The Washington Post

First Person: Becca Ward, 23, Washington, fencing coach/Olympian, Arlington Fencers

(Photograph by D.A. Peterson)

I literally stumbled into a fencing class in
a rec center, looking for a swimming pool.
I opened the door, and there it was —
unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was loud. It was confusing. That’s what always
has drawn me to fencing: the desire to figure it out. As a pretty athletic 9-year-old girl, finding something where I could beat the boys and they would cry? I thought that was the best thing ever.

You cannot be a good fencer without understanding the strategy of it. To be good at it physically, you need good reflexes. Strategy-wise, it’s more like boxing. You need a keen sense of distance. You need to anticipate what your opponent is going to do and then react to what your opponent actually does. You need to force mistakes and capitalize on errors. You must be in the moment, always. I love to fence and be like, I know exactly what you’re going to do, and be right and have the touch work perfectly. And then when they do something that completely surprises me and I have the muscle memory to react appropriately — oh, that’s just the best.

I was always fencing with kids five to 10 years older than me. I remember what it’s like to be that little kid and look up and hope to find a mentor. So I’d always go out of my way to reach out to little kids. I coach fencing, but I don’t think of myself as a fencing coach. I had an extremely contentious relationship with my fencing coach back home. He was very mad that I went to Duke because it was not a good fencing school, one where I could continue to compete and become a fencing coach like him. That’s why I coach fencing: to redefine that relationship. I get motivated by people telling me I can’t do something. The day after he said that, I ordered a Duke sweatshirt and wore it every day to fencing. I went to Duke. I won NCAA championships three out of four years. I have an education and a network that will serve me for the rest of my life. I did that — no one else.

One of the moments that made me realize I am in the right place was when I had this girl, Sara, a tiny 6-year-old — tiny! She was fencing in the 10-and-under group, getting her butt kicked. I found her sitting under a table, sobbing. I sat under the table with her. She said, “I’m losing every bout.” I said, “Of course you’re losing every bout. Those girls are so much older and bigger than you. Did you get any points, get any good touches?” When she said yes, I told her how mad those girls had to be that a 6-year-old got a touch. After her last bout, she lost 5-1. Instead of saying, “I lost,” she said, “I got a point!” She was so happy. I can’t even describe it. To be able to change their perspective of what’s success and what’s failure, that’s huge.

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