Even though it was a February day, Skylar K. ’22’s skin was slick with sweat.
Waves of nervous excitement crashed into her, her heart beating fiercely as she stood ready to compete in the 2020 Pan American Fencing Championship.
The championship—an annual tournament for top-level fencers—took place this year in San Salvador, El Salvador, where Skylar competed in Cadet Women’s Foil and teams.
Skylar placed 5th in the individual round and 2nd with Team USA, competing from fencers across the Americas including Brazil, Cuba, Canada, Venezuela, and more.
“You get to see a lot of different countries and fence a lot of people you’ve never fenced before,” Skylar said. “It’s really fun.”
The wide array of players is Skylar’s favorite part about international tournaments, which she has now participated in for several years. Last year, she attended Pan American in Bogota, and recently has participated in the Rome Cadet & Junior European Cup, Poznan Cadet World Cup, Manchester Cadet Cup, and more, as a member of the USA’s national team.
Skylar’s competitive journey began in 2012, when, after being dragged to her brother’s fencing competitions, she became fascinated with the sport.
“I would sneak up on my brother’s coach and stab him with my finger,” she remembered with a laugh.
She recalls participating in her first tournament in 2012. Although she lost almost all of her bouts, just competing made her realize how much she loved the sport. The tournament sparked a passion that blossomed into vigorous practice and competition.
Skylar typically trains four days a week, traveling once or twice a month to compete from September through April, a schedule which often poses a challenge to her academic studies.
“One of my biggest challenges that a lot of student athletes face is juggling your commitments between both school and fencing,” Skylar said. “I’m really thankful for the support of my teachers who have helped me be able to do both.”
Beyond balancing aspects of life, nerves during competitions have also been a struggle for Skylar.
“In front of you, you have someone who wants to stab you, and it’s really easy to freeze up or rush,” Skylar said.
Fencing relies on the most immediate instincts in an extremely fast-paced game that requires both mental and physical skill, which altogether facilitates a stressful competition culture.
“It’s really easy to be nervous and to stray away from your instincts, but you really have to focus on what you know and what works,” Skylar said.
As her coach always yells, “one touch at a time” is crucial to maximize focus on the game. Skylar has learned to be positive about nerves—“nervousness means that you’re ready to work and to fight.”
And despite the stressful environment, in the end, the close-knit fencing community can result in lasting friendships.
“Because fencing is such a small community, everybody knows each other,” Skylar said. “Even though on the strip we’re competitors, at the end of the day we’re friends who love supporting each other.”
Ultimately, tournaments can be just as valuable even without victory. One particularly memorable bout was this year’s Pan American Championship gold medal event against Chile. The teams ended up being tied 42-42, leading to a sudden death round: a one-minute round where whoever gets the point first wins.
“It’s a super high tension kind of situation—all the moments are really nerve-racking,” Skylar said. Although her team ended up finishing second, for Skylar it still stands as her proudest moment: “We fought really hard and learned a lot from it.”
Fencing has taught Skylar a variety of lessons, ranging from daily habits to the pursuit of her goals.
“I used to be really indecisive with things, like reading a menu and not being able to pick what I want,” she said. “And it’s not a big deal then, but on the strip I was struggling to commit to a certain action.”
Small moments like these have made Skylar realize the importance of habits and small actions “that build up and can make a huge difference in the long run.”
The capabilities that Skylar strengthened during her training would often translate to her everyday life, and also helped her glean a new mindset of approaching challenges.
“My big takeaway from fencing has been go after your goals, work towards them a little bit every day. And if anybody gets in your way—stab them with a metal stick,” she joked.
Though Skylar’s fencing season is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she intends to continue fencing for many years to come.
“I love the energy of the sport,” she said. “I can’t wait to do it for as long as I can.”