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Replay: NCAA Title in My Eyes

March 28, 2017

By Ariel Simmons

Ariel Simmons, a freshman from Bellaire, Texas, competes in epee for the University of Notre Dame fencing squad. Simmons, who advanced to the individual semifinals in his event to earn first-team All-America honors, and his teammates journeyed to Indianapolis last week for the 2017 NCAA Fencing Championships. They took that event by storm, finishing with a dominating victory (186 points to 161) over runner-up Ohio State. This is Simmons’ first-person account of how the Irish did it in winning their ninth NCAA title on a weekend loaded with emotion and high-level performances.

I kind of had an idea of what to expect, but only the shell of what I thought was going to happen actually happened. The emotions and all the other things you go through-nothing can prepare you for that. You can just hear about it from everybody else–“There’s gonna be a lot of pressure on the people fencing, there’s gonna be a lot of excitement, every bout is going to be crazy, if you lose you’re going to be devastated and if you win you’re going to be on top of the world. Everyone’s going to be smiling, crying, yelling, cheering.” So I kind of knew all that going in.

We knew we had to perform at the regionals to qualify all 12 fencers for the NCAAs, and we did. After that it was a re-set, a clean slate. We had a week and a half to prepare. The individual weapons coaches controlled the practices, and they tried to make it as normal as possible where you don’t feel like your atmosphere is changing even though you’re going to compete for the national championship.

That Monday we practiced, and then Tuesday was a really light workout. I tried to just relax, and I made sure I got my schoolwork done. I just wanted to be in the zone for Thursday. When we got there (Indianapolis) Wednesday it was kind of the calm before the storm. We all hung out together that night, but we weren’t talking much fencing. We knew once we woke up it was game time.

Foil went first, so it was Axel (Kiefer) and Kristjan (Archer) at nine, then Dylan (French) and I were in epee at 11:30 and sabre (Jonah Shainberg and Jonathan Fitzgerald) was at 1:30. By the time I got there the foil guys were already fencing. It was a little scary to watch. The competition was on a hockey rink with stands all around, and it was obvious everyone was going to be watching us. We saw there were a lot of people cheering for the Notre Dame guys, and that was great. We warmed up, got in our zone and then we got ready to fence. The first match is against your own teammate, and that was the hardest bout of the entire tournament. It gets in your head whether you win or lose. We fence alongside each other the whole season and now you have to fence against your teammate, so that’s definitely nerve-wracking.

Dylan and I were intense and tense at the same time. After our bout we immediately re-set–that’s what we talked about all week. You have to know in this tournament you’re going to lose bouts, and the most important thing is to have a short memory. You lose a bout and you go to the next one. If you keep thinking about it you’ll lose your next one and the one after that and the one after that. This tournament is not about you, it’s about the team. So if you get into a funk you’re not just losing for yourself, you’re losing for your team. So you have to put your ego aside and forget that you lost a bout and win the next one. It’s about bringing back the trophy. That was the focus.

I lost a few bouts and so did Dylan. We did a good job of re-setting, but I was very frustrated every time I lost a bout. In the end I was able to re-set, but in the moment that was hard to do. Some of the matches you lose you wouldn’t lose in a normal situation-but you get too excited, too scared, too happy you won the last one, and then you do something stupid and in the snap of your fingers it’s done. That’s why re-setting is so important. The first day I won nine bouts (out of 15) and Dylan won eight, which is pretty good. Both us of knew it was not bad, but we really wished we could have had some of those bouts to do over again. But we kept saying we have to forget about it-just do our jobs tomorrow.

Thursday night was terrible-I just wanted to fence. They make it a two-day format because the intensity and emotion and mental energy exhaust you. We just wanted to eat and sleep. You wake up the next morning and it’s game time again. That next day we only lost one bout each-we killed it. Dylan ended up one bout away from being an All-American and I got into the final four. My mom flew up and this was the first time in college she’d seen me fence. I’d look at the coaches and the team and they’re giving it their all cheering for you and you realize you’re giving it your all fencing. There’s just this connection. They’d point at me and I’d point at them. We’d yell and we’d high five between touches.

Everybody was fencing against us on our turf. Our entire team showed up and was right there, wrecking havoc, making it a pain for our opponents. Dylan and I were there bringing the energy of a home team. This wasn’t on our campus and maybe Indianapolis was supposed to be no man’s land, but we made it our land. That was super beneficial in helping us win the championship.

It all happens so quickly. I hated it and loved it at the same time. I loved the amount of energy-it was unlike any event I’ve ever fenced. The first day everyone is kind of feeling out the water. The second day was even more intense because everyone is trying to finish in the final four. There’s a lot on the line. Epee was kind of a free for all with eight matches on Friday. We had to give it 10 times more than we did the first day, and there were even more Notre Dame people there than on Thursday which was even better. After each bout the emotions were unbelievable. If you won you did not hear silence for a full minute after the bout. It was “We are ND” and “Here come the Irish” and it was just booming. We knew sabre and foil were winning because we could hear the energy over there. And just like that it’s done.

I was spent after the 23 pool bouts, and I was choked up. I got 15 of them–and I was gone emotionally. Then the team part is over and it’s just the four individuals left. The rest of the team supports the people in the final four. I lost a little intensity, and I ended up losing in the semifinals. It was cool, but it’s different because it doesn’t count for the team.

When the men were done Friday we’re doing our best not to think about the standings and what it meant. But all the guys know they’re done fencing so they can just count and look at numbers. That was actually more stressful because we were tied with Ohio State after Friday and we couldn’t do anything about it. We were powerless, but we put all our faith in the girls and they’re all tanks. We knew if the guys could just stay in it, we knew the girls could take it home. They have a good history of killing it at NCAAs and continued the tradition this year. But it’s 10 times more stressful watching than being on the strip.

On Saturday we did really well in women’s foil. I remember seeing Tara (Hassett) lose one early (sabre) bout and you’re thinking maybe they can come back. But then a few minutes later Tara won another key bout against Columbia and after that a lot of the guys were thinking, “Okay, we can do it. If they keep fencing like this we’re gonna be ahead by the end of today and they’ll go out and kill it tomorrow and we’re gonna win.” By Saturday night we were all optimistic, but it’s like “we can do it” rather that “we did do it.” Nobody wants to jinx it. The last few years we were close, but we hadn’t gotten it. We’re excited, but we’re all freaking out at the same time.

Then on Sunday, while we thought the guys did a good job, the girls blew us out of the water. Four of the six girls got 79 bouts. All six guys got 86. The girls got 100 points-that’s freakishly high. They were averaging winning two or three more bouts than the guys and that’s huge. My friends from other schools kept telling me, “Notre Dame’s got this.” But you did not really feel like you were destroying all these other schools until it’s all over. You can’t just say it, you still have to do it. In the end we won by such a huge margin and a lot of it was that everybody just kept their heads down. We did our best not to count how many bouts we were winning as we were fencing.

Once the guys are done, everybody’s got their phone out waiting for the page to refresh. There’s a big scoreboard on one of the screens and it’s up to date, so on Sunday we knew exactly how many more bouts we needed. At one point it was seven and then five. Then Columbia lost a bout so it was four and then Columbia lost another one. We won one and then another. Then Lee Kiefer was up, and she ends up the hero. She is the best athlete to ever attend this school, and it was so perfect that she was the one who had a chance to do this for the team. If she won that bout no other school would be able to catch us. We called everybody else on the team and all the fans came over to watch Lee’s bout. We had one bout left (to clinch) and this was the bout. There was a Snapchat story that one of our friends took and it said “Here Come the Irish.” It’s just a video of all the Notre Dame fans in the stands running over to where Lee is going to fence.

She ended up winning 5-1, and I’m standing there in front with an ND flag waiting to unfurl it. (Sophomore foilist) Sabrina (Massialas) is watching us and she gives us a thumbs up, but she did not know this was the bout. We let her know that this was it. As soon as Lee won, Sabrina ran up and told her that we had won. We’re all yelling and Lee runs up to us and she yells at all of us. She was fencing to win the bout and she didn’t know what it meant until it finally registered. She was just trying to do what she needed to do for her team. We’re all screaming and hugging. They told us we had to stay in the stands, but we came down there anyway and everybody was hugging and jumping around. We all thanked each other because we all did this-it wasn’t just one person. This was the entire group, it was the people who came before us, it was the coaches, it was everything we did right this year. It was crazy to see it all come together.

We weren’t the number one ranked team coming into this. People were predicting us second or third, and last year we were fifth. It just felt so amazing, and it was so amazing that Lee won the bout that mattered most. She has won every single thing imaginable. She’s the first U.S. women’s foilist to be number one in the world. She’s going to med school, and so you see her and she’s always studying on the bus, on the plane. And yet she gives her heart for her team.

Elyssa Kleiner (sophomore foilist) is going to world championships next week–she had a real breakout year. And before Lee’s match in the final four she’s trying to get people to come to practice this week so they can help train Elyssa for the world championships. She is so invested in the team that she was thinking about someone who did not even fence in the (NCAA) competition. But she cares about everyone else’s success. At the same time she wins every competition possible. I want to see the next person that can do what Lee Kiefer did (four individual NCAA titles). She deserved to close it for us.

Out of 12 fencers we had nine All-Americans (Lee Kiefer, Amanda Sirico, 2017 individual sabre champion Francesca Russo and Simmons earned first-team honors; Massialas, Archer, Axel Kiefer, Shainberg and Fitzgerald won second-team recognition). That’s huge–that’s how you win a national championship. Everybody got double-digit points. It was the world coming together perfectly with her (Kiefer) winning that one bout and then again when she won in the final four. Everybody stormed the strip and picked her up. That’s how her collegiate career came to an end.

We took pictures with the trophy, and then we jumped on the bus and came home. It was the most emotional weekend I’ve ever had and it was over like this (snaps his fingers). We had probably 30, maybe 40 team members come on their own time and money to support us. That’s what this team is-it’s a family that came together when we needed it most. Everybody was there for each other. You had to be there to experience it. It was beautiful.

–edited by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director