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Sports

“Drip, Drip, Drip”

3.19.20

A fencer walks away from his opponent, holding up a fist

2020 Ivy foil champion Geoffrey Tourette '21 celebrates a point.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics Communcations 


2020 Ivy foil champion Geoffrey Tourette '21 celebrates a point.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics Communcations 

Coaches and members of Harvard's women's fencing team celebrate

Coach Daria Schneider celebrates with members of the women's team. 

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics Communcations 


Coach Daria Schneider celebrates with members of the women's team. 

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics Communcations 

The Harvard men celebrate their championship win.

The Crimson men storm first-year Filip Dolegiewicz after his win versus Princeton clinches the outright Ivy title.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics Communcations 


The Crimson men storm first-year Filip Dolegiewicz after his win versus Princeton clinches the outright Ivy title.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics Communcations 

The Ivy champion men pose with their first-place trophy.

The men's team secured their first outright Ivy title since 2013. 

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics Communcations 


The men's team secured their first outright Ivy title since 2013. 

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics Communcations 

Editor's note: Though winter and spring sports were forced to end early due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were still moments of triumph for Crimson athletes. We hope you enjoy this story about the 2020 Ivy League fencing championship, held this February.

 

Erwin Cai ’20 knew he should make a defensive move. The problem was execution. A sabre fencer since age eight, he predicted that his opponent was about to attack. If he could parry and riposte—block the Yale captain’s attack and go in for his own—he could win the point. The move was instinctual, drilled into his muscle memory. 

A freshman at the time, Cai was competing in his first Ivy League championship, a tournament with almost fabled status among his older teammates. “It’s something you buy into from day one,” he recalls. “When you show up as a freshman and you see the level of motivation that all the upperclassmen have toward winning the event, the amount they talk about it, how hard they work toward this goal, you understand something is special about this.”

But in that championship bout, Cai began to second-guess his instincts. A natural “destructive” fencer known for dismantling opponents’ prepared strategies, he saw a calculated risk was the best move. But another option clouded his mind: if he attacked at the same time as his opponent, per the rules of sabre fencing, no one would earn a point. The safer, risk-averse option weighed on his mind. Fencing not to lose, instead of to win, was seductive. 

“And what happened was I did neither,” Cai says. “I literally just stood there and got hit. And it was the most frustrating thing. I took my mask off and I was like, ‘Why didn’t I do anything?’ I couldn’t even do the safe thing.” Yale went on to edge Harvard 14–13. The Crimson men ended with a record of 1–4, finishing second to last. 

 

Last September, four months after the sudden dismissal of long-time head coach Peter Brand for a conflict-of-interest issue, Daria Schneider took charge of the men’s and women’s teams. A 2011 U.S. national champion fencer, five time national team member, and a fixture in the Ivy League, she had competed, and was a two-year captain, for Columbia before joining that team’s staff as an assistant coach upon graduation. She then spent three years as head coach at Cornell, earning Ivy League Co-Coach of the Year honors in 2018. 

Schneider was well aware of the men’s team’s historically high talent level. A slew of them had competed on the international stage for both cadet (under 17) and junior (under 20) fencing squads, and brought home individual and team medals. “It’s one thing to get a group of people who have been on World teams,” Schneider says. “It’s another thing for what’s happening in U.S. fencing right now and the success that we’re having internationally to have so many multiple time junior and cadet world medalists on your team….This is a serendipitously magical moment.” 

But the Harvard men didn’t enter the season as clear favorites in the Ivy League. Columbia had the NCAA’s top ranking, after winning outright both the Ivy League title and co-ed team championship in 2019. Harvard sat just below. In January half of the top-10 programs in the country were from the Ivy League: Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Penn. Brown, the lone Ivy League men’s team not to make the list (Cornell and Dartmouth lack men’s teams), was one of 11 other teams to receive a vote. 

The glut of talent makes the Ivy championship grueling. Before Columbia’s outright 2019 win, no team had been the sole victor in five years: Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Penn had all won shares of the Ivy title at least twice. Columbia, which had also won the NCAA co-ed title in 2015 and 2016, won the outright Ivy League men’s title only once during those years.  

Schneider started coaching the team in late September. Having already experienced two head-coaching transitions—an interim stint at Columbia and a switch at Cornell—she knew she couldn’t move too fast, too soon, especially in the middle of a semester. “Their mental space is just so occupied by their academics and other things that they might have going on,” she says. “You just don’t have the same attention from them in the academic sense.” Eli Dershwitz ’19, a volunteer assistant coach and four-year varsity stalwart—and Olympian—on the men’s team, echoes the need for consistency. “There are always ways that practice can be improved and that athletes can get better, but you don’t want the older athletes to feel like everything’s changing,” he says. “Then the things they’re comfortable with, the things they’ve been working on, start to feel uncomfortable.”

As the semester continued, Schneider looked for “anchor points” she could build upon as the fencing season continued. She found her athletes open and willing to perform complex and highly strenuous physical work; she saw that beyond just being teammates, they wanted to be seen as family. “And they don’t want to do something if they’re not going to be the best,” she says. “They want to spend their time where they’re going to make a huge difference in their fencing, and their lives, and achieve something great.” She could work with these anchors. 

 

In the weeks leading up to the Ivy League championship, scheduled for February 8 and 9 at Harvard’s Gordon Indoor Track, Schneider wanted to make something clear: the goal shouldn’t be to win the Ivies.

The statement came during wintersession, the three-week period before spring semester in which the fencing team could focus solely on training and solidify their goals. Schneider had spent months preparing for these few free weeks: in one meeting, she asked every student-athlete, men and women, to write down one personal and one team goal. “I looked at them—80 percent or something were, “The goal is to win Ivies,’ or ‘The goal is to win Ivies and NCAAs,’” she says. “It was a results-oriented goal.”

Schneider spoke to her assistant coaches, and then her captains. They decided it might make sense to shift their goals away from the actual results, and more toward process. For captain Geoffrey Tourette ’21—the 2019 Ivy champion in foil—the change seemed wise. “In the past, teams always thought that the main two goals were winning Ivies and NCAAs,” he says. “And I think it puts a lot of pressure on us. The entire season you’re working for these two things. And then as soon as you get there, it’s all or nothing. If you don’t perform well, it’s like you’ve lost the entire season.” 

Schneider wanted the team to focus on things they could control: effort in practice, maintenance of proper diet and sleep, handling of issues before they became major problems.

Tension and anxiety, always present in high-stakes bouts, escalate when things feel beyond an athlete’s control. “You don’t want anybody going into a really intense and fraught match with doubts or questions in their mind about whether this is really the right play for the situation,” she explains. The team spent several meetings deciding on a set of values—professionalism, respect, family—and debating the intricacies of each. Sometimes the sessions got a bit too in-the-weeds; Cai recalls spending a “not insignificant amount of time” deciding how many extra pieces of equipment to keep in their lockers. But the overall point was clear: if they focused on preparation, the winning would come.

It’s the “Drip, drip, drip,” philosophy, Cai said: one of Schneider’s mantras. Small daily actions—not arching your back during planks, arriving at the facility 10 minutes before practice, always having working equipment—lead to great results. Schneider recalls walking into the women’s locker room and seeing “Work hard, make it hurt,” written on a whiteboard. “I replaced ‘hard’ with ‘smart,’” she says. “Everyone is working hard, everybody. If you can step back and figure out a way to work smarter, it’s the only advantage you can have in sports.” 

Soon, “Drip, drip, drip,” became an inside joke among the team. “When you take time to do extra stretching after practice one day,” Cai says. “We’ll say to each other, ‘Nice job—drip, drip, drip.’ It’s kind of a symbol of the process.”

 

For the opening round of the 2020 Ivy championship, the Harvard men, the second-ranked team country, were set to face Columbia: the one squad ranked higher. The winner would be the favorite to win it all. In a three-round, 27-bout matchup, Harvard would have to win 14. They knew it would be tight.  

Cai was the first one on the strip, tasked with setting the tone. A defensive stalwart  with a notoriously quick hand and powerful attack, he has an unmistakable fiery presence in person and in competition. “He’s got an emotional intensity that I think is unique,” Schneider says. “I think when he’s locked in to that intensity with the right balance, he is almost unbeatable in the college circuit.” The problem, at times, had been harnessing that energy.

Cai was facing off against Christopher Walker, a first-year at Columbia. The pair had fenced for years in the same club in Atlanta, under the same coach. What had started off as a mentor-mentee relationship had evolved into something different. Walker, a powerhouse in his own right, had recently won a major national tournament—a key Olympic qualifying step.  

The foil and épée bouts occur simultaneously in the Ivy tournament, but sabre bouts take place alone. So when Cai fell behind 2-0, all eyes were on him. “Christopher came out with this level of fury that I don’t think I’ve ever seen from him before,” Cai recalls. “That is so frightening. Because of the structure of the tournament, everyone is just watching you—everyone on your team, everyone else on the other team.”

But unlike during that freshman-year bout, the nerves didn’t get to him; he’d done all the prep, and in a first-to-five match, he still had time. “There was just this calm understanding that I lost those last few points, not a big deal,” he recalls. “I still have the ability to win the next five in a row.” 

Cai scored two points, and later, with the score tied 4­–4, Walker went in for an attack that pushed Cai to the back of the strip. If they hit each other at the same time while Cai was on defense, Walker would be awarded the point. Counterattacking in this scenario is considered risky; if the opponent can touch in time, it’s a losing move. But when Cai saw an opening near  Walker’s hand, he went in, no hesitation.

Only one light flashed: he got the point. He ripped off his mask and roared as his teammates celebrated. “It’s kind of a special moment because it’s an action I practice a lot, and it’s very high risk,” he says. “I’m willing to do it in practice, but it’s so rare for me to trust myself to ever pull out in competition.” 

In the clinching match versus Columbia, Tourette, too, was facing a younger fencer whom he had known all his life. For more than a decade in Cupertino, California, they trained in the same club and under the same coach. Tourette got off to a quick 2–0 lead, then, becoming too conservative, dropped a couple of points, allowing his competitor back in the bout. With one point to go, the score was tied 4–4. “I knew if I didn’t fully commit to whatever I actually wanted to do, I was going to lose,” he says. “So I went for it.” In just a few seconds, Tourette tagged his opponent on the left shoulder. Harvard had won the biggest match of the tournament.

 

But it was far from over. “The next day we huddled up, and I told everybody, ‘There’s a million ways that we can lose today and only one way we could win,’” Tourette says. “It was important to not go into the day thinking we’d beaten Columbia, so it’s over.” Though they’d defeated Yale and Brown on day one, Penn and Princeton were top-10 programs in their own right. 

The Crimson men started off strong against Penn. And in the second of three rounds, it started to appear that they might clinch the win early. When Andrew Lee ’21 stepped on the strip, a win would guarantee the team a share of the Ivy League title.

Lee, an épée fencer from Tacoma, Washington, tried out for Harvard fencing his freshman year, but didn’t make the team. A soft-spoken computer-science concentrator with a secondary in East Asian studies, he spent the year focusing instead on schoolwork,  and spent time training at a local club, working on his explosiveness, footwork, and attacks. He placed well enough in national competitions to earn the attention of former coach Peter Brand, who added him to the roster heading into Lee’s second year. Sophomore walk-ons are rare, especially in one of the country’s elite programs. 

Lee quickly earned a reputation as one of the hardest workers on the team, known for being the first to finish sprints, and the last to complain. “He’s always the sweatiest at the end of the day,” Cai says. “It’s the kind of thing that can be taken for granted.” “He’s kind of a sleeper,” Schneider says. “He’s very unassuming, very steady, and he’s extremely athletic—very talented. He can surprise you and do these things that are kind of unexpected.”

Leading up to the tournament, Lee did nothing out of the ordinary. “Just the small stuff,” he said. “Like eating well, sleeping well, just making sure I was in the best shape to perform.” Rather than focusing on what his opponents were doing, he wanted to limit his own mistakes. 

As the team gathered around the end of the strip, hoping for a clinching win, Lee prepared to face off against a fencer from Penn to whom he’d lost before. Though aware of the stakes, he recalls, he tried to approach the bout like any other, calming himself and focusing on what he wanted to do: not getting too close to his opponent, keeping an active hand, trying to disrupt his competitor’s blade work. He’d discussed strategy with assistant coach Adam Maczik before; remaining in control would be crucial. “I think our team meetings in January definitely helped,” he says. “At least in my staying focused mentally.” 

Lee remembers the bout in bits and pieces—a common phenomenon for high-stakes fencing. A defensive-minded athlete, he tried to interrupt his opponent’s attacks early, catching him off guard and luringhim into ill-advised attacks that Lee could take advantage of. With time running out and Lee down 2–3, he scored a crucial point on his opponent. With three minutes of clock expired, the match would go into sudden death: the next point would win.

“Everyone’s going crazy cheering for him,” Tourette says, “and I could see through his mask that he had the biggest smile on his face—all of his teeth showing and everything….He knew he was going to win after he scored that third touch. He probably won’t tell you that, but I know he knew.”

Lee did win, seizing a brief opening and tagging his opponent on his hand. Some fencers yell and toss off their masks after a winning point, but that’s not Lee’s style.  “I tend to be pretty calm,” he says. As a mob of teammates rushed toward him and picked him up, his mask stayed on. He offered a small, barely perceptible, fist bump. 

Schneider had time to cheer, but barely. The women were in their own battle against Penn on the other side of the gym, still with a chance at a share of the Ivy title. They would fall narrowly, 15 bouts to 12—a hard-nosed effort from a small roster that had fought the entire season without substitutes.  

With first-year Filip Dolegiewicz’s clinching win versus Princeton, Harvard secured sole possession of the Ivy title for the first time since 2013. In foil and sabre, every first-team All-Ivy athlete was a Harvard fencer. “I’ve never seen that before,” Schneider remarks. “Maybe it has happened, but I haven’t seen it.” Mitchell Saron ’23, competing in his first collegiate competition, was the individual sabre champion. Tourette, the foil champion, finished the tournament at a perfect 14–0, the only All-Ivy recipient in either gender to go undefeated.

The women’s team—gutting out the tournament with no room for error—finished with a record of 3–3, falling to three teams who ended the season in the nation’s top seven. The Crimson women themselves ended the season ranked number nine in the NCAA, with three athletes—Karina Wang ’23, Saanchi Kukadia ’21, and Veronica Czyzewski ‘22—earning first-team All-Ivy honors . 

 

Erwin Cai, says the fencing team’s past performances speak for themselves: a combined 14 Ivy League titles for men and women, the 2006 NCAA championship, a perennial top-10 program in the country. Now, he adds, “It’s more about how do we change from, ‘We’re a serious competitor,” to ‘We’re dominant’? How do we reach that level where teams show up, and they’ve already lost?” 

He might already know the answer: drip, drip, drip.

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