Blue fencing began its season in November at the Fall Invitational of the New England Intercollegiate Fencing Conference at Smith, where several students from Wellesley made it to the top 16 of their categories. One of them, Kathryn Ledbetter ’15, brought that energy to the following weekend’s Vassar Invitational, where she finished 20-4 in epee. A senior and native of Colorado, Ledbetter enjoyed 11 victories at the New England Conference meet on Nov. 15 to round out fencing’s fall bouts before continuing their season in January. Ledbetter recently spoke with The Wellesley News to discuss the sport, her team and balancing athletics and academics at Wellesley.
Alice Liang (A.L.): How did you get started in fencing, and why did you decide to play at Wellesley?
Kathryn Ledbetter (K.L.): I started fencing in middle school, since I had a friend who fenced at a local saber club. I had to stop in high school because the club was too far away, but when I came to Wellesley I was excited to pick it up again. It had always been the number one thing I wanted to get involved in at Wellesley.
A.L.: Why did you decide to fence epee?
K.L.: I actually started out as a saber fencer, and fenced saber for three years. When I arrived at Wellesley, the team had just graduated eight seniors and the only remaining epee fencer was injured. I was asked to switch to epee in the interest of the team, and I have been fencing epee ever since. It was a big change from saber to epee: epee is a point weapon, meaning you can only hit with the tip of the blade, and there is no right of way. I was used to saber, in which you can hit with any part of the blade and right of way determines who gets the point in the event that both fencers land a hit.
A.L.: What’s a typical practice like?
K.L.: We practice every weekday from 4:15-6:30 p.m. We start out with a warmup and some stretching, and then we do footwork as a group [including] advances, retreats, lunges, fleches and distance drills. On Fridays, we play indoor soccer with a tiny soccer ball — we are generally not excellent at soccer. Then, we split up by weapon and fence bouts for the rest of the practice while the coaches give individual lessons.
A.L.: Fencing seems like a pretty individual sport, but how do you and the rest of the fencing team bond?
K.L.: We spend a ton of time together, and even at meets there is a lot of team support even though you do fence one-on-one. Each squad is constantly giving one another advice, and after we fence each opponent, we give our teammates advice on the opponent’s style and weaknesses. We also have a tradition of painting our nails blue before competitions, which is always a fun bonding activity.
A.L.: What’s going through your head as you’re fencing?
K.L.: During a bout, a lot of the time my conscious thoughts are repeating advice from my coach or teammates, such as “hand high,” “parry six,” while thoughts during the actual actions of the bout are usually too fast to articulate in words. Muscle memory plays a big role, and usually my conscious plans are made before the action starts, with the caveat that if it doesn’t work, parry and get out in order to try again.
A.L.: You’re an individualized chemical physics and classical civilization double major: how do you balance your schedule at Wellesley as a student athlete?
K.L.: I actually find it easier to balance my schedule while we are in season than when we are out of season. Having practice every day gives me that mental “reset” each evening that lets me stay focused while doing homework into the night, and it also gives a definite structure to my schedule and something to look forward to each day. I honestly think I would not have gotten into Phi Beta Kappa if I weren’t a student athlete. Being an athlete forced me to have good time management and focus when focus is needed. It is definitely very stressful at times, though. I like to manage that stress in the manner of Sulu [from Star Trek]: I drink a lot of tea.
A.L.: How has the season been for you so far?
K.L.: The season has been pretty good so far, and personally I have done better than I expected. The team is still having to work around several injuries so we are glad that we have a break in competitions until January.
A.L.: How do you train when you’re not in school, such as during breaks?
K.L.: [Caitlin] Pickul, our strength coach, gives us lifts and workouts to do over breaks, and we can also do footwork pretty much anywhere. It’s a little harder to train in actual fencing during breaks, but for the past two summers I have been lucky enough to be near an epee club where I could fence.
A.L.: What goals do you have for the rest of the season?
K.L.: My main goal is to qualify for regionals and improve my result from last year. Because we fence against all three NCAA divisions, it is hard to place highly at regionals against all of the Division I fencers, but my goal is to increase my ranking by at least one place.
A.L.: Who’s your favorite professional fencer?
K.L.: My favorite professional fencer is probably Mariel Zagunis, the Olympic saber fencer. In addition to winning two Olympic gold medals, she has done a lot to increase the visibility of fencing, and especially of women’s saber, which was not even included in the Olympics until 2004, when she won her first gold. She was definitely my idol when I was starting out in saber.
Varsity fencing will pick up its season on Jan. 25 with its annual Wellesley Invitational against Brandeis.