(Virginia Beach, Va.) – For Nicole Ross (New York City, N.Y.), her position on the 2012 Olympic Team was almost in hand by the middle of the afternoon on Sunday, but her Olympic berth nearly slipped away when she was injured in the middle of a bout.
The foil fencer entered the Division I National Championships ranked fourth in the National Points Standings and knew that a top-eight finish was all she needed to do to move into third – the slot that would allow her to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Team.
With 2011 Senior World medalist Lee Kiefer (Lexington, Ky.) and 2011 Pan Am Games silver medalist Nzingha Prescod (Brooklyn, N.Y.) already qualified for London, both Ross and Doris Willette (Lafayette, Calif.) were eligible for the third position on Team USA.
Qualification for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team began in May of 2011 and concluded at the Nationals this weekend where the top three athletes on the USA Fencing National Point Rankings at the end of the event would earn nominations to the U.S. Olympic Team to compete in both the individual and team events. The fourth athlete would be the replacement athlete who is eligible to compete in the team event. All nominations are subject to confirmation by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
After a fourth-place result in the pools, Ross was well on her way to qualification when she earned a bye out of the table of 32 and led her table of 16 bout against Sarah Parmacek (Bryn Mawr, Pa.), 9-2.
And then the two-time Senior World Team member suddenly crashed to the floor in pain.
“She took a parry and hit the outside of my ankle bone and I fell down from the pain of that and I thought that it was just her hitting the bone,” Ross said.
Although Parmacek picked up two touches, Ross led at the break, 11-4, and closed out the bout, 15-4, to move onto the quarters.
“It ended up helping me focus more, even though it was painful. So the final few seconds of that bout, just knowing that it was over was an amazing feeling,” she said. “But, then, when I tried to walk after the bout, something felt wrong in my ankle and that was definitely worrying me in the next bout.”
Ross pulled through her quarter-final against Grace Hartman (St. Paul, Minn.) to win the bout, 14-6, to finalize her position on the Olympic Team.
“I just feel like an enormous amount of relief from all the pressure I’ve had the last few weeks and I just feel so lucky to be able to be going to London,” Ross said. “I wasn’t fencing as well as I’d been all year and I was so frustrated with myself because I knew I could fence better. That was purely my nerves and not sleeping for a couple days. Managing that was a challenge and one I was glad I got over.”
As for her injury, Ross pushed through the pain, but said “I think it’s probably just a pull or strain, but I’ll definitely be having that checked out when I go home.”
Ross fenced one more bout on Sunday where she lost her semifinal bout to Willette, 15-11.
Willette went on to win gold over two-time reigning National Champion Margaret Lu (Greenwich, Conn.), 15-8.
A replacement athlete for the Beijing Olympic Team, Willette will travel to London in the same position with Team USA this time as well.
“I fenced pretty well overall, especially with all the stress we were under. It was tough, but, at the same time, it’s sports and all you can do is your best, so whatever happens happens,” Willette said. “I want all of my teammates to do well in the individual and I’m ready to fight with them every step of the way to hopefully earn a team medal. We work really well together and there’s a lot of love between us and I think it’s going to be a good event.”
Willette was with the U.S. team when the squad won the silver medal in Beijing and has she has hopes of a repeat performance in London.
“Honestly, I think we have a huge possibility of a medal. In 2008, we ended up fencing Poland and we won and I think we have just as good of a shot this time. I think it’ll be exciting and I have such high hopes for the team,” she said.
Coming off the Junior World Championships last week in which Kiefer and Prescod won a silver medal in the team event, neither athlete elected to compete in Virginia Beach.
“We really just needed a break. It’s been a long couple months and it was good to come back from Moscow and not have to worry about this weekend,” Kiefer said.
Kiefer technically earned enough points to qualify for the Games in March, but the high school senior said she has held off telling her classmates.
“I didn’t want to tell people I was definitely going and then have them look it up on the Internet and go ‘I don’t see her on the list! She’s lying!’” Kiefer laughed. “I’ve been saying ‘There’s a good chance,’ but they’re all really excited for me, though.”
Although Kiefer has been “officially unofficial” for some time, she said she hasn’t thought much about the Games themselves.
“I haven’t really thought about it much yet. I’ve thought ‘Oh! I’m going to be on the team,’ but I haven’t thought much past that yet. I just know want to be in my prime and I want to be able to fence well and be happy with my performance, regardless of what the outcome is,” Kiefer said.
Unlike in World Cups where athletes find out their first opponent the night before they fence, at the Olympic Games, seeding will be done just under a month prior to the event.
“We’re going to know who we’re going to fence, so I want to be prepared for whomever that is. You can watch a lot of video on them and really make a gameplan for what you’re going to do because you know they’re going to be doing the same on you,” Kiefer said.
For 19-year-old Prescod, qualifying for London marks the highlight of an 11-year journey.
“It’s really exciting. I’ve been aiming for London since I was really young and waiting for this moment for a long time. It’s great that it’s finally here,” she said.
Prescod has consistently been ranked in the top 16 in the world and said she has hopes for both an individual and team medal in London.
“I hope to medal. I just want to fence the best that I can and hopefully the result will be a medal,” she said. “As for team, we’ve been really close in the team matches this season, so hopefully we can pull it out at the Olympics.”
Top eight results at the Division I National Championships for women’s foil are as follows:
Division I Women’s Foil
1. Doris Willette (Lafayette, Calif.)
2. Margaret Lu (Greenwich, Conn.)
3. Kaila Budofsky (New York City, N.Y.)
3. Nicole Ross (New York City, N.Y.)
5. Sabrina Massialas (San Francisco, Calif.)
6. Grace Hartman (St. Paul, Minn.)
7. Nicole McKee (Valley Stream, N.Y.)
8. Allison Henvick (San Francisco, Calif.)
Nominees to the 2012 U.S. Olympic Fencing Team for women’s foil are as follows:
1. Lee Kiefer (Lexington, Ky.)
2. Nzingha Prescod (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
3. Nicole Ross (New York City, N.Y.)
Replacement Athlete: Doris Willette (Lafayette, Calif.)