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Now-senior Sarah Hilado competes against St. John's University during the Temple Invitational at Temple's McGonigle Hall in Philadelphia on Feb. 23, 2020. Credit: Amanda Shen

A few weekends ago, Penn fencing set out for its first meet of the season at the Temple Open. Despite a new season with new faces, it was senior captain Sarah Hilado who showed through for Penn, earning a second place in women’s sabre. 

Hilado’s victory marks yet another impressive accomplishment for Hilado who is entering her final season at Penn. From a walk-on to being named a captain of women’s sabre, Hilado has made her mark on Penn’s fencing program. However, before her second-place finish at Temple and being named captain, Hilado stumbled into her passion for fencing at a summer camp.

“I started the summer before eighth grade,” Hilado said. “It was the summer and my mom just kind of wanted us out of the house and found a camp for us to go to. I remember just loving it.”

That camp is where Hilado met Jason Sheridan, her coach. Sheridan, who runs a fencing academy in New York, worked with Hilado from that first summer camp until she left home to fence at Penn. He quickly recognized her strong work ethic and resilience and knew she had the potential to become a strong fencer.

“What top performers have is the ability to take a long view and not get weighed down by early failures,” Sheridan said. “They’re able to take those failures as learning opportunities so that they can later on be far more successful. And that's something that Sarah definitely demonstrated.”

A breakthrough in Hilado's early fencing career came in 2017. According to Sheridan, Hilado consistently fell just short of making the medal rounds in multiple national tournaments, but that all changed at the 2017 North American Cup, where not only did Hilado make it to the metal round, but she won the gold for Division II women’s sabre.

“That was a big turning point for her,” he said.

Just a few years later and with a slew of other accolades, Hilado found herself amid the often tumultuous college recruiting process. She was recruited by multiple schools, but not Penn. However, after talking to Penn's head fencing coach Andy Ma, she was offered a preferred walk-on spot, meaning that if she got into the school there would be a spot for her on the team.

According to Ma, he watched how she supported those around her and saw her strong work ethic first-hand.

“We could tell she was a fit for our program,” he said. 

Hilado agreed, and despite being recruited by other schools, she decided to apply early to Penn.

“The rest is history,” she said.

Hilado was initially anxious entering the team as a walk-on her freshman year. But after just one practice, her worries quickly dissipated.

“Being on Penn fencing is definitely the highlight of my college career,” Hilado said. “Even since freshman year, I remember how welcoming the environment was right away. I bonded with the seniors. They made us feel super welcome.” 

As a freshman walk-on, she didn’t know how much she was going to be able to compete initially and her expectations were set low. 

Through hard work, though, she found herself competing in the first bout of the season. From there, Hilado’s fencing career at Penn took off. Coming into her senior season, even with missing an entire year to the pandemic, Hilado had fenced in a total of 119 bouts. Since that first one four years ago, Hilado has transformed into a leader that coaches and teammates alike can rely on.

“She works very hard and she is a very team-oriented person,” Ma said. “No matter what we need her to do, she will be there.”

Senior épée Chloe Daniel, a teammate and a friend of Hilado's since freshman year, described her as a supportive person who's always there for her teammates, and is worthy of her recognition within the team.

“She’s a captain and she deserves to be there,” Daniel said.

Yet even after her success at the season-commencing Temple Open, Hilado is not content to relax as she begins her final collegiate season.

“Obviously it was a good result and I’m very happy about that,” she said. “But at the same time, it kind of shows me what I need to work on in the future for the rest of the season.”