For members of the Columbia women’s fencing team, the question was not if, but when. It’s been clear the team would one day be a major force on the national level, but when the full potential of its young fencers would be unleashed was a major concern. For epeeist Katya English, the “when” came this past weekend at the Ivy League Championships at Princeton.
On the conference stage, English’s potential was on full display. On Saturday, she had a record of 5-4 against No. 8 Penn, Yale, and Cornell. English finished Sunday with a record of 8-1, which included perfect matches versus No. 3 Harvard and Brown.
English, a freshman from Pasadena, Calif., rounded out the weekend with an impressive overall record of 13-5. For her performance, English was named to the first-team all-Ivy League along with teammates Loweye Diedro (sophomore, sabre), Nzingha Prescod (freshman, foil), Alex Pensler (freshman, foil), and Alen Hadzic (freshman, epee).
English, who attended Blair High School and trained at the Beverly Hills Fencing Club, got involved with fencing at the age of 10 when her dad signed her up for a class at a local club. She starting competing in national events at 13 and went to her first World Cup event at 15.
Fencing has taken English across the world. She took the second semester of her junior year off so that she could train in Paris at the prestigious Lagardère Paris Racing Club.
“It’s the best club in Paris,” English said. “That was a big deal. It was a big step forward competing with people of a different level. It was very challenging.”
During her time in the City of Light, English trained with French epee legend Laura Flessel. Flessel, who has a total of five Olympic and 13 World Championship individual and team medals to her name, won gold in individual epee at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, where fencing made its Olympic debut.
“I trained with her on a weekly basis. It was unbelievable. I only wish I had been older so I could have made more of the opportunity,” English said.
English left California for college so she could train and compete on the East Coast, where most of the top fencing schools in the nation are located. She chose Columbia over other schools because of its location. Fencers at Columbia have the opportunity to compete with teammates, but also can make use of the numerous local clubs throughout New York City that feature some of the world’s best fencing talent.
At Columbia, English has been training with associate coach Aladar Kogler, a Hungarian fencing legend and USFA National Fencing Hall of Fame member. Kogler coached the Czechoslovakian national team for 18 years, led the U.S. national team into four Olympic Games, and has been with the Lions since 1983. His coaching and recruiting have been instrumental to Columbia’s fencing success for the past three decades.
English has great respect and admiration for Kogler. “The beginning was tough. I was really burnt out at the end of last year,” English noted. But with Coach Kogler, she said, “I experienced an unbelievable renewal. He made me love fencing again.”
Since English arrived at Columbia, Kogler’s coaching has brought her back to the basics of fencing. In addition to adjusting to collegiate competition, English has had to adjust to a new style of training. English’s previous instruction style—a mix between Russian and French styles—was totally different from Kogler’s classic Hungarian style.
Under this new technique, English began the season with a solid 17-13 record. “One of the things that happens when you switch to a new coach is that you automatically have a decrease in performance. I don’t care if it is the best coach in the world. You have to get used to that coach. Having Aladar to work with Katya has been huge in the perfection of her technique and developing her calmness,” said head coach George Kolombatovich.
Her physical size and some intangibles have also helped.
“Katya has great height, which is always an advantage in fencing,” said junior epee Neely Brandfield-Harvey. “She is very passionate. She gets focused under pressure and commits 100 percent. Plus, she has a long lunge.”
English is well liked by almost everyone on the team. “She is a very enthusiastic, bright, and bubbly person,” Brandfield-Harvey said.
Like her coaches and teammates, English believes her performance at the Ivy Championships was a breakthrough moment in her development. “It definitely was a huge step forward in a lot of ways,” she said. “Something I’ve struggled with a lot is the mental aspect of the sport. It’s held me back from performing to the best of my ability. I’ve underperformed a lot.”
On their first match Sunday, the women’s squad narrowly lost to No. 4 Princeton, which would go on to win the title 12-15.
English attributes her success on Sunday to her ability to relax and perform. “The pressure was off. There was a mental leap forward. I relaxed and fenced better than I did just one match earlier,” English said after the loss.
English’s record on Sunday was the best performance by the team. She also helped steer the Lions to a second-place finish overall. “She was so steady. She certainly did her part in our attempt at the Ivy title,” Kolombatovich said.
Looking ahead, English hopes to continue the success. “I just want to keep having moments like I did this weekend. Hopefully with that will come results at the national level,” she said. If English performs as she did at Ivies, those results will come sooner rather than later.