Michael Li began his fencing journey at the age of eight like many: through his love for Captain Jack Sparrow.
“I watched Pirates of the Caribbean with my brothers, and we went out in the backyard and just started to sword fight with sticks, and my mom put us in a fencing program,” Li said.
Li, a junior from Palo Alto, Calif., fenced with the foil weapon from then on and gained a tremendous amount of success. As a high schooler, Li traveled all over the world, winning competitions from the United States to Europe. He won a Junior Olympic Fencing Championship and was ranked third in the country by the time he arrived at Penn.
Splitting time between Penn and the U.S. National team, Li found tremendous success his freshman season, finishing with a record of 44-22 and earning an All-America honorable mention, while leading the Quakers to their third straight Ivy League title.
Li continued to improve his craft, earning a second team All-America selection last season and finishing eighth at the NCAA Championships. Li credits his work ethic and experience for his success at the collegiate level.
“I’d like to say I work harder than all of my opponents; I just want to do better than they do,” Li said, “Also, I’ve been doing this sport for around 12 years, so I’ve had a lot of experience on the national circuit, and I think that definitely sets me apart from my opponents.”
Coach Andy Ma, now in his 11th season with the team, reiterated Li’s claims, and he looks to Li as a model fencer for the team.
“He was on the national team before he came to Penn, so he’s a very self-disciplined person, and he works very hard and smart,” Ma said. “Especially on the strip, he’s very serious, and that’s how we try to model our team culture: like him.”
Ma expects another top-eight finish at the NCAA Championships for the junior, but Li has loftier goals.
“Last year, we didn’t do too well at Ivies, so this year hopefully we’ll be able to win, and at NCAAs I’d like to finish at least top-four or top-three,” Li said.
In addition to leading by example, Li has taken up a mentorship role on a roster filled with young talent, and the team has been receptive to him.
“I’ve definitely looked up to my previous captains to try to follow their leadership and how they’ve mentored and led me,” Li said, “ [I try] to create a fun, competitive atmosphere to improve [the team] and just have fun doing it, too.”
The Red and Blue have an overall record of 3-3 through six dual meets on the season. Despite a pedestrian showing from the team early on, Li has picked up where he left off last year. He is 25-13 so far, most recently finishing second in men’s foil at the Garrett Open at Penn State.
The Quakers’ next tournament is on Jan. 12, where they will head back to State College for the Penn State Invitational — and Li will surely be leading the way.
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