In the beginning, Amanda Sirico surveyed the fencing action from a playpen, her own front-row seat next to the competition strip. Amid the din of clanging swords in crowded gymnasiums across the country, the toddler, almost old enough for her own Styrofoam weapon, learned the non-traditional sport by watching her parents duel strangers.
Eight years after eliciting a laugh from her mother when she boldly declared her Olympic dreams to a coach, Sirico, now 17, spends up to 25 hours a week at her Silver Spring fencing club and stares down practice opponents from behind a mesh mask bearing the American flag. Thanks to that lifelong commitment to her craft, Sirico’s path to the women’s epee competition for the 2016 Games is coming into focus.
Sirico took bronze at the U.S. senior national championships earlier this year ahead of two members of the 2012 Olympic team, and last month, she placed 14th in her Senior World Cup debut in Rio de Janeiro, the top American finisher in her division. The Bowie resident is a leading contender to claim a junior title Wednesday at USA Fencing’s summer national championships in Columbus, Ohio.
“It was fun to fence [against Olympians] because I’ve idolized them on TV and everything,” Sirico said during a break from practice last month. “But it also made me realize where I am right now and what I need to work towards.”
For Sirico and her two younger sisters Brooke (15) and Meghan (12), the sport has been a constant with the family regularly on the move because of their father’s military career.
Tommy Sirico, a major in the U.S. Army who has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, met his wife, Cindy, at the University of Texas-El Paso when he recruited her to the school’s fencing club from a beginner’s physical education class. The young family started in El Paso and moved 11 times in nearly as many years, including a stint in Germany.
Rather than bouncing her children from school to school, Cindy Sirico eventually opted to enroll them in an online academy. At each stop, the Siricos quickly found a new club.
“The world of fencing is small and welcoming,” Cindy Sirico said. “All of the people have been great. . . . [My children] have such a gamut of friends — much more worldly than if they went to the local high school.”
Tommy Sirico has been stationed at Fort Belvoir for nearly four years, allowing the family to put down roots in the local fencing community and grow comfortable in a home that features a fencing strip complete with scoring sensors in the garage.
Amanda Sirico, a rising high school senior, has blossomed while working under Coach Janusz Smolenski at the Forest Glen Fencing Center, home of the D.C. Fencers Club.
Once a specialist in foil, Sirico has now trained her focus on epee, in which points are awarded for hits anywhere on the body. At 5 feet 4, she doesn’t have the reach of some top competitors but makes up for it with sound footwork and a smart approach in a sport often dubbed “physical chess.”
Since making her international debut in 2009, Sirico has competed across the globe. She has traveled to Cuba, Sweden, France and Austria for tournaments and was ranked No. 6 in the world in the under-17 age group before aging out. She plans to fence in college.
Smolenski, a native of Poland who has lived for the past two decades in Rockville, believes Sirico has the talent to eventually claim Olympic gold if she continues to mature.
“Every time she loses I’m surprised,” Smolenski said. “It’s not like I’m surprised anymore that she won. I’m surprised when she doesn’t. It does not matter if it is [against] an Olympic champion.”
Sirico’s progress toward her dream has required sacrifice from the entire family. She spends much of her free time during the week at the club, housed in an unassuming white-washed brick building tucked within a small business park.
Four days a week, Sirico takes lessons, leads a few sessions of her own and hones her craft with several hours of open practice. She’ll usually arrive at 3 p.m. and stay past 9.
Her sisters, also passionate about the sport, follow a similar routine with their mother on hand to serve as driver and make sure everything runs smoothly. She often cooks dinner in the morning and serves it in the small sitting area at the club between practice bouts.
“Here pretty much everyone’s like a part of my family,” Amanda Sirico said.
The competition schedule generally spans 11 months and many weekends are devoted to tournaments with all travel expenses paid out of pocket. Cindy attends most of the international tournaments with Amanda, while Brooke participated in her first this year.
In April, Tommy returned from Pakistan just in time to accompany Amanda to Croatia for the junior world championships.
Cindy Sirico prefers to drive to stateside tournaments, if possible. She often works the events as a representative for a fencing equipment company and once loaded the crew into her car for the 2,600-mile trek to a competition in Reno, Nevada.
After each major competition, Amanda Sirico tries to take a week off, a prescribed break to avoid burnout in a sport that can be just as grueling on the mind as it is on the body.
Each time, Sirico finds herself counting down the days until she can get back on the strip and strap in to the scoring sensor, pull on her mask and bounce toward her opponent. Ready to get back to work.
“When you’re fencing with someone, you’re fighting them but also trying to test and see what works on them,” Sirico said. “It’s constantly a new challenge, and that’s what makes it fun.”