Dec. 17, 2014
Ask freshman fencer Francesca Russo what her goals are for her first year at the University of Notre Dame, and you will get a surprisingly simple response:
“I want to win a national title as a team.”
To most, this statement might seem like a lofty goal, but for the Notre Dame fencing team, it doesn’t sound lofty in the slightest.
A savvy sabreuse who frequently participates in fencing tournaments across the world, Russo started fencing when she was just 9 years old. After catching the attention of coaches in an introductory class, she spent countless hours practicing moves such as the passata sotto, the flunge and the parry inside the multi-colored walls of the Bergen Fencing Club.
Russo pushed herself exceptionally hard and saw her talent come to fruition from her laborious practices. With club coach Oleg Stetsiv at her side, Russo traversed the world to compete in Grand Prix events, enjoying trips to such faraway places like France, Russia, Belgium, Hungary and Germany.
During her time with the club, Russo also became familiar with Paul Cepak and Claudia Kulmacz – two fellow Irish fencers who also joined the team this season. Russo still competes with her hometown club team, as the majority of her competition travels to date are done through the club program.
Despite spending most of her time competing at the club level, Russo also enjoyed tremendous success in the high school fencing league of New Jersey, one of the largest and best high school leagues in the country. At Wayne Valley High School, she was a four-time state champion in the sabre event and won “Fencer of the Year” all four seasons at Wayne.
“High school fencing added a team aspect which I never would have experienced outside of my club,” she says. “Fencing at the high school level also helped prepare me for all the fencing I’ve done since then.”
After enjoying so much success at both the club and the high school level, it’s no surprise that Russo soon began grabbing the eyes of collegiate fencing coaches across the country. Traditional powerhouse programs such as Princeton, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Ohio State, Penn State and Duke started recruiting her, and before she knew it, she had every school practically begging her to attend.
Yet, Russo recalls speaking with Irish head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia as the first real tipping point in her recruiting process.
“Up until the beginning of my senior year, I really had no idea where I wanted to go to school,” Russo remembers. “Gia spoke to me and told me all about the Notre Dame program. He seemed like the nicest man on the face of the earth, and he told me all about the awesome facilities and how great life as an athlete was here at Notre Dame. I was just blown away.”
The facilities and the coaches weren’t the only items to impress Russo. Despite being from New Jersey, a veritable fencing hub in the U.S., Russo always felt that fencing wasn’t one of the most popular sports.
“I feel like I was almost unusual for being a fencer, and that a lot of people didn’t really understand this sport that I have so much passion for,” she says. “Coming here, people respect the fencing team – they know what fencing is. That’s not always a given on college campuses.”
Despite being miles away from the traditional fencing clubs she had grown up with, Notre Dame has established a fencing hearth of sorts, complete with a community of followers and supporters invested in the success of the program and the athletes.
“The first thing I noticed about the team was not only how good everyone was, but how serious and focused everyone on the team was,” Russo says. “This focus and intensity is something that has a contagious affect, and it motivates me to try my hardest and be the best competitor I can possibly be.”
Despite the seriousness of the team, there is no denying the friendship and camaraderie that is inherently present amongst the Irish fencers.
“I was able to become extremely close with everyone on the team very fast; essentially, I started college with 60 best friends,” she adds with a chuckle. “I love my team, and everyone looks out for each other no matter what. The team is basically my family at school.”
This closeness has been a contributing factor to the success the Irish team has experienced throughout history. Having remained a mainstay in the group of elite fencing universities in the U.S., Notre Dame’s fencing program continues to hold high expectations for itself. Russo, one of many with high expectations in the 2014-15 schoolyear, likes the Irish’s opportunities for success this season.
“Everyone who fights in sabre is dominant in their own way,” Russo says, “We’re a diverse squad, and we aren’t just a squad with one good fencer, instead we’re a team of solid fencers. This identity is really going to allow us to be successful down the road.”
As the competitive season proceeds, it is evident that Russo’s goal for the team seems more and more possible. By landing top-tier talent like herself, Notre Dame can field teams capable of turning dreams of national championships into an ever-present reality.
Sean McMinimee ’18