It’s not often that high school teammates compete for the same team in college.
But Wendy Zhao and Luona Wang, two members of the Penn women’s fencing team, are doing just that.
Before coming to Penn, the duo crafted a friendship at Vestavia High School in Birmingham, Ala., that has lasted for many years. Both Zhao, a senior, and Wang, a junior, moved from China to Birmingham at a young age. Amazingly, the pair ended up living just four houses away from one another.
It was always clear that Wang was born to be a fencer.
“My parents were national coaches in China,” Wang said. “My mom finished seventh in the Olympics in ’88, which was in Seoul, and my dad was a two-time Olympic referee.
“As a kid I felt a little bit like, ‘You know, I’ll at least give it a try,’ I was able to give it a try, so I picked it up.”
It was through Wang that Zhao first gained interest in the sport.
“I moved from China to Vestavia when I was 10 , so Luona was one of the first friends I had,” Zhao said. “I didn’t speak English, but she did. We became friends, and that’s how it really got started.”
“I met Wendy, and we became really good friends ... I told her, ‘Hey, come try it out with me,’” Wang added.
In 1998, Wang’s parents started the Birmingham Fencing Club, now located in Vestavia, which they have owned and operated. They served as coaches for both Wang and Zhao as they grew up.
After training and competing together throughout middle school and high school, the two teammates both decided to attend Penn.
“[Penn coach Andy] Ma, he’s pretty well-known in the fencing community ... we knew first of all that he was a really good coach for both Luona and me,” Zhao said. “We knew that we would get a lot of support here on the team.”
Because she came to Penn a year before Wang, Zhao is still unsure exactly how she also decided to attend the university and join her childhood friend and teammate.
“I think it just happened by chance, but I’m glad I came because she’s been really helpful to me, especially during my first year while I was adjusting,” Wang said. “It’s really nice to have someone on the team who I’ve grown up with who I can always talk to about things.
“It’s really easy to coach each other on the strip because we’ve been fencing for so long, so we know what each other likes to do.”
In addition to their successes at Penn, Zhao received the Philadelphia Inquirer Women’s Academic All-Area Performer of the Year last season, while Wang was national runner-up in women’s foil in 2011-2012 and has earned All-America honors her first two seasons with the Quakers.
The two also enjoy returning to their old stomping grounds and giving back to up and coming fencers in Alabama.
“We go back during break ... we help coach the kids at home who are still in high school and middle school,” Zhao said. “We always keep in touch with them.
“We’re here, but then we go back and kind of give back what we learn here. It’s a really good process.”
Even though the opportunity in front of Zhao and Wang is a rare one, the duo has certainly made the most of their time at Penn to continue their friendship and follow their passion for fencing along the way.