When freshman Luona Wang joined the women’s fencing team this past fall, she knew she had a familiar face to look forward to seeing.

That’s because Wang’s teammate Wendy Zhao is also her neighbor.

The two attended Vestavia Hills High School in Alabama and have fenced together for ten years.

“It’s definitely been a transition,” Wang said. “She was really helpful in helping me get to know the school better, taking me to see the city and answering any questions that I have.”

“We look out for each other on the team,” described Zhao. “I’m really glad she came here.”

While Zhao may be the mentor now, it was Wang who introduced her friend to fencing when she was 10 years old.

At the time, Wang had recently immigrated to the United States from China. Zhao was her elementary school classmate and she told her new playmate about the sport.

“I met Luona in elementary school one day and she [said] my parents do fencing,” Zhao recalled.

While fencing is an uncommon sport anywhere in the U.S., in Alabama, it is particularly rare. In fact, the Birmingham Fencing Club is the only competitive club in the state.

But Wang comes from fencing royalty and has known the sport her whole life. Both her parents are former Chinese national team coaches. Her mother, who fenced in both foil and epee positions, placed seventh in the 1988 Seoul Olympic games.

Part of the reason she chose Penn was because of her parents’ close friendship with the head coach, Andy Ma, a two-time National Saber Champion in China.

Wang says that she’s been going to fencing matches for as long as she can remember.

“I’ve been exposed to fencing my entire life,” Wang said. “When I actually really started fencing, I was about six … I guess I really started to compete when I was about eight.”

In 1998, when Wang’s parents decided to move the family to the U.S., many teams contacted the pair about hiring them, but they shared a vision with the then-fledgling club in Alabama. Since the two began coaching at the club, it has become one of the most successful academies in the South sending athletes to MIT, Brown, Harvard and Penn, four of the best fencing teams in the nation.

However, in Birmingham, both Wang and Zhao flourished came to Penn with decorated high school records.

Zhao won the silver medal for foil in the 2010 southeast regional competition. During her freshman year at Penn, she won 30 out of 56 matches and, this November, placed 11th in the Penn State Invitational, her first collegiate competition this season.

Wang has even competed internationally. In 2010, she was the Junior World Cup bronze medalist. She says that, this year, she would like to win the Ivy League Championship, do well in the NCAAs and make first team All-American.

“Hopefully, [I will] have a good season this year,” she said.

She will get her chance with her first regular season match is on Saturday.

Zhao describes the school as a fairly typical suburban high school, albeit more accomplished. “Most of the people in there go to state schools, but every year there are a selective few that go to better schools,” Zhao said

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