En garde – prêt? – allez! On guard – ready? – fence!

Zaheer Booth, Alexander Cotter, and Khalil Thompson are interns this summer at Scholastic – who swordfight almost every evening after work! After spying them in a New York Times 360° video last week, we asked them what it is like to be a student athlete, particularly in the world of fencing. They also share some book recommendations for children and teens that are just discovering this elite sport.

Zaheer Booth, Hunter College: As this year’s Fencing World Championships taking place in Germany come to an end, and I watch all the great fencers in the world compete to see who the best is, I reminisce on how I got started. I’ve been fencing since I was about 11 years old. I got my start in the Peter Westbrook Foundation, founded by 6 time Olympian Peter Westbrook, when a friend brought me to class with him to try it. Westbrook started the foundation because he wanted to bring fencing to inner city youths that otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to experience the sport and how it can change your life for the better, like it did for him. Fencing has taught me discipline, a killer work ethic and leadership skills, as well as giving me a lot of opportunities, such as teaching fencing classes at different schools all over the city, fencing as a NCAA student athlete at Hunter College, and being able to train with Olympic level fencers – determined to follow in their footsteps. Fencing helped me get into college, travel to places I wouldn’t otherwise go and find my true calling – to be a fencing coach.

Alexander Cotter, St. John’s University: The first time I picked up a fencing blade I was 14. It was the summer going into eighth grade when my journey began. I got my start at the North Shore Fencers Club summer camp; my dad took me to the camp because I saw some sword fighting on TV and I had to try it. I fenced there for about 2 years before switching to the Peter Westbrook Foundation, which is where my love for the sport really flourished. I started competing on a national level soon after switching clubs. Fencing changed for me when I started thinking of it as a long-term activity, one that offered opportunities to grow, rather than just as a hobby. Fencing has taught me discipline, focus, and how to manage my emotions; it even helped with my decision to go to St. John's University where I currently fence. Although it hasn’t always been easy trying to balance both good grades in school and fencing, that particular challenge has forced me to develop my time management skills as a student athlete.

Khalil Thompson, Penn State University: It was early last year. After six months of rigorous training, many emotional breakdowns, and fluctuating results, I had not made the United States Junior National Team.  I missed the cut off by just one slot, and this was the second time in my fencing career that I hadn’t made the team, however, I wasn’t going to let this stop me. There was still one more tournament before the World Championships. One more chance to go out with a bang. A week after another poor result in France, I flew to Kansas City to compete in the 2017 U.S. Junior Olympics. Going into the tournament, I kept my cool and set my eyes on winning the entire thing. Throughout the day I experienced many challenges: fencing with an entire crowd cheering against me, having to regain control of a bout, and fighting exhaustion and cramps. I pushed past all of these obstacles – mental and physical – and I overcame them. I won my first national title.

Share these reading recommendations with a young person in your life that is exploring a new sport, that has just discovered fencing, or who swordfights every day with a foil, épée, saber – or their imagination!

Khalil, Alex, Zaheer and Clifford, the Big Red Dog.