Every championship team needs strong leaders.
Penn men’s and women’s fencing have aspirations for an Ivy League Championship, and they have the leadership to back it up, with the team captains at the forefront.
For women’s squad, all three captains are new to that role. Junior Simone Unwalla is the captain of the foil team, senior Stephanie Wolf is the epee leader, and junior Kathryn Khaw heads the sabre unit.
All three have unique stories of their introduction to the sport.
Khaw, for one, got started in the summer of seventh grade, when she attended a fencing camp at her local high school in Plainsboro, N.J.. From there, Khaw joined a local fencing club, where she met current Penn coach Andy Ma, who was in charge of the club. Their relationship strengthened over the years, ultimately leading to Ma’s recruitment of Khaw to the Penn team.
Wolf began fencing at her Boston high school after having no experience in the sport prior to her ninth grade year.
“I wasn’t interested in joining any of the other mainstream sports,” Wolf said. “Fencing was another [sport] that was offered, and I picked it up and have pursued it from then on.”
Perhaps the most interesting story, however, is that of Unwalla. The junior captain is from Virginia, a state in which fencing is not nearly as popular as in the New England region. But that didn’t stop her from getting involved with the sport.
“I started when I was ten,” Unwalla said. “I saw [fencing] in a movie and asked my parents if I could start, and I joined a private club in Virginia.”
Once high school rolled around for Unwalla, she was not able to compete at the high school level, since fencing was not offered. However, she began competing nationally and internationally until finally looking at colleges for fencing. From there, the rest is history.
The men’s captains come into the season with more experience in their roles. Both Zsombor Garzo and John Vaiani are seniors in their third year as team captains.
Garzo, the epee captain, is from Hungary and went to high school in Budapest. Before coming to Penn, he competed in club fencing and won the 2012 Hungarian Student Olympics Championship.
Vaiani, who heads the foil team, began fencing competitively at the age of 13.
“New Jersey and New York are two of the biggest places for fencing, so it was pretty easy for me to get into it,” the New Jersey native said. “I went to a small fencing club in Jersey and then switched to a bigger club in New York, until my time at Penn.”
Vaiani also has a sister, Nicole, who is a sophomore on the women’s fencing squad.
The third, and youngest, of the men’s captains is sophomore Connor Mills. Mills’ impetus for getting into fencing was watching his older cousin Michael, who fenced for Penn and won the 2013 NCAA Championship in sabre.
“[Michael] really inspired me to go out and fence, too,” said Mills, also from New Jersey.
Mills, a sabre captain himself, will look to build off of an impressive freshman season, in which he earned second-team All-Ivy honors.
Both teams have acquired a lot of young talent over the summer, and the captains will undoubtedly make the transition into college play much smoother for the freshmen.
In terms of expectations, an Ivy League championship is a central goal. The men’s team would make it three in a row if it were to win the conference again, while the women’s team is seeking its first Ivy championship since 2004.
And while both teams are hungry for a conference championship, that is not the only objective in mind.
“[The Ivy title] is the goal,” Unwalla said. “But we’re also looking to qualify as many as possible for the NCAA championship. Last year we qualified eleven [fencers], and we could potentially qualify up to twelve this year.”
Mills echoed the same thought for the men’s team.
“This year’s gonna be the year where we qualify a full team [for the NCAA championship].”
The Quakers will go as far as these leaders will take them, and judging by the captains’ confidence and desire, the Red and Blue could go further than ever before.