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Replay: How the Irish Did It Again

March 27, 2018

By Elyssa Kleiner as told to John Heisler

Elyssa Kleiner, a junior from San Francisco, competes in foil for the University of Notre Dame fencing squad. She and her teammates journeyed to State College, Pennsylvania, last week for the 2018 NCAA Fencing Championships. The Irish held at least a share of the lead after each of the four days of competition, finishing with a dominating victory (185 points to 170) over runner-up Columbia for a second straight NCAA title for Notre Dame. Kleiner finished 18-5 in round-robin foil competition–winning as many individual bouts as any other Irish fencer (Nick Itkin in men’s foil and Francesca Russo in women’s sabre also won 18)–and advanced to the individual semifinals in her event to earn first-team All-America honors. This is Kleiner’s first-person account of how the Irish did it in winning their 10th NCAA title on a weekend that produced 10 first- or second-team All-America finishes by Notre Dame fencers.

I went into the NCAA Championships last week feeling really good about our chances of winning again. I felt like the 12 of us combined gave us the strongest team, and I was really confident inside as far as the possibility of winning. I just wanted to get as many wins as I could and do my job for my team.

On Wednesday when we did weapons check, I got a lesson from (assistant coach) Buckie (Leach). He talked to me and Sabrina (Massialas, the other Irish foil entrant) and he was very calm about everything which was really helpful. It was the mentality that we needed to go out there and just fence. It was nothing crazy–both of us were capable of winning bouts. It was Sabrina’s third NCAAs and only my first so I was a little more nervous. I kind of knew what to expect based on what people had told me. I still was pretty calm in terms of just getting in there and getting it done.

On Thursday, the first day of competition, women’s foil was the first event to start. In the first round we fenced eight people. I started strong and lost to Sabrina in the first round and then won the other seven bouts–and that was key for me and my confidence to propel me into the tournament. I dropped two more bouts after that, but I was feeling pretty good. Foil took up most of the time, so I didn’t get to watch our other fencers do much. There were some bouts both days that I dropped that I should not have, but overall I did okay.

We all went out to a restaurant for dinner as a team on Thursday night. I felt pretty calm and relaxed. There were not a lot of expectations put on us. It was kind of a mutual understanding of what was going on–how everybody needed to go out and get their job done. Everything was normal and then we headed back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep. At team dinners we don’t talk a lot about what happened in fencing during the day. It’s a time to get away a little bit and laugh and relax as best we can.

We were tied for first going into Friday, but I try not to look too much at numbers when I’m fencing. I don’t want to make myself nervous or think I have to win this many bouts to do this or that. I had a little more of a rough start in the fourth round, going 2-2. I shouldn’t have lost either of those bouts, and I got a little frustrated but I was able to turn it around. Then I won the next four rounds, so that day went pretty quickly and I was able to watch more of the other weapons. They all did really well.

I was definitely more relaxed going into the individual semifinals because I was more concerned with the team side of it. I was really thrilled to make the top four–that was awesome. I wanted to fence my best in that, but I was happy to get as many bouts as I did for my team. Once you get to the semifinals you get to fence on the big stage and everybody’s watching and it’s definitely pretty exciting.

I get more nervous watching than I do fencing because it’s not in your control. I was very confident in the guys and what they could do once they started on Saturday. I lost my voice screaming for them. Men’s foil started first at nine and Axel (Kiefer) and Nick (Itkin) started strong and continued with that the two days. I watched some epee and sabre and they were killing it, but I mostly stuck with foil.

By Sunday we had a good lead and so people started to keep track of exactly how many bouts we needed to clinch. I think we were in first place pretty much the whole time except for a short period the very first day. So going into the fourth day I was nervous because you’re so close and anything can happen. But I was pretty excited because we were almost there. There was a little confusion over which bout was the clinching bout. Axel and Ari (Simmons) were fencing and some people said we needed to win one bout to clinch and some said two. Everyone on the foil team celebrated when Axel won and then Ari won a few seconds after that. There was a lot of excitement–everyone was jumping up and down and screaming. We had the biggest crowd of fans there–everyone on the team drove up to cheer and support. Everybody helped, whether they were fencing or not.

We clinched early in the fifth round and then there’s a little bit of relief. There were a few more bouts to see who would make it into the final four. Nick, Axel and Ari all made it and everyone stayed to cheer for them. Nick ended up winning the foil title which was really exciting. Next was the official NCAA ceremony and we got the team trophy and took lots of pictures. And then we all went to get ice cream. It was great fun on the bus on the way home–we stopped and had dinner along the way. We got back to the Joyce Center about 4 a.m. Sunday. So much for the glamorous life of a national champion team. Some people had 8 a.m. classes so they got three hours of sleep, but I did not have class until 10:30 a.m.

The event at the Duncan Student Center on Monday was cool–it was nice to have a formal celebration on campus. The speech by Jonathan Fitzgerald (Irish senior in sabre) was amazing–it was worth having the event just for that. And what (Irish head coach) Gia (Kvaratskhelia) said was really cool as well.

I haven’t thought much about who will be here again next year. But we have the countdown clocks in the hallway by our locker rooms and they are already set for the next year’s NCAAs so it’s definitely in the back of everybody’s mind. I’m very confident in this team’s abilities to go out and do it again.