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Team USA’s Top Female Fencers Discuss Their Athletic Role Models on National Girls & Women in Sports Day

02/05/2020, 12:15pm CST
By Kristen Henneman

Today on the 34th Annual National Girls & Women in Sports Day, USA Fencing celebrates the accomplishments and positive influence of female athletes as well as the fight toward equal opportunity in sport. 

With so many incredible female athletes in all sports across the country, some of our top senior and junior fencers reflect on the female athletes who have made an impact on their lives.

Dagmara Wozniak (Saber)

As women we shouldn’t be apologetic when we show aggression and intensity in what we love to do. Apparently it can be “unlady-like” when we behave too dominantly on the playing field. I have one athlete who I’ve said has inspired me a million times and I’ll say it again: Serena Williams. When she walks onto the court, you know she means business.

Hard work is an understatement when it comes to her. I think there is a small thing that separates champion athletes from the rest of the playing pool and that is what decisions are made in the moment that matters most. Many athletes perform and go through the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” routine and repeat it over and over and over again. However, athletes like Serena bring in a new plan and make it count when it’s either them or the opponent. You have to respect that. When you watch her play, you can see she has a driven mindset that is calculating and waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Not too fast or slow, just right … right when there is a moment of hope from the opponent, she comes in and steals it … and rightfully so. Having that kind of unapologetic mentality is important when it comes to sports and I’ve always looked up to her for that.

Dagmara Wozniak, 2016 Olympic team bronze medalist. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam

Serena Williams, four-time Olympic Champion. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Kat Holmes (Épée)

The female athlete who has inspired me most is Valerie Asher. Valerie is a vet women's épée fencer (and Veteran World Championship medalist!) from Washington, D.C. In addition to being an amazing fencer, she is also an ear, nose and throat doctor, working in the clinic and in the operating room all day every day and coming to practice and beating up everybody every night. If that isn't amazing enough, when I first met Valerie 15 years ago, she was in the middle of cancer treatment, still working and fencing through it all. Her courage and perseverance through this time illuminated her passion for fencing and her work for all to see. As a young fencer and aspiring doctor, I saw the dedication Valerie put in day in and day out, focusing not on results, medals and rankings, but rather on the process, on being the best she could possibly be. This, in turn, involved helping other young fencers be the best that they could be in all realms of their lives. This to me is the definition of a true champion: somebody who seeks to be the best that they can be so that they can bring out the best in others.

2016 Olympian Kat Holmes (left) and six-time Vet World Team member Valerie Asher (right) sharing a touching moment at the veteran epee clinic at the 2018 National Championships.

Jackie Dubrovich (Foil)

I've always looked up to strong, powerful women in sport. In particular, Aly Raisman and Lindsey Vonn have stood out as role models to me in different ways.

I've always been a fan of Aly Raisman's poise and class. Apart from being an outstanding gymnast, she always conducts herself in a respectful and admirable way. She's a gracious competitor and an equally supportive teammate. What is most inspiring about her is how strong she was during the Larry Nassar scandal. She was eloquent and a powerful voice for survivors, and I was so inspired by her.

Lindsey Vonn is a tough competitor and the GOAT of skiing. I've loved watching her compete because she is equal parts a fierce competitor but also classy and gracious. Despite all of her serious injuries, she remained positive during multiple recoveries, and her perseverance in the face of obstacles inspires me to keep pushing every day. Although she retired from competing, she remains a role model to all female athletes in her continued support of female athletics.

Jackie Dubrovich, 2019 Senior World team bronze medalist. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam

Lindsey Vonn, 82-time World Cup Champion. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Aly Raisman, three-time Olympic Champion. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Emily Vermeule (Épée)

A female athlete who has been hugely influential to me and inspired much of my passion for competition is Serena Williams. I grew up playing tennis and have been a fan for a long time. I’ve always admired her determination, dominance and her incredible comebacks. I remember watching her win the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon in 2015 and realizing that her performance was not compromised by “bad days” or other excuses: she was on top of her game for an entire year. Of course, an athlete will always have ups and downs in their career, but that 2015 season made me want to strive for peak performance at all times, not just when a “good day” struck.

I later read David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” and was particularly interested in his section on the “quiet eye” of elite athletes: a teachable technique that reportedly enhances concentration and perception. Serena Williams was an example of an athlete who exemplified this technique; studies of her matches revealed that she consistently utilized it during important games or when she was losing matches. The idea that the extreme focus of great athletes is not a lucky quality, but something that can be trained and perfected, was incredibly inspirational for me. I think that the considerable similarities between fencing and tennis make elite tennis players great role models for us to learn from!  

Emily Vermeule, 2018 Cadet World silver medalist. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam.

Serena Williams, 23-time Grand Slam Champion. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Kamali Thompson (Saber)

After fencing for several years in high school, I decided to completely switch gears and go to a university that had fencing. I was told by several mentors to consider Temple University. The coach was strict but fair. She was a two-time Olympian who made an Olympic team while obtaining her master’s. She understood the balance required to be a successful student-athlete. She was able to take less experienced fencers and help them defeat world champions. She was an African-American woman from Brooklyn who never showed her street side but if she looked at you a certain way you knew it was there. Nikki Franke was a legend. After hearing the raving reviews, my mother decided Temple University would be the best choice academically and athletically.

The first weeks of my freshman year, she didn’t critique me as much as the other freshmen. With less experience than the others, I knew I had a big gap to fill. After a month, I asked for more criticism. She responded, “Don’t worry, when something needs improvement, I will absolutely let you know.” And she did. The next four years, my critiques were rarely physical or strategic. She commented on my mental game in practice and competition. Temple TUF was her mantra. She was the foil coach and I fenced saber, but I would turn around during meets and see her cheering, shouting her mantra. TUF indicating being tough and Temple University Fencing. That meant I was too nice and was letting my opponent get the best of me. Walking into Temple, I was a young fencer with little experience. Coming out, I was a decorated student-athlete and later became an Olympic hopeful. All because of Nikki Franke.

2019 Senior World Team member Kamali Thompson (middle) with Temple University Head Fencing Coach Nikki Franke (right) last year when Thompson accepted an award as one of Temple's 30 under 30. Photo Credit: Kamali Thompson

Michaela Joyce (Épée)

Cori "Coco" Gauff is a female tennis player whose willingness to challenge herself in tough conditions motivates and inspires me. At the age of 15, she stunned the world during her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon, where she defeated seven-time Grand Slam Champion Venus Williams in the first round of the Australian Open. Although Coco is young, her dedication and passion for her sport allows her to thrive in conditions where she is often underestimated due to her age. Born two days after Coco, I also often compete at levels where I face adults with decades of experience. This often causes me to feel unconfident and unsure of my abilities before I start my bouts. However, by watching Coco Gauff's willingness to take intelligent risks on the court to win matches where she has less experience, I am inspired to transform my negative thoughts and fears into positive thoughts and adrenaline. This allows me to become fearless on the strip while trusting my action choices. Additionally, Coco's extensive knowledge of the sport reminds me to remain patient and thoughtful to find the right moment for every prep and touch. While Coco and I are the same age and are both competing in tournaments where we are often fencing more experienced and older fencers, her ability to control her emotions and the court due to her tenacity and focus sets her apart from older tennis players while inspiring the next generation of young athletes. When faced with adversities due to my age on the strip,  I remind myself of Coco Gauff’s persistent attitude as she continues to be a prime example of a diligent and successful young woman in sport.

Michaela Joyce, 2019 Junior Olympic silver medalist.

Fifteen-year-old Coco Gauff rose to fame in 2019 withe her first-round upset of Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

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