiChi Ubiña
Tell us about yourself – where did you grow up? How did you get to Greenwich?
I was born and raised in Skopje, North Macedonia and moved to the USA with my parents in 1990. Connecticut has been my home state ever since. I was initially in New Haven pursuing my doctoral studies at Yale University and moved to Greenwich in 1998. Greenwich was an attractive location in the Tri-state metropolitan area with proximity to New York City, pretty neighborhoods, beaches, parks, and great schools.
Tell us about how you got interested in fencing?
My first encounter with fencing was during my Ph.D. studies at Yale University. I did several trial/private fencing lessons, but when a friend introduced me to Yale’s flying club I became hooked on flight and pursued and earned my private pilot license instead. Years later, my sons began to explore sports, they found that fencing was the only sport that resonated with them. In 2011, Lysander, then seven years old, and Max, then five years old, had their first fencing lessons and fell in love with the sport. This was the beginning of a lifelong family affair with fencing.
Weekly practices in NYC, weekends spent at regional competitions, and traveling around the country to national competitions is a lifestyle that I didn’t envision. It is a bittersweet sacrifice. Competitive fencing requires a hectic travel calendar and puts a heavy burden on our lifestyle and ability to manage academics. However, there is an upside too!
Through this fencing lifestyle we have built a larger ‘family and friends’ of fencers, parents, and coaches from all over the country whom we enjoy as much as the sport itself. At competitions, off the fencing strip, you see great camaraderie among kids from all over the country. I also believe that by giving constant support and engagement in your children’s early years through sports teaches discipline and provides encouragement and confidence to persevere later in life.
I decided to give fencing another try for the first time since college. I went from zero to a total immersion in a very short time and I fell in love with the sport! My sons and our coach, were my primary inspiration to start fencing. Today, Lysander is a Junior at Hackley School and highly nationally ranked competitive fencer with numerous national medals. He was eleven years old when he won his first national medal. Last year, he received five national medals and also represented the USA Cadet team at four World Cadet Cups. Max is also a highly ranked competitive fencer with numerous medals and like his brother, he plans to fence in college as well.
Were you always athletic? Which sports and fitness activities have you done in the past?
As a young adult I was athletic, but I never engaged in one sport for a long time. I was a very geeky girl and science clubs and competitions were my main hobbies. As an older adult, I routinely exercised and did gym workouts until my mom developed and later died from cardiovascular problems. Knowing that we both followed a healthy diet but have the same genetic predisposition, I pushed my lifestyle – exercise and nutrition- to a higher level. I started with endurance competitions (Tough Mudder and Spartan races) that allowed me to develop great physical fitness and enticed me to seek other sport challenges, which eventually led me to fencing.
Tell us about how you train for fencing. What’s your routine? How often do you train?
Do you need to do conditioning outside of training?
Like every competitive sport, fencing training is multicomponent with private and group lessons, bouting, conditioning, and precompetition clinics/camps. Typically, I try to go three times a week for private and group lessons and bouting. Private lessons focus on tactics and technique, while in group we work on footwork, practicing drills, and specific conditioning. Additionally, at our home gym we have a partial fencing piste and target dummy, so I practice at home when I can’t go to the club. Fencing is an asymmetric sport, and I work with a trainer to address separate needs such as eliminating imbalances, weight training, injury prevention, and sport specific exercises.
As an adult athlete, maintaining optimal body composition and proper nutrition is crucial. I get great support and guidance with functional and sports medicine resources from the team at Peak Wellness. Last but not least, fencing demands mental agility and acuity, a strong control over mind, body, and emotions. Improving and maintaining mental readiness and patience concurrently with physical preparedness has been the most challenging part of the sport.
Do you ever practice for fun with your boys?
Out of the three different fencing weapons, we train in Saber, which is generally the most aggressive with “cuts” being either thrust or slash with the blade. All three of us train at Tim Morehouse Fencing Club with the same coach, Archil Lortkepanidze (Master Saber Coach and former Olympian); and most of the time we attend practice together. In the beginning, my boys were very helpful in teaching and correcting me when I fenced with them. As I gained more experience, fencing with them became just another ‘duel’ and they were/are not easy on me! Lysander and Max are great supporters of my fencing career, but at the same time, my toughest critics. When I started to compete, I had the opportunity to experience what they were going through, and I developed a much deeper respect and appreciation for their efforts.
Tell us about your accomplishments in fencing. What are your plans for when Covid is over? What are your long term goals?
In the fall of 2016, I began taking fencing lessons, and quickly pushed myself out of my comfort zone, deciding to compete at both national and regional competitions in 2017. I was still quite a novice then and garnered only mediocre results. However, tournaments are a great education and experience if approached correctly. I can’t say that I walked away with a smile after the lost matches, but I was eager to train more, learn from my mistakes, and look forward to the next tournament. The more I trained, the techniques, tactics and strategies became more apparent, and I gained a better understanding for the finesse and fascination of fencing.
In 2018, I had a major setback. I had a meniscus tear injury with several months of recovery after surgery. But there is a saying, “The more you train the luckier you are!” and I knew I wouldn’t give up. In 2019, I earned medals in my age group at all three national competitions, at the April National Championship – a 5th place medal, at Summer National Championship – a Bronze medal and at December National Championships, a Silver medal. I also competed and medaled at international competitions: Canadian American Veteran Cup 2018 (Individual and Team Bronze medal) and 2019 (Individual Silver and Team Bronze).
This year because of the pandemic, the qualification to make the USA veteran national team was adjusted for the cancelled tournaments since March, and I was honored as a member of the team for the World Veteran Championship, which was cancelled as well. I have accomplished a lot in a short time but there is a lot of room for improvement. My goals are to continue training, compete, have fun, and have more wins.
Looking ahead, it would be wonderful to make the national team again, but above all I want to be a role model and encourage young, as well as adults to give this amazing sport a try. I guarantee they will be intrigued by the intricate nature of fencing—it is truly a workout for body and mind! Not to mention, it just happens to be the perfect sport during a global pandemic. Not only do you wear a mask and gloves, but you are encouraged to stab anyone who gets closer than six feet to you!