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McKinney teen rises up international fencing ranks
Photo courtesy of Sarah Waller – Sarah Waller, 16, of McKinney (right) fences at the World Cup in Austria in October. She helped fence the U.S. Junior Women's team to a gold medal earlier this month at the Pan American Junior Championships in Puerto Rico.
At age 12, Sarah Waller just wanted to try something different, a sport she barely knew.
Four years later, fresh off a stellar performance at the Pan American Junior Championships in Puerto Rico, the young fencer knows she tried the right thing. She’s ranked as the fifth-best junior fencer in the United States.
“I never thought I would ever be where I am now,” said Waller, a 16-year-old McKinney resident. “I was just doing it for PE credit at first, did a couple of local tournaments just for fun, and then started doing regional tournaments. I never thought I would be here already.”
After holding a top 15 points ranking among U.S. cadet (16 and younger) fencers through much of 2012, Waller earned a spot on the U.S. national team in July. She won bronze in the individual Junior Women’s (20 and younger) epée event and won the final point to earn the U.S. Junior Women’s team the gold at the Pan American tournament two weeks ago.
She and her team competed against the top fencers from about 10 countries, such as Canada, Colombia and Argentina. Her triumphs came against many fencers who, even at a young age, have been in the sport for at least eight years, she said.
Waller is ranked 39th in the world – high enough for fifth in the U.S. – by FIE, an international fencing federation. That’s the ranking she takes to the junior level, where she’ll compete for the next three years.
But her rise up the ranks likely seemed imminent from the start, when Waller viewed fencing simply as a potential new hobby.
“I always liked sports when I was younger, and I decided I might as well try fencing,” she said. “At a McKinney rec center, I took a class and really fell in love with it. Then I started competing a lot, and it went from there.”
Waller competed at two local tournaments within a few weeks, and by the coming April placed in the top 15 for her age group at her first North American Cup, in Portland, Ore. She soon fenced at several regional competitions in Houston.
Waller, who moved to McKinney from San Diego at age 8, takes a training approach perhaps as unconventional as her fast ascension in the international fencing realm. She trains four times a week at Barney & Me Boxing Gym in McKinney, honing her physical abilities, footwork and stamina.
Barney Flores, who runs the gym, said that along with boxers, he trains mixed martial artists, hockey and soccer players, but never before a fencer. Yet, a fencer’s stance and jabs – albeit with a weapon, not gloves – are similar to a boxer’s, he said.
Waller jumps cones and works on the speed bag to enhance her hand-eye coordination and quickness, Flores alternating the regimen on a daily basis.
“She’s got a lot of heart,” Flores said. “Just a tough, tough young lady.”
Homeschooled all her life, Waller is able to take monthly weeklong trips to Northern Colorado Fencing Club in Boulder, Colo., where she trains for the other, skilled side of her sport under renowned coach Gary Copeland.
The club’s founder and head coach since 1979, Copeland coached more than 800 U.S. national competition finalists from 1988 to 2005, including 46 individual and 14 team champions, and 64 junior and cadet world champions, according to the club’s website. He’s assistant director of the U.S. Fencing Coaches College at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo. – a site at which Waller aims to fence in coming years.
Because of a summer advancement program, Waller is a young senior, and plans to attend college this fall to become a psychiatrist. She admits balancing upper-level studies with fencing will be difficult, but – like in her fencing bouts – is eager to overcome. Once at a regional tournament, Waller, on the verge of a 15-6 defeat, fought back to a 14-14 tie before losing.
That’s when she discovered her bittersweet connection to the sport.
“The part I like the most is just the spirit of competition, but that’s also my least favorite in a way,” she said. “You get so nervous before a bout, but each time you get that winning point, just that pure fencing in that great bout makes it so worth it. Sometimes you lose, but I always keep going back for more and more.”
Seemingly downplayed in the U.S., fencing is more widespread than people realize, she said. About 5,000 fencers competed at the Junior Olympics earlier this year in Baltimore, Md.
Still, Waller has friends who compare it to sword-fighting – “like Pirates of the Caribbean,” she said – and family members now eager to learning about the sport. Education is unavoidable for some, with Waller fencing in close to 25 events in three different countries and five major U.S. cities since July.
Her next high-level bout will be at Summer Nationals, one of the biggest fencing tournaments each year. From there, her epée points skyward, in anxious anticipation of Rio 2016. By then, Waller will know fencing well.
As perhaps the world may know her.
“I really want to pursue the Olympics; that’s my dream,” she said. “If I can go from zero to here in four years, I can go from here to the Olympics.”