Although Columbia’s fencing team finished a disappointing seventh at NCAAs, with a share of the Ivy League title and a seven-week run as the No. 1 team in the nation, the highest ranking in program history, the men’s team returned to national dominance in the 2013-14 season.
The Lions shared the Ivy title—their first since 2008 and 42nd overall in men’s and women’s fencing—with Harvard, as both teams went 4-1 at Ivies on Feb. 8 and 9. The men were able to clinch the title after a win over Yale late on the final day of competition. But the critical moment of the tournament for Columbia came against the reigning champion Crimson earlier that day.
The Columbia men were down 13-12 with two points still undecided, but won both to secure the 14-13 win. Sophomore épéeist Brian Ro and sophomore foilist Harry Bergman clinched the Lions’ victory in simultaneous touches in two bouts on adjacent mats. Head coach Michael Aufrichtig, who took over the program in 2011, called the victory the “single most favorite sports moment of my life.”
“We were 13-12, it was 4-4 on both sides, and we won both,” Aufrichtig said. “That was really exciting. It trumps everything.”
That victory came on the heels of a similar 14-13 decision against Harvard for the women’s team, but in which Columbia came out on the losing end.
The women’s team’s one-point loss to the Crimson came en route to a 4-2 record and a third-place finish. Although the Lions went undefeated against Penn, Cornell, and Brown on Saturday, they suffered a serious blow when Olympic foilist Nzingha Prescod was forced to the sidelines with an injury after just one bout.
Prescod’s absence required the Lions to use a replacement—first-year Sara Taffel. Despite the sudden change, Taffel went 15-2 on the weekend, posting the second-best record for a foilist on the women’s side, only trailing sophomore teammate Margaret Lu. Both earned first-team All-Ivy honors.
“I was definitely really nervous, but I was also really excited because I wanted to prove myself and my abilities,” Taffel said. “It was unfortunate that Nzingha couldn’t fence, but it was an awesome opportunity for me to step in and fence really hard schools, and I was happy that I performed the way that I did.”
Following the tight Harvard contests, both squads were able to easily conquer Yale, 19-8.
But the Lions had yet to face the weekend’s biggest challenge—Princeton. The Light Blue women fell to the Tigers, 19-8, leaving the Lions in third place, behind Harvard and Princeton.
Columbia’s men were also unable to dispatch the Tigers, falling 14-13 and missing a chance at an outright title.
“Since we came so close last year, but we didn’t win, I think this is a big step up. But it’s still hard that we have to share the title,” Ro said after the tournament, his voice hoarse from cheering on his teammates. “I’m glad I’m here and that I’m able to represent my school with all of my really close friends who are also fencers. It’s really an honor.”
At NCAA Regionals, the Lions qualified 10 individuals for the NCAA Championships later in March. Competing with two fewer fencers than the maximum of 12, Columbia needed multiple excellent performances to post a strong finish at NCAAs, but wasn’t able to get them. The women’s team put the Light Blue at ninth place after their half of NCAAs, in large part thanks to first-team All-American Jackie Dubrovich, who finished third at 19-4. Behind honorable-mention All-American performances from Ro, junior Will Spear, and sophomore Geoffrey Loss, Columbia rose to seventh—for the second year in a row—by the end of the competition. Loss’s seventh-place finish in sabre was the top spot earned by the Light Blue men’s squad.
“We did not do as well as we could have, and definitely not as well as we will next year,” Loss said. “The team is going to be very strong next year.”
Throughout the season, Columbia fencers had standout individual performances at competitions around the world. Prescod won a silver medal at the Gdansk Grand Prix World Cup in Poland in early February. At Junior World Cup meets, Loss claimed bronze in men’s sabre, and Dubrovich and Taffel placed third and eighth place, respectively, in foil. And in mid-April, at the Junior World Championships in Bulgaria, Loss earned another bronze and first-year épéeist Mason Speta won silver, while Lu and Dubrovich won team gold medals representing the United States in foil. Lu joined Taffel shortly after for the USA Fencing National Championships, where the two faced off in a tight overtime bout that ended with Lu taking the gold and Taffel the silver.
There is promise for the fencing teams next year as this season, both the men and the women relied mostly on underclassmen, who should be returning to the team in the fall.
In approaching the Ivies and NCAA Championships, Aufrichtig said he had high hopes for the team’s performance, both in the rigorous competitions and in the program’s future as a whole.
“Columbia fencing, you know, we’re back.”