The Ultimate Guide to NCAA Fencing

By Jason Rogers & Will Spear

In this article, we dive into the high-octane world of NCAA Fencing, which at first glance for many young fencers, parents and coaches can feel overwhelming. You can also download our extensive guide (40+ pages) which builds off this article and gives a great overview of all the important aspects of college fencing such as school selection, recruitment and what it’s actually like to be a college fencer. 

To unpack all the complexities of the end-to-end process, Better Fencer has gone to and received some advice from the best. To give us the full NCAA college landscape, we spoke to Brendan Baby, husband to Sada Jacobson (three-time Olympic Medalist), and himself a three-time NCAA team champion from Penn State.  Brendan was a high-school teacher and coach for five years, helping numerous athletes through the school evaluation and selection process. To understand the recruiting process we consulted Michael Aufrichtig, head fencing coach of the Columbia Lions, the two-time NCAA Champions from 2015 & 2016. Also, co-writing this article with me is Will Spear, who is a Columbia Grad and NCAA Team Champion from 2015. Additionally, we interviewed Jeff Spear, member of the 2012 London Olympic Team and NCAA individual champion in 2008, and Andrew Fischl, recent US National Travel Team member and NCAA All-American Finalist to get insight into the daily life of a student-athlete.

While we can’t get into all of the intricacies of the NCAA rules, in combination with the downloadable guide, we aim to provide some clarity for rising talent and their parents about how they can best prepare themselves for success before and during college.

Navigating this Article

This article is best read from beginning to end. We’ve aimed to make it as comprehensive as possible, so it’s a long read. For your convenience, however, we’ve added the links below so that you can jump straight to any section if you know what you’re looking for or returning to focus on one subject. 

Why Is Participating in College Fencing Good for You?

There are numerous advantages to participating in college athletics, and not all of them are obvious. Along with the health benefits that go along with regular exercise, students who are part of a sports team during college have several post-graduation advantages over their non-athletic peers.

Student athletes tend to have an easier time staying healthy, which can enhance their college experience. Regular exercise has been shown to improve brain function, relieve stress, and help promote regular sleep, all of which are invaluable in an academic setting. Many colleges with athletic programs also offer various assistance programs to student athletes in the form of scholarships, grants, free tutoring, and preferred class selection.

In addition to the benefits of participating in college athletics during college, student athletes also have an advantage once they graduate. Student athletes hone valuable life skills as they work to balance school work with athletic obligations. It helps increase discipline and teaches student athletes how to make smart choices, time management and how to correctly prioritize responsibilities. These skills are often recognized and rewarded by potential employers in the workplace after graduation. An employer will often understand that participating in sports during college helps develop leadership and teamwork skills, as well as that athletics in college shows great drive, the ability to focus under pressure and follow through with commitments. Being a student athlete also opens up the network of athletic alumni who understand what it takes to be a student athlete better than anyone else. They are often more interested in helping fellow student athlete alumni navigate post-graduation decisions and opportunities.

This is not to say that participating in college athletics is strictly better than not. Students who participate competitively in a sport during college will have to make sacrifices on a regular basis in their sleep, hobbies, schoolwork, and/or social life. The massive time commitment that being a student athlete requires is difficult, and at times downright impossible. On the whole, however, most student athletes would say the benefits outweigh the downsides; student athletes get to learn valuable life skills while participating in a sport they love.

About NCAA Fencing

With precision that is typical of his consulting background, Brendan gives us a great overview of how college fencing works.

45 Colleges and Universities with Varsity NCAA Fencing Programs

NCAA Fencing Landscape

While there are vast choices of colleges in the United States, there are only 45 schools that have “varsity” fencing programs. The term “varsity” in this context means that they have official, school-sponsored programs, where athletes are potentially able (if they qualify) to compete at the NCAA Championships. In some cases those schools are eligible to award athletic scholarships, but more on that later. It’s important to note, too, that some of those colleges only have varsity women’s programs, and thus only send athletes to compete in women’s sabre, foil and epee at NCAA-sanctioned events. 

As with most sports, there are some schools that are consistently competitive, each year sending the maximum number of fencers to compete (12 fencers, 2 per weapon – i.e. both men’s and women’s). Without sending a full “roster” of athletes, it’s very difficult for the college to vie for the overall NCAA team title, as this award is determined by the cumulative number of victories of all participating athletes at the National Championships event. For example, sending only 6 athletes puts you at a big disadvantage against a team with 12 athletes, even if your 6 competitors are very strong. However, for those schools who don’t vie for the overall title, each of their athletes can hope to win individual titles which are awarded for each respective event. 

Unlike many NCAA sports, fencing not only sees great success at schools with powerful sports histories, but also at those who are widely considered to be among the best academic institutions in the world. Brendan, very helpfully, suggests that most competitive programs can be divided roughly into 4 groups: Big Athletics, Ivy League, Niche Athletics. For more about these different types programs and info about financial aid, please download the full guide below.

College Selection Process - When To Start Thinking about This

Traditionally, the concrete steps that make up the process of college admission, such as completing SATs (spring of junior year in high school), visiting college campuses (fall of senior year in high school) and submitting college applications (fall senior year in high school) happen in the one year prior to the deadline when seniors must make their final selection (spring senior year in high school). However, Brendan cautions us that, for athletes, choosing the right college can be a full two year process. This process begins with first narrowing down the schools that you want to focus on and then organizing a game plan for the upcoming two years. This exercise, itself, can be difficult because there are many variables you will be considering to determine your ideal school(s). We’re going to spend the next few sections discussing the college selection, recruiting process and their caveats, as well as provide a sample timeline of a typical student-athletes’ college search. Another important thing to consider is if the athlete will opt to apply for early admission which will accelerate these milestones on the timeline. This topic is also addressed in more depth in our full guide. 

NCAA Fencing College Milestones Timeline

Schedule

There are very specific NCAA rules along the timeline that allow, limit or prohibit NCAA coaches or personnel from actively recruiting athletes. You will want to keep this in mind as you think through your own timeline. 

Anytime: Students athletes are welcome to visit a coach on campus (it must be initiated by student athlete and funded by student athlete). Even a high school freshman, for example, could visit campus and talk to a coach. 

Beginning September 1st of junior year: Coaches can contact potential student athletes (email, text, phone).

Beginning July 1st after junior year: Coaches can meet student athletes off-campus (this is typically at Summer Nationals and coaches can meet with a student athlete before July 1st if they have concluded all of their events at the tournament).

After first day of classes of senior year: Student athletes can make official visits to campus (funded by university).

Dead Period: A period during which a college coach may not have face-to-face contact with potential recruits – Monday through Thursday of the initial week for the fall signing of the National Letter of Intent (these dates vary, but in 2016 these days occurred between November 7-10)

Dead Period: Monday through Thursday of the initial week for the spring signing of the National Letter of Intent. (these dates vary, but in 2017 these days occurred between April 10-13)

Exception: When a dead period for recruiting occurs during a North American Cup Fencing Championship, it is permissible for authorized coaching staff members to observe and talk to prospective student-athletes participating in that event. The NCAA makes this exception so that coaches and student athletes can easily meet while in the same place for competition. 

You can read more about this on the NCAA Website.

Getting in Touch with College Coaches

Being a student-athlete can definitely be an advantage when applying to colleges, but only if the coach of that college knows who you are and that you’re interested in their school. That’s why communicating with colleges coaches is an essential aspect of your application process. You need to approach coaches as early as possible (at the latest, during your Junior year in high school) to make sure that you don’t miss out on being a prospect because they have already made decisions about whom to recruit. For more about getting in touch with coaches, please download the full guide below.

Top Mistakes

Before we fully dive into what goes into selecting a college and how to find the one that is the best fit for you, Brendan helps us highlight a few key mistakes that athletes often make while applying to school, how those mistakes manifest, and what steps to take to avoid these common pitfalls. Keep these uppermost in your mind while you are looking at and applying to schools to ensure that you don’t fall into these traps.

 

Top Mistakes when applying to NCAA Fencing Programs

Fixating on one school

The danger here is when there is a single “dream school” that you just have to go to. This limited approach often causes you to become close minded to other schools that may also fit your needs or even surpass the “dream school” when you consider multiple categories. Being overly focused on one school can close doors to alternative schools earlier than you think if you fail to follow the proper application paths throughout the year, and leave you without other good options if applying to your “dream school” doesn’t go as planned. 

It’s best to identify several schools in addition to your “dream school” and approach them simultaneously (and enthusiastically) to ensure that you have more than one good option. Be open minded to other schools and don’t close any doors that you don’t have to. 

Assuming a school is academically out of reach

It’s a mistake to avoid researching and approaching your so-called “stretch” schools (the schools that you believe to be outside of your academic reach). This often occurs at the advice of a college counselor (whose job it is to give students what they see as realistic academic advice). The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take your fencing skills into account and can close the door to getting into a great school because you didn’t even try. 

The best way to avoid this pitfall is to inform coaches at these schools of your interest. Coaches often have (limited) influence with the admissions department and may be able to help get you into their school even if your grades and test scores fall slightly below the school’s average. This is because student athletes can often benefit from a number of resources made available to help them excel academically if they find the coursework out of their comfort zone.

Assuming there is no possibility of financial assistance

This mistake occurs when student-athletes mistakenly think of athletic scholarships as their only opportunity for financial support. This is simply NOT the case in the majority of schools. As we detail in our full guide, most colleges have numerous non-athletic academic and financial programs and/or scholarships that are available to students and student-athletes alike.

Look closely into all of your financial options and don’t assume that your grades preclude you from receiving academic scholarships, that your income is too high for financial aid, or you’re ineligible for other types of scholarships. Many high schools also offer additional counseling in this area.

Waiting until the last minute

Don’t wait until the process is in full swing to approach schools and coaches. The application process is starting earlier than ever, and delaying until your applications are already underway gives you a needless disadvantage in the whole process.  Keep in mind that each fencing program can only focus on a limited number of incoming athletes and you want to make sure that you are being considered. 

Begin the evaluation process early, identify potential schools, and speak with coaches. Ideally, this should all be done during your Junior year in high school so you can focus on applications during your Senior year.

What If I’m Not Ready to Go to College Right After High School? 

It’s becoming more common, especially in Europe, to take some time off after high school before heading to college. For many, this is an important time for personal development, and helps them to prepare mentally and emotionally for the big commitment ahead. Others may choose to take a break during college to work or attend to personal matters. There is no problem with this from an academic standpoint, however the NCAA has certain rules that you will want to know if you plan to compete in a varsity program that regulate both the timeframe in which student athletes can compete as well as an age limit for older students. For more about eligibility rules, please download the full guide below.

How To Evaluate If a School Is Right for You?

Finding a school that fits you is paramount. For most, it is not only a 4-year commitment (minimum), but also a time when you will truly learn about yourself and develop lifelong relationships with teammates and friends. Let’s take a look at the key elements you should be considering when evaluating a college that is right for you.

An Important Question to Start with: Why Do You Fence?

We’ve written about this important topic in a previous article, but it’s essential to understand your motivations when you are picking your school.

If you can articulate the single most important reason why fencing is in your life, it will help guide both how you make your decision about which colleges to consider and where you ultimately will go. I strongly encourage you to think deeply about this because you might be surprised by what you discover. 

Michael Aufrichtig, head coach of Columbia University fencing, summarizes this nicely:

“I found that the most successful college athletes are the ones that just love the sport. If someone doesn't love the sport and know why they are doing it, it can be very difficult for them when they're in college. Two years ago, one of the things that we stressed within our team was, ‘What's your why?’  Everybody fences for different reasons. Some people love winning, and although it can hurt them if they're losing, at least that's why they get up in the morning. For others, their ‘why’ is that they enjoy the game or the physicality of it. If it's because your parents are pushing you, you're not going to last. You'll quit.”

My own college decision revealed a lot more to me than I expected. After freshman year in high school, when people would ask me where I wanted to go to college, my goal was Columbia University in New York. 

This goal was born out of a several key factors. The first was that education was very important to my family, and I can not remember a time when I was not focused on going to the best college that I could get into. Where I went, however, was especially important to my father, Chuck Rogers. He is originally from western New York, and his goal was to attend Cornell University in Ithaca. Despite his high marks, this was a big stretch for him and my grandparents because they couldn’t afford the tuition. Nevertheless, in his senior year, he applied for a scholarship, but was devastated to find out that he finished second place to a friend and classmate. He went on to attend a small regional college, Alfred University, for his undergraduate degree, and later did a Master’s Degree at St. Mary’s University. When I was younger, I would listen to him talk about his college experiences and feel compelled to have the experience that he was not able to. And so the “Ivy League” was my conception of what would be right for me. The second factor was the geographic significance of New York City. At 15-16 years old, I was just starting to perform well at a senior national level, and many of the athletes I competed against directly and admired (Keeth Smart, Ivan Lee, Akhi Spencer-El, Herby Raynaud, to name a few) were training with the Peter Westbrook Foundation (at the Fencer’s Club) in NYC. I could see even then the importance of training with the best, and so Columbia seemed like the perfect combination of “Ivy League” academics and elite fencing training. 

With that criteria deeply embedded in my mind, my college decision didn’t seem that complicated. I would apply to Columbia as my first choice, but also apply to other schools like Stanford and University of Pennsylvania so that I could keep my options open in the event that I wasn’t accepted. I also applied to The Ohio State University (OSU) out of respect to Vladimir Nazlymov, whom I had trained with at summer fencing camps in Kansas City since I was a very young fencer, even though I had no real intention of going there. 

When spring rolled around, I was delighted to find out that I had been accepted to Columbia and all of the other fencing schools that I had applied to. It should have been a no brainer, right? Well, something in me made me hesitate before I signed on the dotted line. Instead of immediately returning my Letter of Intent, I took the maximum amount of time to reflect deeply on ‘why’ I wanted to fence in college and what I hoped to achieve. 

It was about this time that the Olympics began orbiting in my mind. It’s hard to explain, but before that, it had never seriously considered that maybe I could fence in the Olympics. I began to ask, in earnest, important questions like “Am I good enough?” and “What and who would I need to make that happen?” After many discussions with my coach, Daniel Costin, my parents, and careful consideration, my goals expanded and the criteria of my college decision began to change. You might think “Columbia is a perfect place to train because, as you already pointed out, you have New York fencing on your doorstep.” And you would be right, but something just didn’t feel right. I had this gnawing feeling that New York City wasn’t the right environment for me personally. I was pretty sure that the clash and tumble of the city might swallow me whole, or at least serve as an unavoidable distraction.

At around the same time, I paid a courtesy visit to Vladimir in Columbus to try to, at least, understand what OSU had to offer. After a 4-hour lunch, and a comically long speech from Vladmir (of which my mother, to this day, claims she understood no more than 50%), I knew in my gut that he truly believed in me and could help me achieve my Olympic dream. I also began to understand that the focused training environment and athletic resources that Ohio State could offer me would be my best option to accomplish my newly identified and single most important goal: Becoming an Olympian. And so, in the 11th hour, I made my final decision to leave my childhood dream of attending Columbia behind, take ownership of my “why” and prepare myself to for 4-5 years in Columbus, Ohio. 

Creating Your Evaluation Criteria

Decision making is an inherently complex exercise that everyone approaches differently. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by all the information that is out there which can result in unnecessary confusion and stress. We have suggested the variables that we believe are most important and can help give you a starting point. Your ideal school may not have everything, but what is important is that you understand clearly any compromises that you choose to consider. You want to consider:

  1. Fencing Factors such as the fencing program and coaching that make it optimal for you
  2. Academic Factors such as the school's scholastic reputation and the learning environment which best positions you for success
  3. Livability Factors such as the culture of city and whether you can picture yourself there for four or more years.

In our extended guide we go deeper into these three domains as well as give you a simple way to evaluate schools given that there are so many variables to consider. I’ve also tried to give you a sense of how these factors may play out by using my own college decision as an example. 

From the Perspective of a College Coach

Before approaching a college coach to sell yourself as an athletic recruit, it is important to understand what a coach is looking for. For this insight, we spoke to Michael Aufrichtig, head coach of Columbia University fencing, the 2015 and 2016 NCAA championship-winning team. 

What Is a College Coach’s Mindset?

Along with well prepared questions and going in with a positive attitude, it can be helpful to know a typical college coach’s mindset before you speak with them to help you form a meaningful connection and get the information that you are seeking. It’s OK to be a little nervous, they understand that this is an important decision.

“Our whole thing is, we're going to help you become the best fencer you can be, and then the best teammate you can be, and the best person you can be. It’s that combination, that can help us win the team championships. We always say the individual championships is the bonus round.” - Michael Aufrichtig, head coach of Columbia University fencing

For Aufrichtig, the team comes first. He cares most about winning team championships and therefore what each prospective athlete can bring to the table to strengthen that team effort. However, being part of any team isn’t only about competing, training, and winning. There are also the important aspects of camaraderie, commitment, and respect that come along with being a member of a college fencing team.

“We really are a family here. Once you arrive on campus, you will have a support group of forty-four fencers. We aim to have fun, not just grind it out. Winning is extremely important, but when we have fun, that’s when we do win." - Michael Aufrichtig, head coach of Columbia University fencing

Aufrichtig wants to make sure that everyone meshes well together, and he wants to speak with you to ensure that you’re going to be a good addition to that family. And it’s important to know that even coaches who are trying to recruit you are going to be fairly honest about the strengths and weaknesses of their school. The last thing a coach wants is an incoming prospect to come on false pretenses, hate the school, and quit. 

“I'm going to tell them everything what we have, because I want them coming here for the right reasons and not thinking ‘Gosh, coach sold me on this, and now I'm miserable.’ You want someone that understands that, ‘It's going to be hard, but here are all the great things about it,’ and then, once they're here, thinking ‘Wow, it's even better than I thought it would be.’” - Michael Aufrichtig, head coach of Columbia University fencing

Now that you have an idea about the attitude and motivations of a college coach, you’ll be able to better represent yourself, make a good impression and evaluate if this is the right coach/school for you. The next step is to determine what schools you actually want to go to and which coaches to approach.

What does a college coach look for in a fencer?

Here’s what Aufrichtig had to say about his relationship with his students and what kind of people he’s looking to recruit onto the team.

“I'm not sure how you achieve this, but I found that the most successful college athletes are the ones that just love the sport. If someone doesn't love the sport, it can be very difficult for them when they're in college.” - Michael Aufrichtig, head coach of Columbia University fencing

For more a lot more from Aufrichtig on topics such as what he looks for in college fencers and how high school fencing differs from college fencing, please download the full guide.

The Recruiting Process – How It Differs Between Schools

The college admission process on it’s own is very convoluted, to say the least. This then is further complicated for athletes because not every school has the same recruiting process. An Ivy League school has a different process than a Big Athletics school, which has a different process than Niche Athletics school. Aufrichtig says this is one of the biggest areas of confusion for potential recruits and their parents. In the full guide he outlines, from beginning to end, the admissions process as he sees it. He also describes the most common questions he gets from fencers and parents.

Day in the Life - a College Fencer

To give you a taste of what life is like for a college fencer, we’ve asked three fencers to share an average day. While every day is different, we’ve asked them to recount a typical school day, rather than a competition day (which happens much less often). Below is my own account of a typical day at The Ohio State University (Big Athletics).

Day in the Life for a Big Athletics Program – The Ohio State University

Jason Rogers – class of 2006 The Ohio State University: Olympic Silver Medalist, 2X Olympian, 3-time NCAA Bronze Medalist, graduated Summa Cum Laude.

7:00am: The alarm goes off. Although it’s early, it’s a typical start for my action packed day. I stumble to bathroom to brush my teeth and then throw on some OSU Fencing sweats. With half my mind still in slumber mode, I knock a few things over as I attempt to make a healthy breakfast of oatmeal and fruit.

7:45am: Running a few minutes late, I jump into my car, headed to pick up some of the junior classmen to bring to Steelwood, the fencing team’s dedicated facility that it shares with gymnastics and wrestling about a half mile off campus. 

8:03am: I hightail it into the gym where my other teammates are already lined up on the baseline awaiting instructions from Vladimir. We go through a standard warm up, sometimes followed by soccer (if we are lucky). Then on to footwork, led by Vladimir. Like all days, he turns his attention to various fencers’ body positions, ensuring they maintain balance. 

8:45am: After footwork, we take a short water break. Then, each weapon squad breaks off into separate areas of the gym for further instruction. We spend another 25 minutes working on specific bladework and bout scenario drills, before opening the floor up to normal bouting. 

9:30am: Periodic water breaks ensue as practice starts to wind down. A few fencers head off to shower as they have an early class to attend. The unlucky group that remains get called to the baseline for conditioning. We spend the remaining 20 minutes of practice running sprints, doing push ups and crunches. Then, a quick cool down and light stretching. 

10:15am: I pop into the training room for a quick visit with the athletic trainer. I’ve been nursing a twisted ankle. He checks it out and sends me on my way with some ibuprofen and an ice pack wrapped around my ankle. 

10:30am: I run home for a quick shower, a post-practice snack and then off to campus for my 11:30am psychopathology (study of mental disorders) class. 

11:30am: Today we’re talking about Obsessive Compulsive disorder. As the professor lists the common symptoms, like every student in this field, I paranoiacally search my memories for any evidence that I might be mildly OCD. Luckily, I don’t find anything and tune back into the lecture. The professor reminds us of our upcoming midterm, which, while I’ve already started studying, I’m a bit nervous about it.

12:30am: I stick around after class to remind the professor that I will be traveling to Budapest over the weekend for a World Cup and ask if there are any assignments for the next class which I will miss. He says he will send me the review sheet for the mid-term ahead of time and to email him with any questions. I make a mental note to bring both textbooks from the class to Hungary because each contains material for the midterm. 

1:15pm: I meet up with a few fencers for lunch at the cafeteria by Mirror Lake for a quick sandwich before heading off to my British literature class. 

2:20pm: I arrive at class a little early and try to finish the reading that didn’t quite make it through the night before. When the professor arrives, we get our essays back from the previous week, before launching into a group discussion about James Joyce’s short story collection, “Dubliners.” After class, I remind the professor that I’ll be away at the end of the week. Luckily, we don’t have anything due, but he urges me to stay on top of my reading. I assure him that I will have plenty of time on the plane. 

4:00pm: I head to Younkin Success Center, the building dedicated to providing resources for student athletes, for an hour of quiet study. I run into a couple of friends from the swimming team. They invite me to a party over the weekend, but I tell them, sadly, I’ll have to miss the fun because I get to be in Eastern Europe over the weekend. Yay.

5:00pm: I start heading home to prepare for evening practice and a lesson with Vladimir. While I’m not able to go every night because of schoolwork, I try to make it at least three times a week. 

6:30pm: I arrive back at the gym and head to Vladimir’s office to let him know I’m there before starting my warm up. My muscles are tired and stiff from the morning, so I grab a heat pack from the training room. 

6:50pm: We begin the lesson, and as begins most lessons, we start with simple technique. The lesson grows increasingly difficult with Vladimir requiring me to stay in a lunge for extended periods while also working on bladework. Lately, we’ve been focusing on my footwork, aiming to improve my balance by keeping my back hip tucked underneath me. 

7:30pm: As others arrive from the OSU and club teams, we finish up the lesson. Vladimir tells me to take it easy that night in preparation for the upcoming World Cup. I fence a couple bouts before deciding to call it a night. I cool down and stretch for another thirty minutes before heading home. 

8:30pm: I make dinner, nothing complicated, but it’s healthy and fills me up. While eating, I joke around with my roommate, Syvenna Siebert (a fencing teammate) before realizing it’s getting late and I need to do some work. 

9:15pm: I try to get in a hour and half of studying, but tonight, like most nights, I’m growing sleepy. I almost make it to the end before calling it quits. 

10:30pm: I switch on the TV to watch some reality TV, my guilty pleasure. I found that adjusting to Columbus, Ohio from Los Angeles was a big culture shock. Shows like Meet the Barkers...and cough...The Newlyweds, while not the most edifying programming, remind me of home. 

11:30pm: I’m 90% asleep on the couch as the show ends, and I drag myself to bed, pausing only to half-heartedly brush my teeth, before tumbling into a deep sleep.

We’ve interviewed two recent graduates, Jeff Spear and Andrew Fischl, from Columbia University (Ivy / New York) and Vassar College (Niche Athletics), respectively. For their full day in the life, please download the full guide.

NCAA Schools Aren’t the Only Option

NCAA schools aren’t the only option when it comes to fencing in college. Even if you aren’t recruited to an NCAA school, or can’t find an NCAA fencing school that is a good fit for you, there are lots of schools with club teams and even more schools located near non-university fencing clubs. If fencing in college is your passion, you will definitely be able to achieve that goal. In our interview, Coach Aufrichtig talked about some of the different options you have when pursuing fencing in college.

“Getting into a top Div I, II or III program is really tough because there aren’t that many. However, there are something like ninety plus great schools that have a college club program. They also have the College Fencing National Championships which are really cool!” - Michael Aufrichtig, head coach of Columbia University fencing

Here’s a quick guide to non-NCAA fencing programs:

Club Team:

  • School affiliated intramural or club team
  • Eligible to compete at club national championships
  • Team/self funded

Non-university Fencing Club:

  • Private fencing club located near the school
  • No team collegiate competitions
  • Self funded

Non-NCAA college fencing programs full list

NCAA Fencing

The NCAA competition season is fast paced and unlike anything most fencers will be used to. To give you a sense of what colleges are all working towards, we’ve give an overview of the main event, The NCAA Championships, and other important aspects, such as qualifying for this important competition. 

NCAA Championships Overview

The NCAA Championships is a high-octane event held every March. It’s the moment when colleges around the country square off against each other for the ultimate title. Unlike other fencing tournaments where the primary match format is fifteen-touch bouts, this fencing frenzy demands athletes to face off against every single person in their event, competing for the best record of five-touch bouts. Because this is such an important tournament for college athletes (and unlike any other tournament in fencing), we’ve devoted a section here to the most significant tournament of the year in NCAA fencing.

The Format

NCAA championships is held over four days, Thursday through Sunday, normally towards the end of March. Two days of that competition are devoted to the men, and two are for women. Every year the NCAA alternates which gender competes first. 24 fencers compete in each of the six events, for a total of 144 fencers at the NCAA championship. Each individual fencer fences a total of 23, five-touch bouts, one with every fencer in their event, and the school team with the most total victories for men and women combined wins the NCAA team championships. If there’s a tie in total bouts won, then the winner is determined by the indicator (who scored the most touches and received the least).

The individual competition is a little less straightforward. Each individual will fence in a round-robin competition against the 23 other fencers. These 23 bouts are fenced over five rounds, which all operate similar to a qualifying round at standard tournaments (often referred to as the ‘pools’). While navigating these rounds, a fencer travels with a group of 3 other fencers, known as your ‘pod’. You stay with the same pod for the entire tournament, and your pod rotates to fence other pods of four people. Each round consists of your pod fencing another pod, so you’ll fence 4 bouts each round, with the exception of the first round, where you also fence your own pod (for a total of 7 bouts in the first round). The first three rounds are held on the first day for a total of 15 bouts. The last two rounds are held on the second day of competition. 

If, at the end of all five rounds, you are ranked in the top four fencers in the round robin (based on total bouts won, how many touches you scored, and how many touches you received), you move on to the final rounds. The finals are a direct elimination format to fifteen touches. These bouts follow standard bracket practices, so the #1 seed will fence the #4 seed, while #2 and #3 will fence each other. The winners of these bouts will fence for the title of individual champion and second place, and the losers will fence for third place. These bouts to fifteen do not affect the team championship.

Regionals and Qualifying for NCAAs

The NCAA Championships format gives a huge advantage to college teams with a full roster of twelve fencers. A team with only eleven fencers is severely disadvantaged because they have 23 fewer bouts (that their twelfth fencer would have fenced) they now cannot win. For this reason the real competition often starts weeks earlier, at the regional qualifying event. 

Only a certain number of fencers qualify for the Championship tournament from each region, but the maximum can be no more than two athletes, per school, per weapon. Who qualifies is largely based on the Regionals format itself. The competition is split into three separate rounds of pools, with a percentage of fencers being cut after every round. It is the results of the final round of pools that determine who wins the tournament; the first two rounds only determine advancement into the next round. 

However, Regionals isn’t the entire picture. Season results also matter. If one fencer had a much better season than another fencer, they will get a bonus over that fencer in their final placement. How large that bonus is and whether it’ll actually be enough to come out ahead depends on individual records for the season, the strength of the fencers you competed against during the season, the rating of those fencers, and of course, regional results.

We won’t get into too much depth here about how qualifying at regionals works (there’s arguably too much math involved - you can read more about it here if you are interested). Suffice it to know that qualifying for NCAAs is based largely on a fencer’s performance at regionals, and to a smaller extent their performance during the whole season.

There is one additional ‘at large’ qualifying spot for a fencer who has done well throughout the season but for one reason or another did not qualify through Regionals. These ‘at large’ bids are put in by school coaches and are reviewed by an NCAA board. Only one fencer can qualify ‘at large’ per season for the NCAA Championships.

NCAA Fencing Championships are Stressful

NCAA championships is one of the most intense competitions fencing has to offer. It has been said (by those who have competed at both types of competitions) to be almost as intense and emotionally draining as the Olympics. For schools, the entire athletic year has been gearing up for the few days of competition at the NCAAs. On the individual level, a single bout can make or break your record, or even mean the difference between a win or loss for your team. Unless you  have the opportunity to compete at the World Championships or Olympics, the NCAA championships will likely be the most exhilarating and emotional competition of your life.

What it Means to be an All-American and NCAA Champion

“All-American” is an accolade given to those that perform well individually at the NCAA championships. All-American comes in a few different tiers:

  • First Team All-American is for those that finish 1-4 in their event
  • Second Team All-American is for those that finish 5-8 in their event
  • Third Team All-American is for those that finish 9-12 in their event

In some ways, although the NCAA isn’t technically the premier fencing honor, having NCAA accolades is actually more widely recognized by those who don’t fence. All-American status is something that almost every college graduate understands and, therefore, is widely recognized as a top achievement in the athletic world. It sounds strange to say, but you could argue that putting NCAA Champion on your future work resume could mean more to an employer than winning the season’s strongest Grand Prix World Cup, despite the fact that the latter achievement is much more difficult. 

My Experience at NCAAs

When I look back at my college career, this competition was one that eluded me. You might say it was my bête noire. I found it extremely difficult to fence such a high volume of five-touch matches. The pressure to win each and every match was tremendously uncomfortable because not only does your own result sometimes come down to a touch or two (more on that later), but so does your team’s result. It’s not uncommon for colleges in contention for the Championship to send along extra non-competing members of the team for moral support. That means that you have a group of hyped-up teammates next to your strip, which can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, their energy can lift you out of a bad mental place, but on the other, acutely aware that each and every touch you score directly affects each of them (the team). 

Also, the competition sees athletes from all walks of life. There are those for whom the NCAAs is their exclusive focus, and others whose focus is elsewhere, perhaps the World Championships or Olympics. No matter how good you are, a five-touch match is difficult. Counterintuitively, for me, I found it more difficult to fence athletes with less experience than I because they are more unpredictable. In a five-touch bout, you cannot let your guard down, even for one touch, even if you are winning 4-0.

Unlike many other competitions, the slightest miscalculation, dip in focus or “lucky” touch by your opponent can really can sink your ship. 2005 was my toughest year. I remember dropping a bout to a young fencer from Haverford, who was unknown to me. When all the five-touch matches finished, I found that I had missed out on being in the top four (those who would compete for the individual title) by just two touches, finishing in 5th place. I was devastated.

It was a similar story in the overall Championship. Each year I competed, OSU was in a position to win, but we never seemed to be fully in sync, finishing 4th (2002), 4th (2003), 2nd (2005) and 3rd (2006) – and only a few bouts separated us from the winners! It was only in 2004, the year I took off, that Ohio State won the Championship! Darn it!

Summary

We hope that this article clarified some of the confusion that college fencing causes, so that you’re ready to make an informed decision about which school is the right fit for you (and why on earth you would want to fence in college to begin with!), and hit the ground running in those crucial early years. College fencing can be difficult to understand, given that it has many different rules and regulations from club and national fencing. On top of that, schools often have very disparate fencing programs with functional differences that don’t become apparent until after the application process is already over.

The complexity of college fencing must be navigated on top of the pressures of applying for college and attending school as a freshman. With all of these options, it can be difficult to feel comfortable that you’ve made the right decision for your fencing, even disregarding the academic and social fit of the school itself. We aimed to shed light on the (often undiscussed) black box of college fencing, and to give you a taste of how the college selection process works and how to maximize your success in college, in both fencing and in academics.