Nov. 18, 2015
by Renee Peggs
Francesca Russo, now a sophomore member of Notre Dame’s sabre squad, fenced her way to the top of the collegiate rankings and earned the national title at the NCAA Championship finals at Ohio State last spring to close the 2014-15 season.
Russo has competed at the international level since she was 12 but insisted that NCAAs were unlike any tournament in which she had previously participated.
“The pressure was insane,” she states bluntly. “My legs were shaking, my teammates had mental breakdowns, people were crying and running off to hide in corners after their bouts; we were all freaking out.”
By way of comparison, she describes the environment at other fencing competitions. “It’s not like people watching golf but it’s not like a football stadium, either. NCAAs was the closest I have ever come to experiencing what the football players must experience. I’ve never been in a competition where people are actually cheering against me. The room [at Ohio State] was crazy with people screaming; it was like this ferocious monster. My teammate Lee Kiefer has fenced at the Olympics and even she says NCAAs is unlike anything she’s ever competed at.”
Each university or college is allowed to qualify up to 12 fencers (two women and two men in each of the three squads – foil, epee and sabre) for the national title competition after advancing from regionals. Only Notre Dame and Columbia qualified all 12 spots for their institutions.
Team competition unfolds in a two-day round robin. Russo explains that Notre Dame was well-positioned to take first place but “you really can’t tell until the whole thing is over. The judges tally up everyone’s points and how many bouts each individual won.
“I had my heart set on our team winning but I felt like I had not fenced up to my potential. As the point totals were being put up and Notre Dame wasn’t listed, I was so disappointed. We hadn’t won or even placed. I thought it was done, I was done and it was over. Then someone came up and told me I had qualified by one point for the top four [in sabre]! So after that I was determined to do something for the Irish.”
Russo proved what she’s made of by defeating the defending NCAA women’s sabre champion in the semifinals before earning that national title herself.
“It was incredible to win,” she says, “and to represent the Fighting Irish that way. That’s what helped me stay focused – I just pretended like it was practice here in our home gym and I was doing it for fun. I definitely do not thrive on pressure the way it was [in that environment] but it was a motivator for me and I was able to overcome the mental blocks. It was a really cool experience.”
She started fencing at age nine at a summer camp with her older sister. Even though most fencers start with foil, the camp coach encouraged the youngsters to choose among all three weapons.
“My sister knew something about fencing prior to that and chose sabre. I didn’t know any different so I chose sabre, too, just to be like her,” Russo recalls.
Graciously, she elaborates on the major differences between the weapons. Epee is the “slowest” of the three, but is the most technical with respect to arm movements – “the motion is closer to stabbing than in sabre or foil; I see them coming out bleeding from bouts.” Sabre is much quicker than epee and involves using distance to advantage – “You’re using your legs to try to get out of the way. We’ll sometimes get whipped or slashed, but never stabbed. It’s painful but you get over it.” Foil is a combination of sabre and epee, heavily based on footwork and technical accuracy.
Three years after that initial summer camp introduction to fencing, Russo competed in Poland at the Cadet World Cup. As the youngest girl in her category, a 12-year-old fencing against 15- and 16-year-olds, she was pleased just to earn a spot in the top 32. Not long after, though, Russo was earning category dominance as well as garnering attention from college recruiters.
“I always knew about ND but I had my heart set on Ivy League. My sister was already fencing at Penn State and I was close to the coaches there, so that was also one of my top schools. But I went on a recruiting visit here and met the team; when I realized how close they were, like family, I decided Notre Dame was my best option for fencing and obviously for academics as well,” she shares.
“I’m from the east coast. People here are so nice,” she laughs. “Even people I’m not super close to are just so friendly and helpful, and willing to reach out. That’s really different!”
Her fencing squads have been a microcosm of that difference. At her club back home in New Jersey, “it was just all about competition and no one really helped anyone else out. When I got to Notre Dame last year, the sabre squad didn’t have a coach. We really had to train mostly on our own.
“That was a huge adjustment coming from a place where the coach was the only person you were learning from. Here, we all work together, even now that we do have a coach. It’s a much different environment than what I was used to.”
At this point, she is too old for the junior division of international fencing, “but the senior division requires almost complete dedication in order to make it worth doing. Most of the girls in my division are in their late 20s and early 30s and they’re not studying for tests or spending hours in class each day; they can train all the time and attend international camps.”
Choosing to focus right now, then, on academics and collegiate competition, Russo says her number one goal post-graduation is to train for the Olympics.
“If that’s not feasible, if I’m not high enough in the rankings, then I will have had a great education and earned a Notre Dame degree. Being able to combine that with fencing at this level tells me I made the right choice,” she affirms.
Hard to disagree with that.
Like a champion yesterday, today and tomorrow, Russo gives every indication that she’ll continue to bring glory to God, country and Notre Dame.