- Associated Press - Friday, April 22, 2016

KAYSVILLE, Utah (AP) - Eight years ago, Tatijana Stewart, 17, of North Ogden, picked up a mystery book. What she learned has led her to the top of women’s fencing - not just in the U.S., but across the globe.

“I read a Nancy Drew mystery that was a fencing mystery,” Stewart, who is a junior at Weber High School, said. Interested, she asked her mom, Dagmar, if there was fencing in the area. Her mom was pessimistic a program could be found, the Standard-Examiner reported (https://bit.ly/1QmTjP0).

Stewart found a place and from that point on, the lean, fit athlete hasn’t looked back.

In February, representing the U.S. cadet (under-17) team at the 2016 World Championships in Bourges, France, her eight years of training paid off. She finished second in the individual competition (called epee), in which 113 fencers competed.

Stewart was seeded 15th. After winning five of six bouts, she entered the elimination rounds, winning bouts against the best fencers of Europe.

In the finals, she lost to last year’s world champion, Alessandra Bozza of Italy. It was the first silver medal for the U.S. in that competition since 2009.

In the mixed team event, of which Stewart was a part, the U.S. garnered the gold medal, beating Spain, Poland, Hungary and Russia. After the France tournament, Stewart’s world ranking jumped to No. 5.

Up next are more national competitions and she enters a new age group, the under-20 category. On a recent Monday night, she was back in the gym - a long, rectangle-shaped building containing two areas filled with narrow mats for training.

A FULL-TIME COMMITMENT BY SIXTH GRADE

“By sixth grade, I wanted to commit fully with fencing,” Stewart said. She spends Monday nights at Wasatch Fencing in Kaysville, where her coach, Kenny Nopens, teaches classes one day a week.

Other days she trains at Nopens’ gym, Schoolhouse Fencing in West Valley City. Schoolhouse Fencing’s home page features a picture of a smiling Stewart, holding a national trophy she won as an under-14 fencer.

Stewart’s mom lives in Germany. Her dad, John Stewart, died in the summer of 2014. He was in Columbus, Ohio, watching his daughter compete in a national tournament. Taken to the hospital with a recurring medical issue, “he told me he’d be there to watch me,” she said.

After he died at the hospital, she took a day off but returned to the tournament and won a title. “I felt like my dad was with me,” she said.

It’s a feeling that she has often experienced since. “I attribute my abilities and opportunities I have to dad and my mom,” she said.

She now lives with her coach, Kenny, and his wife, Jennifer Nollner, in Weber County. “Kenny and Jenn are very supportive. They are kind of like my foster parents,” Stewart said.

“I play a very defensive, patient game,” Stewart explained. She uses what’s called a pistol-grip fencing technique and looks for opportunities to counter her opponent’s moves.

Making the Olympics is Stewart’s goal. Every national and international tournament - and there have been many - is geared toward earning an Olympic invite in 2020 or 2024. She’s not sure which year yet, but a lot of it depends how school goes.

Despite her absences from Weber High to compete, she’s an Honor Society vice president and active in student organizations, including Future Business Leaders of America.

She wants to fence in college. “I’m looking at a couple of different places. I hope to get recruited. I’m talking to coaches,” she said. The Ivy League and Stanford are top choices. Nopens said several schools are interested in her.

BONNEVILLE GRADUATE ALSO HARBORS OLYMPIC HOPES

One of Stewart’s teammates, Dylan Nollner, 23, went to Duke University and fenced, earning All-American status for two years. He was in Kaysville training having competed in the National Championships in Richmond, Virginia. Considered a senior competitor, Nollner took fifth place. It wasn’t enough to make this year’s Olympics, but he has a goal to compete in the Tokyo games in 2020.

In international competition, Nollner explained, there are four regional zones: Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. To make the Olympics depends on how well one competes in his or her global zone. If a team wins Olympic qualifying, all four fencers go to the Olympics. Otherwise, fencers compete individually for an Olympic spot.

According to fencing.net, “For the fencing events, a total of 212 athletes will compete across 10 events. Due to limitations on the size of the events by the IOC, nations are not guaranteed an athlete in each sport - nations and athletes have to compete against not only their countrymen, but others in their region or continent for an Olympic slot.”

Training for Nollner, who graduated from Bonneville High School, continues. If he gains enough points to be ranked in the top 12 nationally, the opportunity to compete internationally follows. Ultimately, to get to a world championship depends on points earned at the national and international events

“I really love the sport,” Nollner said. He estimates he’s engaged in “tens of thousands” of fencing bouts, practices and competition. He began training at 11 and says he has never tired of it.

TRAINING PAYS OFF MENTALLY AS WELL

Fencing, particularly in a very large tournament, takes a lot of endurance. In elimination rounds, fencers go three, three-minute periods, or until 15 points are scored. “Fatigue happens (but in the) best-case scenario, adrenaline kicks in and it carries you through,” Stewart said.

But that won’t happen if you are not well conditioned. Nopens, Nollner and Stewart all stressed the importance of cardio, with hiking, running, cross-training, interval training, badminton, soccer and weightlifting among training exercises.

All three stress one other key factor - understanding what your opponent is thinking. “You have to pay attention to how your opponent is doing,” Stewart said. Studying the opponent is key to winning and as Stewart and Nollner both maintain, you can’t have that kind of concentration unless you’re fit enough to compete well.

“It’s an open-system sport,” Nopens explained. That means there is engagement with the competitor. Timing, distance, movement, “all of that plays into a relationship with the opponent,” he said.

Nopens is proud of Stewart, Nollner and his other fencers. “They’re very honest. I try to push good sportsmanship and total honesty,” Nopens said. He said if a judge incorrectly gives a point to his fencers in competition, they will refuse it.

Despite a life that involves training at least four days a week and frequent weekend trips to national and international events, Stewart, as adulthood approaches, still enjoys life as a teenager.

“I like writing a lot,” Stewart said. She has a sewing machine, has learned to sew and has taken to it.

There are fencers Stewart looks up to. One is Katharine Holmes, a student at Princeton University who has been selected to the U.S. Olympic Team in Rio this year. Holmes has encouraged Stewart at competitions. “(It) was cool to have her reach out to me,” she said.

Stewart is only getting better as she gets older. She was recently nominated for the Utah Governor’s State of Sport Award as Outstanding High School Athlete of the Year. Votes for her or others can be cast at the awards’ website.

“If you’re looking for a unique sport, definitely try fencing. You can go as far as you want to or stay recreational,” Stewart said.

And with the growth of the sport, most won’t need the Nancy Drew mystery “En Garde” to learn of it.

___

Information from: Standard-Examiner, https://www.standard.net


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