Nicole Ross admits that there really is a New York state of mind when it comes to fencing with the foil in the United States.
Ross, along with fellow Columbia University graduates Margaret Lu and two-time U.S. Olympian Nzingha Prescod, made up three of the four fencers who helped the U.S. foil team clinch its highest finish ever with a silver medal at the recent fencing world championships last month in Leipzig, Germany.
The silver medal bettered the bronze medal the U.S. women’s foil team won at the 2001 world championships, and tied the silver medal earned at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008. (World championships are not held during Olympic years.)
“Women’s foil is extremely dominated by Columbia University and Notre Dame,” said Ross, a 2012 Olympian who is an assistant coach at Cornell University. “It’s awesome to be on a team with two other women who went to Columbia. It’s an added comfort level with the pride we have in our school, and coming from New York.”
Coincidentally, Lee Kiefer, the fourth member of the U.S. foil team in Leipzig, is a Notre Dame graduate. Fellow team member Sabrina Massialas, who couldn't compete due to injury, is currently enrolled at Notre Dame.
“New York is a strong foil spot,” agrees U.S. coach Buckie Leach, the three-time U.S. Olympic coach who left the Fencers Club in New York last year to coach at Notre Dame. “The athletes who want to do well in foil generally go to Columbia and Notre Dame. A lot of the top athletes grow up and stay in New York.”
Indeed, Ross was born and raised in New York City and Prescod is a Brooklynite, while Lu was born in the Philippines but graduated from high school in nearby Greenwich, Connecticut.
Leach pointed out that New York is home to several outstanding fencing clubs, including the Fencers Club, where Ross trains, and New York Athletic Club, where Lu trains, as well as at the Peter Westbrook Foundation.
But there’s something unique about Columbia, Ross said.
“Columbia just exhibits a culture of excellence in fencing and academics,” said Ross, the senior member of the U.S. team at age 28. “I think the people at Columbia are really serious about fencing and want to train and work at the highest level and go to an institution that is extremely prestigious.”
She adds that the Columbia a program allows high-level fencers to excel, quickly pointing out that Ann Marsh, the three-time Olympian and member of the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame who led the U.S. to its first medal at the world championships — the bronze medal in 2001 — is a Columbia alumnae.
“New York is just a strong spot for foil,” Leach said. “There are some great clubs. The interesting thing is that [the athletes] have to compete against each other so much, and then they have to compete together as a team. How do you bring four people together who are in constant competition against each other?”
Ross feels that collegiate bond actually helps, noting that the Cornell coach who recruited her is former Columbia teammate and coach Daria Schneider, a two-time world medalist in saber.
The team also might have had some extra motivation, as the Olympic fencing rotation left women’s team foil out of the program for the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“After not having the team event (at the 2016 Olympics) in Rio, and we didn’t make the top eight at the last world championships, but we had a pretty good season,” Leach said.
The women’s team events have all been added back to the Olympic program for 2020.
“We were really happy and excited,” Ross said of the silver medal.
With no individual medals for U.S. fencers in Leipzig, the U.S. foil teams proved to be bright spots. The U.S. women won their first three rounds before falling 45-25 to Italy in the final.
The U.S. men, led by 2016 Olympic silver medal winner Alexander Massialas, also fell to their Italian counterparts in the men’s final, earning a silver medal to equal their result from 2013.