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Road To Tokyo: 21 Questions with Anna Van Brummen

06/01/2021, 9:45am CDT
By Kristen Henneman

Anna Van Brummen has qualified for her first Olympic Games and will be the replacement athlete for the women's epee team in Tokyo. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam

As the countdown continues to the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, USA Fencing is sitting down with members of Team USA to share the stories behind their Road to Tokyo.

Three-time Senior World Team member Anna Van Brummen (Houston, Texas / Alliance Fencing Academy / Princeton) qualified for her first Games – earning the position as the replacement athlete – after a two-year qualification period that included a top-16 finish at the Doha Grand Prix in January of 2020. Van Brummen, who came up short of making the Rio team in 2016, won gold at the Suzhou World Cup in 2016, marking the only modern U.S. women’s epeeist to win a World Cup. In college, Van Brummen bookended her career with NCAA Championships, winning a team title her freshman year before becoming the first female fencer in Princeton history to win an individual NCAA epee championship as a senior in 2017. She then earned her master’s in geophysics at ETH Zurich and currently works as an environmental scientist in Santa Barbara, Calif.

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Van Brummen discusses the key to fencing her best, her bond with her fellow women’s epee teammates, her experience living abroad in Switzerland and the celebrity she’d most like to teach how to fence.

1. What was is it like knowing you're going to the Games?

It’s amazing. I started fencing when I was eight years old and I have this distinct memory of one time in lower school, we had a day to dress up like what you wanted to be and talk about it, and my goal, I dressed up in my fencing whites and said it was to be an Olympic fencer. So it’s kind of spectacular that now I can say I’m accomplishing that goal.

2. How old were you and were the Olympics always a goal?

So that was when I was 10 and I don’t think the Olympics were really my goal. It was just kind of something [in which] I loved fencing and I wanted to be Olympic fencer and I didn’t understand what that fully meant. So it was just kind of like, ‘Oh what do I want to be? An Olympic fencer!’ Slowly over the years, I think that has become and also hasn’t become my goal in my life. I went for Rio as well and really I think up until training for Rio, that had kind of been one of my driving goals was, ‘Okay I want to go to the Olympics. I want to be an Olympic fencer.’ And then I went and I devoted my year before Rio to training and I had the worst season of my life. Then I didn’t go Rio, which was super disappointing and it look a little bit of time and self-management to regear myself and realize that even though this had been my goal, it’s not the only thing in my life and it’s not the be-all, end-all.

After Rio, I had the approach of ‘I love fencing and I want to fence. And let’s see where it can go.’ So I wouldn’t say that going to the Olympics was my 100% top goal. My goal is just to be the best fencer I can be while still having fun and enjoying the fencing, so I’m really happy that it’s brought me to this point. It’s very rewarding.

3. That’s an awesome mindset. Sounds like that’s some solid advice for not only other fencers, but people in general.

I think that I wouldn’t change anything, which is kind of crazy to say, but I wouldn’t go back to that year. At first, I was like, ‘Oh, I wish I could redo this. I could do so much better! I don’t know why I keep messing up.’ But I wouldn’t change any of that because I learned so much from it about myself. I became more confident. Before fencing had been a huge part of how I defined myself, and it still is, but to the extent that I know who I am and no matter what the result is, I’m happy with where I am. So basically just being happy with your choices leads you to be able to not define yourself on your results I think would be huge advice. Which is hard sometimes.

4. Who was the first person you let know when you qualified during the World Cup in Kazan in March?

The first person I let know – because of the time difference, I sent a few texts, but was my friend in Copenhagen, who was someone I went to undergrad with and is part of my closest group of friends. She’s the only one who answered! I called her and she answered and we jumped around and yelled a bit [laughs] … But the first people to text me and congratulate me were my fellow team members, so Courtney [Hurley], Kat [Holmes] and Kelley [Hurley]. They were the first that really texted me and were like, ‘Oh my God, you made it!’ They were still fencing, so they were at the venue, and we did a bit of texting celebration and then they came back and we all had lunch.

5. Going as the replacement athlete, how do you approach the team event? 

I think the first thing that is so important in the team approach is making sure you’re on the same page with your fellow athletes. That’s something that I think we have – the four of us that are currently qualified, and actually the whole women’s epee squad, the top six to eight fencers. We’re all a really solid team and pretty good friends and so, I think that’s one of the most important approaches. And then for me, I just know I have to be confident, I know I have to be ready to go in whenever I’m going to need to go in. I’m the type of person that I do best – part of it when it’s for me, but especially when it’s for the people around me that I care about. So, if anything, this is the position in which I’m going to push myself the hardest because I know it’s not just individual. I’m part of a team and I’m going to be the strongest I can be for that team.

6. Women's epee has really focused on building each other up and that team aspect. Talk to me about this specific women’s epee squad and the personality of this team.

We love laughing. I’ll say that for sure. I think that’s our go-to, and even when we’re on the strip, what we’ve talked about for being sure to bring down stress levels is to make sure that there’s someone joking and we’ll have a go-to joke or a go-to reference to a Disney movie or something that will make sure we’re all there and we’re all having fun. My cheer is always, ‘Go have fun!’ And all the other girls are like, ‘Shut up Anna!’ [Laughs]. Whenever we have camps and stuff, we don’t just hang out for the mandatory time, but we get almost all meals together and we watch TV and we chit chat and we joke, and I think we could all just spend a lot of time around each other and not get sick of each other, knock on wood [laughs]. So I think that’s a crucial element to the team that we have now and more than that, we really support each other.

There was one tournament this year. It was in Barcelona and in the 64, I ended up fencing someone else who was in close contention for the team, which was Isis Washington. And I was up 14-11 and she caught up and beat me in the final seconds and she did a great job, but for me it was kind of emotionally hard, as those kind of comebacks are. So the next day when we were fencing team, first of all, Isis was there watching and cheering us all on and me on too very supportively. But  after I got out and fenced a bit and I was not confident in how I was fencing and Kelley looked and me, sat me down. The coaches were kind of, ‘Ugh, should we take you out?’ And Kelley was like, ‘No, don’t take her out. Anna, you’re a great fencer. You’re doing a great job. Go do your best.’ And that was just one of the most touching things I think that’s happened to me in the world of fencing. So I did and I went out and I turned it around and it was knowing that my teammates had that confidence in me that really helped me build it in myself.

7. I want to go back to that gold medal in Suzhou in 2016. What was the key for you that day?

That actually was a pretty crazy combination of factors because that was after I had the worst season of my life and did not make the Rio team, but had spent the whole year training hard, so emotionally I was like, ‘Poor me. This is so hard.’ And then the next year started and I said, ‘I’m gong to take a break from fencing.’ But I was still fencing collegiately. That was the first time I told myself, ‘I’m going to take a break from fencing’ and ended up coming right back to it.

That tournament I’d actually not signed up for and then last minute, I thought, ‘You know what? I really want to do it.’ And so I signed up. I was also very sick. I was completely snotty. I remember I ended up going straight from the health center to the airport just because I could not breathe out of my sinuses, it felt like. So I guess it was the first time I really went in with very little expectation besides I just want to fence well and I’m here because I like it. So that was one of my first tournaments really without, not necessarily having a goal, but having a discrete ‘I have to get this goal. It’s part of what defines me.’ It was more of, ‘I love fencing and I’m here because I love it and I want to do my best at it.’ It worked out pretty well [laughs], but it was unexpected.

8. You’ve really talked about the importance of the joy you find in fencing. How did you start fencing and what do you love about it?

So I started fencing when I was eight, just because I was spending the night at my friend’s house and she said, ‘Hey, I’m going to this fencing studio. Do you want to in the morning?’ So I went with her for Saturday morning practice and I absolutely fell in love with it. And I went home and I said, ‘Mom, I want to fence.’ And she said, ‘Okay, okay,’ thinking I’ll forget about it in a few days. And I kept it up. I said, ‘Mom, I want to fence!’ So then I started fencing and I started epee because that’s what my friend was going. I said, ‘I want to do the one that she’s doing,’ which was epee. My friend ended up quitting a year or two later because she wasn’t the biggest fan of fencing, but here I still am today and we always talk and she says, ‘By the way, you’re welcome.’

9. You fenced at Princeton in college and as a freshman, you won a team title. Outside of the fencing, what do you remember most of competing at Princeton?

Just having a really cool squad. Especially for the first three years, it was just a huge resource for me for support, for friendship. That was the first time I actually learned about right of way and what the heck to do with that. It’s still a little unclear, but I like to think I understand it better [laughs]. It’s through the squad that I made some lifelong friends and it was a lot of the squad members that I would stay up late studying, or if something stressful happened, I’d call them for support and guidance. It was them that we’d go have ridiculous movie nights and all kinds of stuff. So it was really a source of support, strength and friendship. I had a very stressful time at Princeton and I can’t imagine what that experience would’ve been like or how I could’ve stood up to it without that support, so competing as a fencer at Princeton was almost a defining part of my Princeton career.

10. And then going to your senior year, you beat your teammate, Kat Holmes for the individual title. I know the two of you have fenced a billion times. Take me though that bout and fencing her for that title?

So I’ve always competed with Kat and we have a really close friendship, but I know when we compete we’re always like, ‘I’m going to get you this time.’ For that particular bout, honestly, she had been killing me in practice for a long time, so I got up there and I was kind of like, ‘Well, you’re probably going to lose. Let’s just go give it our best.’ And so I think that a huge part of it was that I let the stress go and I focused on just fencing well and fighting. I remember the beginning of the bout, I was attacking and taking all these risks and I got down by quite a few points and I was like, ‘Okay, let’s switch it up.’ And I started sticking more to my forte, aka ducks and foot touches [laughs], as many people know. I ended up pulling that out in the end, but it was one of the bouts was just fun to get up there and fence. Because we had met each other at the final, there was no losing. It was just getting to share that moment with one of my closest teammates.

11. So what is your style of fencing?

It’s definitely evolved over the years. When I was young, the main building blocks of my style were jumping around like a lunatic and foot touches and ducks. So it’s basically provoking and moving to try and push the opponent to attack at a distance and then counterattack. And for a long time that was my fencing. That was it. And then, starting really at Princeton, I began to add more elements, so being able to work with the blade, being able to go high tempo or low tempo, being able to actually attack – really building an arsenal. And so that’s something that I’m still in the process of building and I’m still in the process of changing my style. Part of the fun of fencing for me is incorporating new actions to really be able to get the full variety that you can use to trick whoever might be at the other end of the strip. And so for me, my style is something that’s continuously changing and evolving, and that’s how I want it to be. Especially because I’ve moved so many places and worked with so many coaches, I have the opportunity to incorporate a lot of different personalities in my fencing, which is really fun.

12. So I want to get to the different places you’ve lived, but first I want to ask about your major. You majored in geosciences. How did you pick that?

So I first went and thought I was going to major in physics and then I took into physics and it kicked my butt. So then I had this immediate crisis of identity and thought, ‘What am I going to do? There’s so many options. What am I going to choose?’ I ended up taking an intro geoscience course, just because I’d seen it at the course fair my freshman year, and I took this intro course and I loved the component of it that was a combination of both data analysis and classroom studying and field analysis, so there’s always field trips. You get out and you go look at the rocks, and it’s the combination of those two things I think that really drew me to geology and geoscience in general.

13. And then you got your master's in geophysics in Switzerland? What was that like? It was totally awesome. It was kind of a risk, but one I’m really glad I took. So our senior year – I’d met my boyfriend from geoscience and we actually just had our six-year anniversary – so we were talking about what we wanted to do after undergrad and we kind of decided, ‘Oh, let’s do a master’s and let’s try to do it together.’ And then we were looking at schools and ETH Zurich at the moment was ranked No. 1 in earth science, and that’s in Switzerland. And so my boyfriend Adrian suggested, ‘Hey, what if we just went to ETH?’ Tuition there was about $600 a semester, so way more affordable. At first, I was like, ‘That’s crazy. Switzerland? What? I was thinking California or something like that.’ Then I thought about it for a while, and I was like, this is the time. This is the time and opportunity to go take a risk like that. And so we just kind of decided to do it. It was such a cool experience.

And I’ll be honest. When I first went, I didn’t know if I was going to stay focusing on fencing. I think I’m going to fence the rest of my life in some aspect, maybe not as seriously as now, but when I first went to Switzerland, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just going to fence for fun.’ But then there was an awesome club there and the coaches and the people I could train with – again it actually became a defining part of my experience in Switzerland was the fencing as well. Honestly, of course with my family and my original coach Andrey [Geva], it was the coach and the club in Switzerland that really pushed me to keep fencing at my highest level and to make it where I am now, being on this Olympic Team. So I have so much thanks to give to them.

14. Did you get to do anything fun while you were over there? Are there any specific experiences that stood out to you?

For sure. One experience that was really fun was one night – it was a Thursday night – and one of our friends said, ‘Let’s go bike to Germany.’ And so we chose a camping spot. We camped up our backpacks with all the gear we needed and we just biked and we took off and it was a full one-day bike ride there and we camped and then we biked around a little bit and then we biked back. But it was just such a cool, impulse trip and it was so beautiful getting to see the Swiss and the German countryside. Just eat when we wanted, drive through the farms. It was in spring, so there were all these flower fields. It was spectacular. It was really amazing.

And really, living in Europe, it’s crazy how easy you can just hop on a bus, hop on a train and go check out places, and so, while I was there, I went to all these places I’d never been. I went to Portugal, Croatia, Germany, France, just all over. And I love Zurich … One other really special thing from my time there was I took an alpine field course and it was basically a week of going into the Alps and looking and rocks and it was spectacular. It was like, what a place to study geology.

15. Random question. Did I see that you play the viola?

Yes. I actually started on the violin and I played that longer than I fenced, but in undergrad I definitely stopped a little bit. That was something the last two years in Switzerland I started again … And I’d forgotten a lot of it. I remember my first lesson back, after a few years, the instructor was like, ‘Are you a robot? You seem like a robot.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m not a robot, sir. Just a little rusty.’ [Laughs]. I was in a string quartet that we were all just doing it for fun and that was something I was very sad about. We were going to have a performance and stuff and having left Switzerland as soon as I did [due to the pandemic], my viola and the quartet are still there, and so I have not been able to do that, but hopefully when everything opens up again I’ll be able to pick that back up.

16. So I know you recently you moved to Santa Barbara. What’s your favorite thing about living in SB?

Well right now I’m sitting next to a star jasmine bush that is blooming and it smells absolutely amazing. Which reminds me, one of my favorite things is we have a little garden and I’ve gotten pretty into gardening, which is kind of fun. We have a massive artichoke bush, which has given a bunch of artichokes. We’ve harvested broccoli and carrots and beets and cabbages and beans. We have a lemon tree that made one lemon. We have a passion fruit vine that made one passion fruit [laughs]. It was amazing, but hopefully next year we’ll see it in a little bit more abundance. So that’s been really fun. But just being able to go to the beach or the mountains on a hike is really cool. California has so many natural resources. It’s amazing. A couple weekends ago, we went to Sequoia National Park, which I’d never been to. It was so spectacular. So just being able to get up and do that, whereas I grew up in Texas and everything was a lot farther away.

17. Talk to me about your job. I know you’re an environmental scientist. What do you do?

So it’s a very small company called Blue Tomorrow and really it depends on what projects we get for the year, so right now I’m working on a project with the Forest Service surveying a burnt area of the mountain, basically doing a data analysis and research project and summary that basically advises them on how it’s recovering and what they should do to help it recover, and what they legally have to do to help that recover because it’s a national park land and it’s a wilderness area. So there’s a lot of legal hoops to jump through when working in those areas. And so it really depends on the project, but some of our projects are climate change vulnerability, adaptation planning, so kind of more working on planning and the legal side, and then other projects are we’re looking at data analysis, so we’re going out in the field, surveying where roads are crossing streams and being able to determine if different aquatic lifeforms can still use those streams, or if the impact from the road is too high. So it’s a wide range of stuff and there’s six of us that work here and so it depends on the project, depends on the timing, etc., but it’s a huge variety, which makes it pretty fun.

18. So let’s end with some fun questions. What’s your favorite animal?

This is so simple, but dogs. Dogs are the best. I might love them more than people, I don’t know. To be decided [laughs]. I love dogs. All shapes and sizes.

19. If you could teach any celebrity to fence, who would it be and why?

I’d choose Emily Axford, who is a comedian and she’s on a podcast called Not Another D&D Podcast. I know everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, you listen to D&D podcasts?’ They’re actually hilarious. It’s a bunch of comedians that get together and play D&D. It’s hilarious. Anyway, fencing comes up a few times and they always laugh and they’re like, ‘Oh haha, I’m a fencer.’ So I want to take that and say, ‘Hey look, this is fencing. Stop making fun of it.’ [Laughs].

20. What’s your favorite TV show?

Okay, I can’t tell you favorite, but I can tell you top three, which is ‘The Office,’ ‘Parks and Rec’ and ‘Arrested Development.’ I’m a very busy person. I don’t know if it’s the classic millennial, but I love always having something going on in the background, so often for me that’s a D&D podcast or these shows and I know these shows. I’ve seen them and I know them so well that honestly, if you play me a part of the episode, I’m fairly confident I could tell you what will happen in the rest of the episode, because they’re the kind of things that they’re just very comforting. I’ve watched them so many times that it it’s a way for me at the end of the night, dial down. If something’s been stressful, just reintroduce that good humor and go out on a positive note.

21. I know you like to read. What’s the last book you read?

So my favorite trilogy of all time and I read it first as a kid and I still love it is ‘His Dark Materials.’ It was ‘A Golden Compass,’ ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass.’ Recently, HBO has made a TV show of those books and so I watched the TV show and the TV show, I highly recommend to everyone. It’s amazing. But it also encouraged me to go back and reread those books. And so those were the most recent books I read and I’m actually still in the second one. They’re great. And the show, it’s nice because it’s actually something where upon reading the books, I’m like, ‘Wow. The show did a really good job capturing all of this,’ so I highly recommend.

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