On the Fence
Life is about making choices, but this one’s a doozy: Laura Decker, a senior who recently changed course from chemistry to medieval history, is on the threshold of an even bigger decision—grad school or the Olympics? Yes, those Olympics: trying out for the U.S. fencing team for the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro.
Decker has dreamed of being a scientist since the seventh grade, she says. Her plan was to get a PhD and go into research, and she got off to a flying start at Caltech—by the summer of her sophomore year she was immersed in synthetic organic chemistry as a SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) student in the lab of Nobel Prize–winner Robert Grubbs.
Meanwhile, she’d also signed up for fencing to fulfill her phys ed requirement. Although she’d never wielded a blade, she’d studied martial arts in high school, and before the first class ended, she found herself on the Caltech varsity squad. “My high school was probably the only one in the entire state of New Jersey that didn’t have a fencing team,” she says. “But that’s the great thing about Caltech athletics—no experience required. If you show up and you work hard, you’re on the team.” Of course, natural aptitude helps. Decker got serious about saber in May of her sophomore year, and as a junior she qualified for the NCAA finals, competing in the 2010 national championships at Harvard. (Only 42 colleges nationwide have fencing teams; since it’s an individual sport, there are no divisions as there are for sports like basketball.)
“I traveled a lot, fencing on the national circuit, and met a lot of people,” Decker recalls. “By the end of January in my junior year, I realized that I couldn’t see myself being stuck in a lab for the rest of my life.” She opted for history that spring and, with the collegiate season over, competed in United States Fencing Association (USFA) tournaments, where she earned points toward qualifying for the Olympics.
But earning match points and making the team are two very different things. Training to be an Olympian isn’t something you can do between problem sets, nor is it something you can do in Braun gym, as good as Caltech coach Michael D’Asaro is. Says Decker, “If I wanted to train seriously, I would need to decide to do so before entering a PhD program, as fencers tend to physically peak in their mid-twenties.” But with no experience training full-time for a sport, she wondered if it was worthwhile putting academia on hold to pursue something this far-fetched. Meanwhile, applications for graduate school were coming due; if the athletic regimen proved too much after a few months, she’d have lost a full year of academics.
Fortunately, there’s a grant for that: Once a year the Caltech Y hands out the Paul Studenski Memorial Award, a travel grant for up to $4,000 intended for a student at a crossroads in life who, in the words of the endowment letter, “would benefit from a period of time away from the academic community in order to obtain a better understanding of himself and his future.” When Jeanette Studenski wrote that in the fall of 1974, female undergrads were just starting to appear on campus; the Studenskis’ son, Paul (BS, MS ’72), had been killed in an automobile accident that summer while driving to Cornell to begin graduate school, after having taken a year off to clear his head while seeing the country.
Decker was trying to figure out what to do when she “got one of those emails that goes out to everybody. I don’t read them very often, but this one looked like one I might be interested in.” The email invited potential Studenski applicants to an information session and dinner at Caltech Y board member Tom Mannion’s house. Says Decker, “I felt like I was at a crossroads, but I wasn’t sure that this was the sort of crossroads the committee was looking for. A lot of the awards in the past have been for more humanitarian kinds of things.” However, her dinner companions convinced her to apply, and as you may have guessed, she is this year’s winner. Says Caltech Y board member Deborah Smith, who sat at Decker’s table, “If Laura’s situation wasn’t a crossroads, I don’t know what is.”
Will fencing triumph over (or even delay) academia? It’s anybody’s guess. This past March at the NCAA finals at Ohio State, Decker beat Caitlin Taylor of Brown (5-4), a member of the Australian national team. That was the good news. The bad news is she lost 5-4 to Dagmara Wozniak of St. John’s, who is ranked second in the United States and 18th in the world, and who brought home the bronze from Beijing as part of the 2008 Olympic team. Decker also lost 5-0 to Monica Aksamit of Penn State, ranked sixth in the country—but in January Decker had defeated Aksamit 5-2 at an Olympic-qualifying USFA event. NCAA tournaments use a round-robin format, with the top four fencers going on to the direct-elimination finals; Decker did not make the cut. “Last year was my first major tournament, and I was completely freaked out,” she says. “This year I was more competitive in all my bouts.”
And if the saber proves mightier than the pen, there’s still one last crossroads Decker will have to face. A dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K., she notes: “I could make the British national team, but they’re not as strong as the U.S. team. To make the U.S. team, I’ll really have to work.” —DS