At the NCAA Fencing National Championships held this past March, Penn men's and women's fencing pulled off its best performance since 2004 — combining to win 117 bouts to take sixth place. At the center of the team's success were two women's foilists, junior Sabrina Cho and sophomore Katina Proestakis Ortiz. Cho finished sixth and was named a second-team All-American after winning 15 bouts, while Proestakis added another 10 to secure fifteenth place.
However, behind the wins and accolades is an important bond that has helped both to adjust and overcome the pressure and intensity of being a Division I athlete at Penn.
“[Proestakis] is constantly pushing me in this sport and is constantly motivating me to try to reach the best version of myself, and to reach my fullest potential," Cho said.
Cho missed her entire first year of fencing during the 2020-2021 season as all Ivy League winter sports were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, last year was the first year in the program for both Cho and Proestakis. According to Proestakis, as soon as they arrived, they instantly became friends.
“I know [Cho is] someone that I can always go to and someone that I will always feel better after talking with," Proestakis added. “Long story short, the vibes are immaculate."
For Cho, she admires Proestakis’s passion and drive to be her best both on and off the strip.
“As a scholar, she is constantly pushing herself to become the best version of herself, which is infectious and it makes me want to do the same,” Cho said.
Despite having fenced at high levels prior to coming to Penn, making the transition to a D-I was not easy for either of them. Particularly because from the start, they held important roles on the team, fencing in a combined 77 regular season bouts in their first year.
In the postseason last year Cho, who was the only member of the women's foil team to qualify, and said “I was just not prepared for the intensity of NCAA championships.”
Prior to this year's nationals, Cho added that having Proestakis there in addition to the experience from last year helped her succeed, and the results prove so. In the midst of high intensity tournaments like the NCAA Championships, the two have developed strategies to help each other focus and relax.
“We’ve been through hardships and challenges and she understands the academic pressure as well as the pressure that comes with a sport as well,” said Cho. “I think that having someone really balances out my ability to keep pushing, and it gives me the ability to have someone to relate to and talk to.”
One moment where their ability to help each other was on full display was their first Ivy Tournament last year. Proestakis said Cho was really nervous at one point in the tournament and Proestakis helped her to calm down. Then later, the opposite happened, where Proestakis was nervous and Cho was there to keep her relaxed.
“It's just a little moment that we laugh at now,” Proestakis said.
While they may be teammates at Penn, the two are both accomplished fencers at the international level — where they fence for different teams. Proestakis represents Chile and was an Olympian in 2020, finishing 34th, while Cho fences for the United States. In February, the two traveled to Cairo for the National Bank of Egypt Senior Foil World Cup. Proestakis placed 31st, while Cho landed in 76th. More recently, they competed in the Grand Prix in Korea, finishing back-to-back with Proestakis finishing 117th and Cho taking 118th.
They have yet to face each other at the international level, but that hasn’t prevented them from facing off against each other in practice and in NCAA matchups.
“We’re friends off the strip, but on the strip, whether it’s competition or whether it’s practice, we're just constantly pushing each other and constantly trying our hardest," Cho said. "I think that is one of the most valuable assets of having a friend in the sport.”
Proestakis and Cho find themselves at the core of a seemingly bright future for Penn fencing. If their past achievements have proven anything, it is that their chemistry as teammates will help propel them to future success, both at Penn and internationally.