How does a kid from the South become one of the world’s top fencers? It’s an unlikely story. How does it all nearly get taken away? It’s an even unlikelier story.
The truth is, my introduction to fencing had more to do with George Lucas than, really, anything else.
Growing up as a kid in Atlanta, I was a big Star Wars fan. Like many eight year olds, I owned a toy light saber that I would play with. One day, someone brought up the idea that I should try fencing. Sounds boring, I thought. Then they explained what it was. Wait — you mean I can hit people with swords … every day?
That was all it took. Eight-year-old me was in.
But “being in” and “getting in” were different stories. The youth fencing club nearest to Atlanta was, for lack of a better phrase, in the middle of nowhere. I was greeted by a giant Russian man with no neck (think Princess Bride). He gave me one look. “Too young,” he said. And then he walked away.
But I persisted. For whatever reason, I just knew I had to go back. I wanted it so badly — badly enough that, when my birthday came around, that’s what I asked for: to go back to the fencing club. This time the giant Russian man let me in. I took maybe two lessons and I was hooked.
And then, just like that, we had to move to New York. My dad, who works in TV, got transferred. I was sad to leave right as I was falling in love with fencing. But then a stroke of incredible fortune happened: The apartment we moved into was directly across the street from – you guessed it – a fencing club. It was as though it was meant to be.
Nothing in Atlanta could have prepared me for New York. The club in Atlanta was so small and so separated that it felt very much niche. Or perhaps even sub-niche. While it was a great place to spark and foster my passion for fencing, in many ways it felt as though I was alone in that passion.
New York was another story. In New York, there were kids my age but there were also kids from college coming in. And there were adults, too — and not just any adults. These were people who were training to fence with big goals in mind: Nationals. Worlds. The Olympics.
For me, this was nothing short of revelatory. I had never viewed my interest in fencing as anything other than its own reward. New York affirmed this reward while offering a bigger-picture view at what I could accomplish through the sport. Fencing was still My Thing, but now I realized that it was also A Thing. And I wanted to be a part of it.
Bridging the gap between fencing-as-passion and fencing-as-competition was a process for me, and remains a duality I am trying to balance. When I entered my first competition, I was eleven — only a few years removed from picking up that first light saber. I remember beating my opponent, and him crying. And my first reaction was, Why is this guy crying? We’re just out here having fun. The concept of results and its relationship to hard work was still foreign to me.
Like many sports lessons, this one took losing to learn.
When I was 13, I started to go to national competitions. I soon realized that only one person in each tournament gets to end on something other than a loss. I would finish third, fourth — good results — and be devastated. Something had changed. I wanted to win. My passion for fencing had shifted, at least in part, from an end to a means. And so I put in the work.
Work got complicated, unfortunately, when my dad lost his job. Luckily, I had my fencing community to fall back on. My coaches were great guys, all the way through. When times got tough for our family, they would give us breaks on payment. This let me keep fencing — which, in turn, let me fall in love with the sport.
The generosity of the fencing community extended into my schooling. I was granted admittance to Dwight, a private school on the Upper West Side. They gave me a scholarship — almost a full ride — for my fencing, which allowed me to fence and travel without inhibition.
From there, I flourished. I made my first national Cadet (16 and under) team in 2010. I won my first Cadet national championship that same year, and then came in third at Cadet World Championships. In 2011, I won my first Senior national championship. And the very next year, I was going to the 2012 Olympics as an 18 year-old — just two years removed from making my first team of any kind. It was a rapid progression.
On the wave of my success, I received a fencing scholarship to St. John’s. I could have gone to bigger schools on similar scholarships, but ultimately I chose St. John’s because of its proximity to my family, coach and larger fencing community. Community was always No. 1. I had also started to model, which made New York a great fit. I planned to go to school in the city and train in New Jersey. It was a good plan, of good intentions.
Unfortunately, sometimes good intentions do not count for much. After my first semester at St. John’s, fresh off the 2012 Olympics and my modeling debut at New York Fashion Week, a high-profile magazine ran a feature about some cultural figures who’d had noteworthy years. I was included in the feature, alongside such stars as A$AP Rocky and Gabby Douglas. It was a massive deal. For the feature, they dressed and photographed each subject. Written under my photograph was an outfit summary: the clothes I was wearing, and their brands.
Mindful of NCAA rules, I made sure that everything was above board: I didn’t keep the clothes. I didn’t get paid. It was totally an editorial, and I got nothing material from it.
It didn’t matter. The NCAA saw the feature, saw the photo spread. They contacted St. John’s. They said it was “advertising” — and that if I received any compensation from it, I would lose my amateur status. And by any compensation I mean any — every reimbursement, right down to my $2 MetroCard, had to be accounted for.
This confused me on a number of levels, but my most immediate question was why they were coming down so hard on this one magazine feature — while expressing zero disapproval with my prior modeling, for which I had actually been paid. I asked for clarification. When I received it, I knew nothing would be the same.
The NCAA excused my prior modeling because, per their explanation, it preceded my NCAA career. Now that I was an “active athlete,” I was barred from gaining compensation for any modeling going forward.
The ramifications of this mandate were severe. Given the time and energy necessary to pursue modeling work, I couldn’t afford to do it unpaid. (I can’t imagine anyone could.) And so I swallowed hard and accepted my counterintuitive reality: I wanted to fence, build my modeling career and earn an education, all at once. To remain an amateur, I had to choose two out of three.
But I didn’t have a choice, really. Fencing was my life. Modeling was my livelihood. The irony was bizarre and cruel. The NCAA was putting me in a position where, in order to prioritize my career, I had to drop out of school.
And so I did. This was really intense for me and really hard. I had a great coach, a great system, a great club and a great plan — after so long and after such upheaval, I finally had all of this stuff figured out. And then, just like that, it was gone. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I wanted to go to school. Every fencer I’d ever met had gone to school. If you didn’t go, you were, like — excuse my language — completely fucked. That’s how it was looked at.
At the time I was the top-ranked fencer in the U.S., fourth in the world. By doing the magazine feature, I was bringing more mainstream attention to fencing than every other American fencer combined. I disclosed everything in advance. I did not intentionally break a single rule. On top of that, I was just a 19 year-old kid — playing an obscure, non-money sport. Fencing was everything to me. And school was what allowed me to fence. But rules are rules.
If this sounds ridiculous to you, you’re not alone. If this sounds extraordinary to you, you don’t know the NCAA. In the world of amateur athletics, stuff like this happens all the time.
While leaving St. John’s was hard, I was lucky: I at least had something to turn to for income. I pivoted, started to model more and used that money to support my fencing. It ended up paying off and I now see the whole ordeal as a blessing in disguise. But at the time, it was a total risk – and, at least in the short term, hurt my fencing a lot. Again, I was one of the lucky ones.
In the end, my disappointment with the NCAA is about more than just my scholarship. It is also about the diminishment of something less tangible but much more valuable: my sense of fencing – and of amateur sports in general – as a community.
For me, fencing has always been a team sport in disguise. If you play football, if you play soccer, if you play an actual team sport, your team is obvious — it’s the people you play with. You represent them; you wear them on your chest. In fencing, we don’t have that. But we still have a team — because we have a community.
My fencing team is the Russian man with no neck in Atlanta who, despite my age, let me into his club for my first lessons. It’s the club in New York, that gave me a sense of purpose in a strange, new city. It’s the coaches that gave my parents breaks on payment when my dad lost his job. It’s everyone at Dwight who helped me be able to fence without having to sacrifice an education. It’s the peers I trained with and competed against, at every level. And I hoped that it would be St. John’s, and everyone under the umbrella of the NCAA. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
If you want a community, you have to make your own. I’m 22 now, and fence for the same reasons as ever: my love of the sport and the thrill of competition. As I found out the hard way, the NCAA is a business.