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USA Fencing Selects Third Quarter Fencing Spirit of Sport Recipients

05/12/2021, 5:15pm CDT
By Kristen Henneman

(Colorado Springs, Colo.) – USA Fencing is pleased to announce the 2020-21 season’s third group of recipients for the Spirit of Sport Recognition Program, recognizing six members of the fencing community who have exemplified outstanding dedication to the sport and are an inspiration to others.

New for the 2020-21 season, each quarter, one recipient from each region is chosen based on the USA Fencing core values of excellence, respect, teamwork, inclusion and passion.

The six recipients for the third quarter’s Spirit of Sport Award are as follows:

  • Jacob Lei (Hillsboro, Ore. / Northwest Fencing Center)
  • Andrew Kwon (Troy, Mich. / Renaissance Fencing Club)
  • Hannah McPherson (Wilton, N.H. / Seacoast Fencing)
  • Mira Vestel (San Francisco, Calif. / Halberstadt Fencers' Club)
  • Monica Balakrishnan (Houston, Texas / Alliance Fencing Academy)
  • Patricia Wilkens (Hilton Head Island, S.C. / Lowcountry Fencers)

All selections will receive a USA Fencing Spirit of Sport t-shirt and bag tag.

In addition, for the third straight season, USA Fencing will honor one annual Spirit of Sport winner. After the fourth quarter winners have been announced, a selection committee will name the top selection in each region as well as one wildcard choice from the pool of 24 winners named throughout the season. The fencing community will then select the winner from the final seven in an online vote available to the entire USA Fencing membership.

The overall winner will receive a trophy and will be honored at this year’s National Championships and July Challenge in Philadelphia, Pa.

More information on each of the winners can be found below:

Region 1: Jacob Lei (Hillsboro, Ore.)

Club: Northwest Fencing Center
Age: 17
Weapon: Épée
Number of Years Involved with Fencing: Six
Nominated By: Cody Mattern (Coach)

Not even in college yet, Jacob Lei started a new video series during the pandemic called “Unlocking the Mindset of Champions.” Interviewing some of Team USA’s biggest stars of past and present such as Race Imboden (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Alex Massialas (San Francisco, Calif.), Dagmara Wozniak (Avenel, N.J.), Nicole Ross (New York City, N.Y.) and Seth Kelsey (Vancouver, Wash.), Lei offered insightful fencing content on the mental and psychological aspects of the game, with videos on warmup strategies, dealing with distractions, closing out strong, growth mindset during practice and more. Fencers of all weapons and different perspectives have been included and through Lei’s passion, all in the sport of fencing can now benefit from these videos.

“I think this video series embodies all five categories of the Spirit of Sport Award,” 2004 Olympian Cody Mattern said.  “Jacob's efforts are a ray of light in a dark time for fencing and this passion project shows his amazing spirit for our sport.”

Region 2: Andrew Kwon (Troy, Mich.)

Club: Renaissance Fencing Club
Age: 15
Weapon: Foil
Number of Years Involved with Fencing: Five
Nominated By: Julie Kwon (Parent)

From the time Andrew Kwon started fencing in the sixth grade, he has given the sport his all. Somebody who genuinely loves the sport, Kwon dedicates many hours to practices – which he goes to four times a week – lessons, working with a trainer and competing at as many tournament as he can, while balancing a challenging high school workload. Despite Kwon’s passion and desire to improve, he has not yet earned a rating or won many medals. But he hasn’t let this discourage him and over the years has learned that it’s not all about winning, but the experience, doing your best, getting better and having fun. He has become a symbol of perseverance, always picking himself up after a bad result and striving to reach his full potential by working hard.

“I think that it is extremely difficult for someone to continue with a sport where one loses more than wins,” Julie Kwon said. "He does not allow defeat dictate his commitment to the sport. I feel that being involved in fencing helped him to build a strong work ethic and commitment to do well.  I’m so proud of Andrew’s dedication to fencing and how he has continued to put forth his best effort.”

Region 3: Hannah McPherson (Wilton, N.H.)

Club: Seacoast Fencing
Age: 18
Weapons: Épée and foil
Number of Years Involved with Fencing: Eight
Nominated By: Kristen Bannister (Parent of Another Fencer at the Club)

Hannah McPherson is an inspiration to those at her club, both on and off the strip. She is an incredible teammate, always positive, encouraging her teammates and giving constructive feedback at practice. McPherson is willing to help or work with anyone, exemplifying her kindness. Her attitude is infectious at the club and she has earned the respect of all around her, including her peers as well as the coaches and parents. A volunteer coach to the younger kids, McPherson makes fencing fun while pushing them to be better and do their best.  She also demonstrates good sportsmanship. While she is competitive, in defeat, she congratulates her opponents and is humble about her skills and accomplishments.

“Since the day my daughter first started at Seacoast Fencing, Hannah McPherson has stood out as a role model as a fencer, a teammate and a person,” Kristen Bannister said.

Region 4: Mira Vestel (San Francisco, Calif.)

Club: Halberstadt Fencers' Club
Age: 16
Weapon: Saber
Number of Years Involved with Fencing: Six
Nominated By: Robert Handelman (Coach)

As a fencer, Mira Vestel is an example to others for her commitment, desire to improve and her work ethic. She keeps a good attitude whether she wins or loses. As a teammate, she is supportive and respectful. As an assistant coach for the beginning classes and summer camps, she is a mentor to the younger fencers and loves watching them improve. They look up to Vestel for her resiliency and willingness to learn from her mistakes. Off the strip, Vestel is highly involved in community service, giving more than 200 hours in the last three years to organizations such as SF Marin Food Bank, Project Open Hand and Family Dog Rescue. During the pandemic, she has organized for her teammates to join her in volunteering. Vestel is also a peer tutor in math and at her school, she started a new club that provides students with ways to de-stress through fun activities.

“As the head fencing coach, I’ve known Mira since she started our youth sabre program when she was 10 years old,” Robert Handelman said. “She is well-liked and respected by her coaches, peers and opponents.”

Region 5: Monica Balakrishnan (Houston, Texas)

Club: Alliance Fencing Academy
Age: 16
Weapon: Épée
Number of Years Involved with Fencing: Eight
Nominated By: Francesca Bassa (Club Teammate)

A familiar face in the fencing community, Monica Balakrishnan is involved in many aspects of fencing. She volunteers for USA Fencing at national tournaments, assisting participants and parents with registration. She is also a referee and is known for her amicable personality and willingness to help fencers and coaches. Balakrishnan always has a smile on her face, is a good sport and encourages all fencers, including those not from her own club. She is also passionate about growing the sport, starting a fencing club at her school to bring the sport of fencing to others. Balakrishnan keeps her commitment while also being involved in her community and balancing her schoolwork.

“An academically focused straight ‘A’ student from a rigorous high school, she still managed to find time to start a non-profit chapter in Houston to serve children K-8 during the pandemic with free tutoring services,” Bassa said.

Region 6: Patricia Wilkens (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

Club: Lowcountry Fencers
Age: 50+
Weapon: Épée
Number of Years Involved with Fencing: 20
Nominated By: Muffy Williams (Student)

Since starting the fencing program, Patricia Wilkens has grown Lowcountry Fencers from just a few students to more than 60, which range in age from eight to 75. Her fencers love her passion and she is highly supportive, sharing how great the sport of fencing is with almost everyone she meets. She is an excellent instructor, giving great attention of each of her students and making sure everyone is included in all activities, regardless of age or skill level. Wilkens makes everyone, including the less experienced fencers, feel welcome while still challenging the more experienced fencers. Wilkens has arranged for guest instructors and experienced fencers to contribute to her classes and work with her students. Her motto is that everybody fences everybody, building teamwork and positive relationships amongst the members of the club.

“I was exposed to fencing while in summer camp 60 years ago and was pleased to read in the local Recreation Center schedule of activities that Ms. Wilkens was beginning a fencing program as part of the Hilton Head Island ‘Island Rec’ program,” Muffy Williams said. “I called her; she invited me to observe a session, and first thing I knew she had loaned me a complete fencing outfit including épée, and had me on the strip practicing with other students. I was "hooked" and have been taking classes from her ever since.”

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