The women’s fencing team finished 16-1 in its first regular season since being reinstated as a varsity team and won the Northeast Fencing Conference through its 12-0 performance at the two NFC events that it attended.
The Bears also went 4-1 in the Brandeis Invitational, with its lone loss against Cornell.
Rebecca Whang ’25 posted a staggering record of 45-1 in the sabre over the three tournaments, while Anika Breker ’24 and Sofia Yee-Wadsworth ’24 each collected at least 30 wins at the two NFC events in the foil and epee, respectively.
The Bears also twice defeated Boston College, the 2019 winners of the NFC.
“Everybody was really dedicated to the task,” Head Coach Alex Ripa said. “I was really impressed by their tenacity and determination.”
For Casey Chan ’23, a former Herald staff writer who went 28-3 at the NFC events in the sabre, the team’s success is the product of the steady, continuous growth of the program. “It’s not a cutthroat team at all. It’s never been like that,” she said. “That team culture and that team history has continued through the years, along with increased competition and a drive … to be number one in the NCAAs (and) Ivies.”
Team captain Anna Susini ’22 said the program exceeded its own expectations for this year. She said that because of the squad’s youth, small roster size and long COVID-19-induced break, the team had tempered hopes heading into the season.
Ripa agreed that the team’s small roster — comprised of only eleven members — was a significant hurdle to overcome. “Everyone has to fence all the time, meaning that some people have to battle through injuries,” he said.
Part of the reason for the team’s constricted roster was the program’s demotion to club status in May 2020 as part of the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative, which caused some fencers to leave the team and complicated recruiting efforts, according to Susini.
The program was reinstated to varsity status in September 2020 as part of a court settlement, The Herald previously reported. But the demotion was an incredibly taxing process for members of the team, Susini added.
“It was really brutal,” said Susini, who was elected captain a month before the demotion. “Everyone’s mental health was (already) in the garbage can” because of COVID, she said. “We were so burnt out from talking to newspapers … and lawyers … I had to let go of everything and make peace with whatever the outcome was.”
The process also left lasting damage beyond the roster, particularly relating to fundraising from parents and alumni, according to Ripa. “There is … a sense of cynicism that we are going to have to overcome … I’ve heard from some donors who have said that they’re probably not going to be donating as a result of what went on and how it went on. It’s hard to hear,” he said. “We have to win back some hearts and minds … I see the team of athletes working really hard … and I feel they deserve support.”
The men’s team, also demoted in May 2020, was not granted reinstatement, a sore spot for members of the women’s program.
That “was really tragic because they have really strong members and, unfortunately, they didn’t have a chance to show their mettle,” Chan said.
“I have no doubt that if they were able to compete at (the Ivy and NCAA tournaments) … they would blow a lot of other varsity teams out of the water,” Susini said. “That’s been really frustrating.”
Members of the team say that greater amenities and facilities could improve the team's performance even more.
Ripa is hopeful that greater recognition arrives with the athletic department’s new leadership. Vice President for Athletics and Recreation M. Grace Calhoun ’92 began her tenure in April 2021 after former Director of Athletics Jack Hayes stepped down in January 2021, The Herald previously reported.
“There’s a new breeze blowing,” Ripa said. “Athletics is really turning a corner. I think across the board in all the sports, you’ll start to see a renewed effort in terms of support.”
This year, the women’s team will host the Ivy League Championships Feb. 12 and 13, an event that will likely be a tough test for the Bears.
“A lot of the top fencers (are) recruited to the Ivy Leagues,” Chan said. “That means that this conference is the hardest competition that we’ll face all year.”
Susini added that Brown has fewer fencers and less resources than any other Ivy League team they will face, but she remains optimistic. “In terms of talent, we have really, really strong fencers … who are more than capable of winning bouts,” she said.
Additionally, in March, individual fencers will compete to qualify for the NCAA Championships — a feat which Susini expects several members of the team to accomplish.
Ripa praised the performance of the fencers amid the program’s challenges. “The team has done a great job of compartmentalizing their own frustration (and) their own cynicism,” he said. “It’s very commendable that they’re able to say, ‘Okay, (we have had) some bad breaks, but let’s keep going.’ ”