Credit: Photo on right by Randy Alberti.
Caltech Gold-Medal Fencer Doubles Up on NCAAs
Laura Decker, Caltech's nationally ranked sabreuse—the term of choice for a woman who fences with the sabre—has notched two firsts within a week, including one for Caltech.
On March 5 she automatically qualified for the 2011 National Collegiate Men’s and Women’s Fencing Championships by placing second at the NCAA Western Regional Championships. In doing so, she became the first female Caltech athlete in the Institute's history to advance to an NCAA national championship two years in a row. (Caltech sabre champion Kevin Boyce, class of 1995, went four times.)
A week later, Decker earned a gold medal in Division II women’s sabre at the North American Cup (NAC) meet in Detroit. A single early loss left her seeded 17th in a series of direct-elimination bouts, but she won five and advanced to the finals. There she defeated 32-year-old Inga Cho 15-10.
The NCAA Championships, to be hosted by Ohio State University, will take place March 24–27 at the French Field House and St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Decker will be fencing on the 26th and 27th. There is a good chance she will again be facing Heather Nelson of the Air Force Academy, who twice now has denied Decker the gold at the Western Regionals, and Rebecca Ward of Duke University. Ward won the bronze medal in both individual and team sabre at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and at one time held all five world championship titles simultaneously, but Decker came within a point of besting her during the 2010 NCAA Championships.
Asked how she feels about being the first female Techer to qualify for two NCAA nationals back-to-back, Decker allows that it's "kind of cool," but then admits: "I was going to be upset if I didn't qualify after qualifying last year." She definitely had to work hard to do it, she adds, "but I was expected to do it," by both herself and Caltech fencing coach Michael D'Asaro.
D'Asaro has no doubts about her capabilities. "I've never had a fencer want to be so good so fast," he says. "On her days off, she would go to the gym and do two hours of footwork by herself. Then go on a run. But it's this dedication that gets you to two NCAA championships after only three years of fencing. I'm excited to see how far she can actually go in the sport. An Olympic team wouldn't surprise me at all. She's got the talent and the determination." He adds: "I'm very excited for this coming weekend. Most of the top 24 fencers in the country, including Olympic medalists and World Cup medalists, will be battling it out for the gold, and Laura's among them for the second year in a row. I couldn't be more proud."
During the regular season Decker performed below expectations due to illness, losing a few matches she probably shouldn't have. So, going into the NCAA Regionals, she found herself just a bit nervous. As it turned out, she fenced extremely well, her sole defeat coming at the blade of Air Force's Nelson. Facing the nationals, she isn't seeded last as she was the previous year, but she's still near enough the bottom to keep her expectations low. D'Asaro probably has more confidence in her than she does herself, she remarks.
D'Asaro, for his part, feels that Decker had what by any objective measure was a very good year, "although for her it was a mediocre one. But she really turned it on when it mattered."
An interesting boost to her confidence came at the NAC event on her way to the gold medal. NAC has introduced an instant-replay system through which contestants can challenge a judge's call. But if your challenge is ruled incorrect twice by the replay, you're barred from continuing to use the system. As long as the system backs you up, however, you can keep going. Decker used the system with considerable success. Even though the NCAA has not adopted such a system, her experience at the NAC has left her with considerable trust in her perceptions.
Is Decker contemplating the U.S. Olympic team? Not for 2012, she says. It's already a bit late, since the qualifying events have already started. She doesn't rule out a try in 2016, though. It depends on what opportunities she finds for competing—including internationally—and where her graduate-school career takes her.
Last year, when headed for the NCAAs, she was still vacillating between chemistry and medieval history as majors. After two years of chemistry, she had begun to feel that chemical research was not what she wanted to do with her life. Working this past summer with her advisor, Professor of History Warren Brown, Decker did research on the socially and culturally distinct kingdom established by Crusaders in Jerusalem and became convinced that history is the realm for her. She ended up helping to create a course for undergrads about the kingdom.
So far she has been accepted into graduate programs at Fordham University, in New York, and the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. Wherever she ends up, she hopes to continue wielding the fencer's blade as well the historian's pen.
Entering the Institute as a freshman, Laura Decker had no plans to pursue either fencing or history. But if there's one campus that is open enough for a student to try anything once, it's Caltech.
Written by Michael Farquhar