Andy Ma has been the backbone of Penn fencing for the past decade.
His 10 seasons as the head coach of both the men’s and women’s programs have been exceptional, as he has racked up three Ivy League Coach of the Year awards in addition to three conference titles for the men. But most impressive, perhaps, is the man behind the trophies.
“He was the main reason why I came to Penn,” senior foil and women's captain Nicole Vaiani said. “I thought he was so supportive, and I could tell he really cared about his students. I think of him almost like a mentor figure rather than a coach; I see him as a part of my family.”
Ma’s 11th season at Penn is already looking to be another for the record books. In the season-opening Elite Invitational tournament this November, the men’s win over Johns Hopkins gave Ma his 400th career victory.
Ma was reluctant to take all the credit, however.
“[400 wins] means a team effort,” he said. “Of course, it’s on my record, but it’s everyone’s effort. Me, the assistant coaches, captains, and the whole team.”
Ma’s humble attitude toward this milestone isn’t surprising to the athletes that know him best. Senior sabre and men's captain Adam Green has known Ma since he was 12 years old, competing in Ma’s New Jersey fencing tournaments before he became a full-time coach at Penn.
“We’d just won over [Johns] Hopkins,” Green recounted. “That was his 400th win. I went up to him and I said congratulations, and totally true to form he [said], 'Thanks, but everybody was a part of it, over all 11 years.' I think he would want people to understand that that’s been a team effort.”
Ma knows the importance of every member of the team because he has experience in nearly every role. Before launching his coaching career, Ma was a decorated fencer himself, becoming the Chinese Fencing Association’s National Sabre champion in both 1985 and 1988. He was also the Chinese Intercollegiate Sabre champion in 1983 and 1985 and secured Ohio’s sabre title during his time at Ohio State.
Ma’s experience winning high-caliber sabre competitions gives him a unique perspective in the team's one-on-one weapon practices.
“He does have a really good understanding of the weapon,” Green said. “And also, just of sports, you know, it’s really cyclical. Some days you do really well, some days you don’t do so well, and I think him — having been an athlete in that same position — allows him to understand that and helps him be a better coach for us.”
It’s this understanding that causes athletes to thrive under Ma’s tutelage, and the numbers are there to prove it. In 2017, 11 fencers qualified for the NCAA championships, setting a new school record for Penn.
Last season, however, Penn men’s fencing fell short of a fourth-straight Ivy League title. The Quakers will also lose key fencers this year to Olympic training, but the athletes know that no matter the outcome, Ma will remain the heart of the team.
“It makes a big difference when you have someone who’s always going to support you, independent of whether you’ve had a good or a bad day,” Green said. “So if I had to point out the number one most important thing about coach Ma, it would be [that] he brings a positivity to the team that I think is absolutely cornerstone.”
And the secret to success in fencing? For Ma, it’s simple — it comes down to the love of the game.
“Number one, you have to have passion,” Ma said. “When I recruit student-athletes, I talk to their coaches, their teammates, their parents, or national coach, make sure I know their character, that they have a passion, not just for one day. They have to be consistent to continue to fence at least four years for Penn.”
It’s clear that with Ma at the helm, Penn fencing has no shortage of passion.