Caroline Purcell began fencing at age 11. Her freshman year at MIT, she was a starter on the Men’s Varsity Fencing Team. Last fall, she won a gold medal at an international competition in Brazil. Recently, she became the first MIT fencer ever to bring home an individual National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship.
“I want to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2004,” says Purcell, 19, who is currently ranked 36th in the world and 9th nationally. She has earned her rankings through numerous competitions around the world, including events in Brazil, Hungary, and France.
Purcell, a sophomore, says she chose to come to MIT partly on the strength of its fencing team. “I applied to a few places — basically I said they had to have an engineering school and they had to have fencing,” she says. “I was surprised I got in here. It was so exciting when I got the letter.
“I love being on the fencing team at MIT,” says Purcell, who practices at least 15 hours a week. “We do things together. We’re all intensely competitive when we’re fencing, but then that night we’ll go out to dinner together and have a ton of fun.
“I wasn’t very athletic as a kid,” says Purcell, who got her start fencing at the New York Athletic Club, where her father was a member. “Every Saturday they would have a sports program for the children of members,” she says. “One of the fathers decided he wanted to teach fencing to his son and to some of the other kids, so I decided to try it out and see if I was good at it.”
After working with foil and epee, which are two types of fencing weapons, Purcell switched to sabre, a lighter weapon. At the time, sabre fencing was primarily a man’s sport. “Sabre is aggressive and very fast, so up until five or six years ago, most coaches shied away from teaching women sabre,” says Purcell, who honed her skills by practicing with men in high school.
At 5 foot 4 inches, Purcell says she had to learn to compensate for her shorter arms and smaller stature when fencing with the men. But she was good enough as an MIT freshman to join the men’s varsity team — at that time, women’s sabre was not yet recognized as a college sport. “I was a starter on that team,” she says. “I was used to fencing with guys. It was fun.” Now fully recognized in competition, women’s sabre fencing will make its Olympic debut at the 2004 games in Athens.
A civil engineering major, Purcell says organizing time is the hardest thing about being at MIT. “It’s difficult when I have to take three or four weekends off in a row for competitions,” she says, adding that she has eased her competition schedule this year in order to devote more time to her classes.
“With my school schedule, I can only take a weekend to go to an international tournament in Europe. So I leave Thursday night, rest and look around a little on Friday, and then fence on Saturday and Sunday. Then I’m back for classes on Monday.”
Despite the demands, Purcell is committed to remaining a top international competitor. “I just love fencing, possibly because I’ve done it for so long and I’ve gotten good at it,” she says. “But it’s also a way to get out energy and frustration.
“You have to have really good footwork and at the same time know where your arm is and how to stop the opponent,” says Purcell, adding that the pace is very fast. “Our five-point bouts are over in a minute at most. With sabre it’s so fast that the action is instinctual — I have to be moving all the time.”
Although fencing has its origins in combat and warfare, Purcell says modern-day fencing is all about athletic skill and mental focus. “In the old days, the sabre was a really heavy weapon, so if you hit someone, you’d kill them,” she says.
“But now we use the sabre very lightly, just touching the opponent for the point. You’re not trying to kill your opponent, you’re just trying to show her and your teammates and yourself how good you are.”