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Fencing Success Runs In The Family For Waltons

March 5, 2003

By Pete LaFleur

A family within a family … within a family.

Such is the three-layered existence for fencers Forest and Kerry Walton, Notre Dame’s first brother-sister combination ever to earn All-America status (in any sports). As part of the tightly-knit Notre Dame fencing community – on a campus where “family atmosphere” is more than just a buzzword for recruiting brochures – the Waltons have come to feel right at home in Northern Indiana while taking their unique place in Notre Dame sports history.

“This truly is a magical place, I knew that the first time I set foot on campus,” says Forest, who captured All-America honors as a sophomore with his ninth-place finish in the 2001 NCAA men’s foil competition while Kerry made her own history by winning the 2002 women’s epee title to cap her sophomore season.

“There are so many parts of Notre Dame that truly are like a family and our fencing team is a great example of that. The fact that I get to share that with my sister makes it even more special.”

The Walton family connection to fencing extends to their parents Michael and Yvonne, who dabbled in the sport while attending Lowell State College (now part of UMass-Lowell). The couple lived for a few years in Alaska and then returned to New England by settling in Londonderry, N.H., where they have lived for the past 20 years.

The Walton children vividly remember being “dragged” to their parent’s fencing lessons – “there definitely was a time when we had no interest in fencing,” says Forest – but sometime in the mid-1980s, the children began to develop their own love for the sport.

The youngsters were not the only members of the Walton family who have remained hooked by fencing. Michael was forced to stop competing due to a knee injury but he serves as the family armorer and a trusted mentor, whenever he can be on hand.

Yvonne overcame her own injury, to her right arm (she fenced lefthanded for a full year), before diving back into national competitions in 2001. She recently claimed the bronze medal in her age group (50-59) at the World Veterans Championship, matching Kerry’s finish months earlier at the World Juniors. It marked the first time in U.S. fencing history that a mother and daughter had medalled concurrently in World Championship competition, with both USA Today and Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” publicizing the accomplishment.

It was Kerry who stole the family spotlight following a whirlwind five-week stretch last spring, when she won the NCAA title and placed third at the World Juniors in Turkey – just the second U.S. women’s epeeist ever to medal at any World Championship – before winning the U.S. Championship (open to all ages) in Louisville. Kerry’s proud mother equated the accomplishment to winning fencing’s “Triple Crown.”

Both Walton children quickly progressed through the national fencing circuits. Forest owned a top-20 U.S. junior ranking and captained the gold-medal-winning under-17 national team while Kerry crisscrossed the country at foil and epee events. The siblings also competed on a high level in soccer, baseball and softball – sports that helped hone agility and hand-eye coordination that are so critical to fencing.

Their key training came at Seacoast Fencing Club, in nearby Manchester. It was there that four future NCAA fencing stars – the Waltons and their cousins Scott and Kevin Eriksen (All-Americans at Penn and Columbia, respectively) – developed a competitive bond that holds to this day.

“We trained together for 11 years and people called us the Four Amigos,” recalls Forest. “We were very competitive with one another but it also made fencing so much fun. That’s a major reason behind all of our success.”

During their days as the Four Amigos, the Waltons picked up a pair of telling nicknames. Forest – a product of the “Top Gun” movie generation – was known as Iceman while his younger sister was tabbed Valkyre, in honor of the Norse god of war.

Kerry’s recent dominance can be attributed to her mastery of three primary areas that are critical to fencing success.

“Her coaches will tell you that Kerry has the rare combination of natural athleticism, mental toughness and knowledge of technique,” says Yvonne. “Others may be better in one of those areas – but in the long run, it’s the fencers who are strong in all three who have the best chance at success.”

Possibly the most defining aspect of the Walton’s fencing is their sense of priorities. Kerry’s pre-competition routine includes spending an hour or so catching up with old friends, just “goofing around and having fun.” Not much changes after the fencing has stopped, even following a hard-fought bout or frustrating defeat.

“Forest and I were very lucky, in all our sports, to have coaches and parents who taught us to always enjoy the competition,” says Kerry.

“You can learn more from losses and hard times than you can from when you win. A lot of fencers get burned out and lose that love of the sport. I can’t see that ever happening to us.”

Forest’s artistic side and experience with architecture classes in high school helped narrow his college choices to schools that offered both architecture majors and strong fencing programs. Moments after stepping onto the Notre Dame campus, that choice was made. And when Kerry accompanied her family to drop off Forest the following fall, she likewise made the quick conclusion that Notre Dame was the place for her.

One of the ironies involving the Walton family connection is that Forest was halfway around the globe when his sister completed the family’s historic All-America double. He spent 2001-02 studying in Rome, as part of the five-year architecture curriculum, and currently is navigating his way though possibly the most challenging class demands of any Notre Dame student-athlete.

With Notre Dame again in pursuit of the elusive NCAA title, both of the Walton “wonder kids” know what will be at stake at the 2003 NCAA meet in Colorado Springs.

“I’d be lying if I said it was all just for fun – you can see it in practice, we want to win it all this year so badly. Everyone is so supportive of each other and each person plays a role on this team,” says Kerry.

“I don’t feel any added pressure but I do feel more experienced. I know what it takes to win as an individual – now I want to do it as a team.”

Adds Forest, “I have another year of eligibility but this senior class is the group I came in with and I’m very close to them. It would mean more to win it all this year and we’ve got what it takes. The team is in a great framework for winning the national championship.”

And back in Londonderry, N.H., where Yvonne has placed her own bronze medal alongside her children’s trophies, she knows that “Iceman” and “Valkyre” remain in good hands.

“It’s amazing what Notre Dame has done for out kids and I can honestly say that I had no worries when we sent them off to school,” she says.

“The whole experience for them as students and athletes at Notre Dame has been challenging but also very rewarding, very valuable to their growth as individuals – it’s every parent’s dream.”