Senior and epee Noelle Sawyer of women’s fencing had never fenced at all before coming to Vassar College. Hailing from the Bahamas, she took up an In the Pink Life Fitness class three years ago, with instruction from fencing Assistant Coach Eric Soyka, and now stands as a co-captain and the lone senior for the women’s team.
“I’m from the Bahamas—they don’t have fencing there. They think it’s weird. I didn’t actually know how to fence when I came here,” she explained. “I took a Life Fitness class my freshman year with my roommate and our idea was, if we went to the gym and stabbed each other once a week, we wouldn’t have any real roommate fights.”
Sawyer was then asked to join the team by Soyka after he noticed her talent in the sport. “My first year was basically me being confused about fencing life because, although we do have a lot of walks-ons, there are the people who have been fencing for ten years,” she said. “I was just clumsy, all over the place, but I learned to fence better with the assistant coaches and I stayed on the team.”
Sawyer spent her next few years on the fencing team improving over time, and learning the in’s and out’s of the unfamiliar sport. “I had this horrible fear of lefty fencers my first year on the team,” she explained. This coincided with the influx of lefty fencers in her sophomore year. “We had some new and better people come in, and we got some lefties. Then my undying fear of lefty fencers went away — I would say that was an improvement.”
In her time outside of fencing, Sawyer is a math and history double major. She also teaches supplemental instruction (S.I.) for the Math Department, holding one hour review sessions twice a week, as well as having her own office hours. She also makes worksheets and practice exams for students.
Even though she has a demanding schedule, Sawyer has taken a leadership role on the team as senior and, as co-captain, her teammates look up to her. “[Sawyer] is a wonderful person and teammate,” wrote freshman foil Elsa Stoff in an emailed statement. “She is hilarious and, as a captain, she always makes me feel motivated to fence.”
Co-captain junior and epee Megan Lewis also agreed. She wrote in an emailed statement, “I could go on about [Sawyer] all day. She is absolutely the best teammate anyone could hope for. We joined the team the same year and she has been my support system from week one. She is tremendously fun to fence and is always helpful during bouts and drills.”
According to Head Coach Bruce Gillman, “[Sawyer] has a tough academic schedule, but she is never too busy to help her teammates or any of the coaches when they are in need. She is a good, positive leader for us in what looks to be a challenging season ahead.”
Lewis also noted the positive effect that Sawyer has had for walk-ons. Lewis explained, “[Sawyer] is extremely dedicated to the team despite having a busy schedule,” she wrote in an emailed statement. She continued, “She serves as a source of energy for a lot of the team and I think it’s especially nice for walk-ons to see how successful Noelle has been despite having no fencing experience before she came to Vassar.”
These varying degrees of experience are integral to the Vassar College Fencing team, which does not recruit fencers. According to Sawyer, “We take what we can get, and we make them better.”
Still, the team competes against league forces such as Yale University, Columbia University and New York University. “We don’t have divisions in fencing,” Sawyer explained. “Considering the caliber of people we are fencing this year, I would say we are doing pretty well.”
In its most recent match, the New England Intercollegiate Fencing Conference (NEIFC), more commonly known as “The Big One,” members of the epee squad did well. Freshman Olivia Weiss went undefeated until falling in the quarterfinals, Lewis and sophomore Rachel Messbauer made it to the top 16. Both Sawyer and sophomore Margaret Shepherd made the top 32 in their division.
Sawyer described what a typical match is like for the fencing team, citing the New England Intercollegiate Fencing Conference. “There are 500 fencers in a room and everyone is competing for a top eight spot in their weapon. It’s scary. There are a lot of sounds, there’s no one telling you where you have to go,” she explained. “You have to sometimes listen for your name to know when you’re supposed to start fencing.” She continued, “I like to say that, if walk-ons stay after that tournament, they stay for life.”
As for team dynamic, both the men and women’s fencing teams are incredibly close, especially because both teams practice together during the week. “Fencing is both a team and an individual sport,” Sawyer explained. “Men’s and women’s teams both practice together. When we go to tournaments we get confused about that.”
Sawyer continued, “Everyone is willing to participate. We don’t have anyone who is off in the corner doing their own thing when we’re all supposed to be together.” She also noted that Head Coach Gillman often let the captains take charge at practices, which allows the team’s bond to grow even further.
Reflecting on the coming months, Sawyer will miss the fencing team once she graduates. “It’s kind of sad knowing I’m the only one to leave,” she explained. “I know that it’s selfish but when I leave, I leave a much smaller hole. I want everyone to miss me a ton when I’m gone.”