Great Neck South girls fencing looks to take next step in dominant run

Great Neck South girls fencing looks to take next step in dominant run
Alyssa Wong (left) and Dana Li (right) during a recent practice of the Great Neck South girls fencing team. The squad has won five Nassau Co. championships in a row. Photo credit: Michael J. Lewis

It is not a sport you see on playgrounds or gymnasiums around town.

Nor is it on television in its competitive form, except at the Olympics.

And honestly? It sounds kinda dangerous when you just describe it on paper, in words: Two competitors, dressed in full protective gear, attack each other with swords and try to score points by landing the sword on the other’s body.

But for the girls of the Great Neck South fencing team, it’s a sport they love, and it’s where they found a home.

On the strip, weapon in hand, they’ve come to the sport from all different ways and have learned to embrace it.

“The other kids at school think we’re a little odd, definitely not a mainstream sport,” laughed Angela Wu, a senior. “But once they learn about it and maybe come see us, they think it’s cool and want to know more.”

Fencing, to the average person, is only seen in movies like “The Princess Bride” or new TV shows like “Wednesday.”

But it requires stamina, pinpoint accuracy, quick-twitch reflexes, and confidence.

“We get kids with all levels of experience, from ones who’ve done it before for years and others who’ve never done it at all,” said coach Catie Sagevick. “And having that mix really helps us. If you’re a kid who can take directions and put forth some effort, we can help you and build some knowledge. And you’ll have fun.

“We get kids from badminton, volleyball, a bunch of other sports who are just curious about us and want to give it a try.”

Competing in one of three specialties (epee, foil and sabre), Great Neck South’s team has built quite a fencing dynasty in Nassau County; having won the last five girls’ team titles, and are going for a sixth as the season is just underway.

But the dragon they have not slayed (sticking with sword metaphors here) is Commack. Four times in those five years the Suffolk champ Cougars have beaten Great Neck South in the Long Island championship, and this year the Rebels are determined to change things.

“Each year we make a goal board at the start of the season, and put something down on it and try to manifest it to happen,” said senior Kira Nguyen said. “We always in the past have put down Nassau champs, but this year we put down Long Island champs. We really, really want that.”

Each fencer for GNS has a different origin story; Nguyen tried a ton of different sports before age 9, when she noticed the North Shore Fencing Club sign while on the way to a party at the Pump It Up party center.

Alyssa Wong came to the sport after watching her brother, all-Long Island now current Boston College fencer Ryan Wong, compete for years.

“I just thought it was so cool,” Wong said. “And I saw how much my brother changed, as a person, by joining the fencing team, and how it helped him to have a community of people on the team.”

What does it take to be a good fencer? Confidence and courage is No. 1, said Wu. When she first came to practice she said she was terrified of hurting someone.

“I would literally close my eyes when I came forward to try to (hit someone,)” she said. “You just have to get over that fear by practicing over and over again. And also, you watch other people (compete) and they don’t get hurt, so you realize it’s OK.”

Beyond courage, stamina is crucial, since fencers are constantly moving back and forth in quick bursts throughout the match.
Also helpful is agility and the mental gift of strategy, and knowing when to attack and when to play defense, so to speak.

With three different specialties to choose from, how does a fencer decide which to pursue? According to team members, sabre is the most intense and fast-paced, whereas epee is more of a full-body workout and more strategic. Foil is a combination of them both, the Great Neck fencers said.

“For sabre it’s so much about confidence, if you have confidence you can succeed,” Wong said. “When I tried it I knew it was for me.”

So far this season the Rebels have won all three matches through December 11, including a win over rival Great Neck North on Dec. 8. With nationally-ranked fencers Kira and Ashley Nguyen leading the way along with Wu and Wong, Sagevick feels her team is deep and strong enough to again compete for the LIC, with rivals Great Neck North and Syosset and Jericho likely vying for the crown as well.

“We’ve got a great group of girls who come to practice and really want to get better,” Sagevick said. “We’re putting all our eggs in one basket this season, and that basket is the LIC’s.”

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