Johns Hopkins University fencing captains Solomon Polansky and Erin Chen both started fencing for pretty much the same reason.
It looked fun.
"Where I grew up they had fencing in high school, and I thought, 'Hey this is pretty cool,'" said Chen, a sophomore from Lumberton, N.J., who is a member of Hopkins' women's team. "You get to try to poke people with a sword and hit them with it. I'll give it a shot.'"
Polansky echoed Chen's sentiments, although he was a year or two away from high school when he got started.
"I always liked carrying sticks around like they were swords when I was a kid," said the junior from Minnetonka, Minn. "So I figured I'd give this a shot, and I fell in love with it."
Now, as they compete at the collegiate level against some of the nation's top programs, they still have fun. And that is a tribute to their coach, Austin Young, who has built a powerhouse NCAA Division III program.
"It's just my personality," Young said."It's really important to me that they enjoy the experience. My best friends from college are kids from my team. It was a really great atmosphere. Fencing was the best part of my undergraduate experience when I look back, and I want them to have a similar feeling."
Young, who started off coaching just the men's team for six years, has been leading both squads since 2009. And an emphasis on fun and academics has in no way hurt Young's teams in competition. The Blue Jays women have captured five straight Eastern Women's Fencing Conference championships since Young took over and have won seven overall.
The numbers on the men's side are equally impressive, with Hopkins posting 20 or more victories in seven of Young's 14 seasons, capturing six Middle Atlantic Collegiate Fencing Association titles and qualifying for the NCAA National Championships four times.
With only about 50 institutions nationally sponsoring varsity fencing, Young's fencers compete regularly against -- and beat -- Division I opponents. Earlier this season, the Hopkins men and women were the only Division III teams to compete at the Penn State Garrett Open, with the men placing three fencers among the top 10 and the women placing three among the top 20.
"It's very rewarding that we can do so well against the top schools," Young said. "I think the Penn State Open was eye-opening for some of our students, which is great for their confidence and really will benefit us, because as we head into the second half we have to fence a lot of those schools."
Chen and Polansky agree that competing successfully against programs with more resources is rewarding. They speak of the self-motivation necessary to be successful in and out of the classroom and credit Young with creating an environment that allows team members to compete at a high level, have fun and make academics a priority.
"It feels really good to be able to compete with them," said Chen, who competes in sabre, which along with the foil and epee, is one of three weapons used in fencing. "It's a lot of work for all of us. With both fencing and academics, we have to be able to push ourselves on our own. There's a lot of stuff that we can practice outside the team workouts on our own, so it's really what you make of it. If you put 100 percent effort into improving, it pays off, and I feel like our team really functions in that way."
Polansky, who competes for the men in foil, said the fencers are an extension of the rest of the Hopkins student population.
"It's hard to balance and definitely a challenge," he said. "But I think, in general, the type of student drawn to Hopkins and who can get into Hopkins is self-motivated and driven. I'm still baffled by some of the things my teammates are able to do with going to lab all the time and all the things we have to do as student-athletes. We have to be driven. It's pretty cool to be part of it."
Both fencers credit Young with having a feel for the pulse of the team and allowing them to make their studies a priority.
"I'm not looking over their shoulders making sure they are getting their work done," Young said. "I'm pretty flexible, but I do expect them to be here for practice the vast majority of the time. They have to be very good with time management. Most are and do very well with school and are able to stick with fencing all the way through. It's a balance."
Likewise, Young has to find a balance. He is in charge of two teams that may compete in two different cities on consecutive days, runs the fencing club on campus and is married with a young son at home.
While his athletes marvel at their coach's ability to get it all done, Young points to financial gifts from donors, which for the first time in his career, has allowed him to enlist enough assistants to have one coach focus on each of the three weapons. His expectations remain high.
"The big thing for me is always the conference championships," he said. "Typically we are in a position to have the chance to win those. If we are hitting our stride at the right time we will have a chance to win. It's our biggest event of the year. From there we are hoping to place a few people in NCAA nationals. We have a very difficult region, but I think a few people have an opportunity to get there."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics