Fearless fencer

Quinnipiac fencing professor Sandra Marchant wants people to give her sport a chance

By on September 19, 2017

Peter O'Neill
It had all the makings for a “Jurassic World” sequel. Traffic stopped in New York City and helicopters flew overhead as two Tyrannosaurus rex fought in front of the Statue of Liberty. This wasn’t from the mind of Steven Spielberg, though. This was an idea taken to life by part-time Quinnipiac faculty member Sandra Marchant and her friend Alexander Turoff to promote fencing.

Marchant and Turoff brought a raft out into New York Harbor this summer and set up a fencing match in the middle of the water. These are the extremes Marchant is willing to go through to draw eyes onto her sport.

“The reason we do this is just to get people to say ‘Oh look, they’re fencing. Oh my gosh, there are dinosaurs fencing,’” she said. “We’re just trying to bring awareness to the sport so that kids and adults know that there is something out there besides basketball, baseball, soccer.”

Marchant is one of America’s top fencers. She is one of just four veteran (aged 40-50) competitors with an A rank, the highest the United States Fencing Association designates in the sport. She has won at some of the top tournaments across the country, including a double gold at the 2014 North American Cup in Minneapolis.

She spends seven days a week with the sport and reserves her Sundays for competing. The rest of the time she is training and teaching.

“I love to teach. I love working with students,” Marchant said. “I love taking a lump of clay and making it into something.”

She needed the help of her own teachers and coaches to initially get drawn into the sport. While kids as young as 7 or 8 years old can begin fencing, Marchant did not hold her first blade until she was 25. She had returned home to visit her parents and family friend Edgar Sanchez, one of the coaches of Quinnipiac’s fencing club, convinced her to come to a session on a Tuesday night.

From the second she set up, she knew she was in her element.

“I kid you not, the lights got brighter and I could hear music in my head the minute I held a weapon in my hand,” Marchant said. “And it was just one of those weird feelings where I knew I had to do this, and I had never gotten that feeling before.”

Marchant committed to the sport and began working with ex-Olympian Ralph Spinella, who taught fencing at Quinnipiac alongside Sanchez, seven days a week as his sole protegé. She couldn’t afford formal lessons, so she would clean his house, upholster his furniture and paint his walls in exchange for sessions.

“It was just something I had to do,” Marchant said. “I love (fencing). I enjoy it. It’s in my blood.”

After 10 years, Spinella said he had nothing more to give her.

“The day he told me I had to get another coach because he couldn’t do anything for me, I sat and cried and cried,” Marchant said.

Photo contributed by Sandra Marchant
Come 2011, she was in the mix to compete at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. She was ranked 33rd in the country, but she says she couldn’t devote the time to make a push at a spot.

“I wasn’t willing to put in the dedication and time,” she said. “Maintaining my job, my kids, teaching and training, it’s so hard on the body.”

Marchant’s fencing culmination came at the 2014 North American Cup. She was down 9-6 in the title match against Ann Totemier and needed the next four points to win épée gold. While she notes that the pressure creeps in from the plane ride to a tournament, she decided that she would cut loose.

“You really just have to trust your training,” she said.

Marchant took the next point by beating Totemier’s blade and hitting her on the outside. With her back against the wall, she decided to keep away, use the time and go for the same move two more times to tie it up.

With the championship on the line, Marchant chose to go for the same move, noting that she would disengage if Totemier changes. She went in, hit and the light went on. The gold was hers.

“I turned around and saw my light on,” Marchant said. “I just fell on my knees on the stage and I just started crying. That was one of the most poignant moments I will never forget because I was behind and I didn’t think honestly I could pull it off.”

She says she proceeded to “bomb” in her next tournament, but that hasn’t stopped her from reaching championships.

In 2015, Marchant took three students, Kadan Lottick, Cade Williams and Tim Brown, from her Prospect Fencing Club to the Connecticut high school state tournament. They all went to Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, which didn’t have its own fencing team, so Marchant took them to the event under the school’s name. With no team uniforms or school funding, they topped the likes of Simsbury and Glastonbury to claim the title.

“The three of those boys really wanted it, and they worked,” Marchant said. “They earned what they got and they won it.”

Marchant coaches at a variety of levels and says she is okay with students who want to fence at a leisurely level. However, those who come to her for private lessons can expect more intensity.

“If you’re going to take private lessons from me, you’re going to work,” she said.

When it comes to her Quinnipiac classes, students were surprised that they landed a world-class fencer as a professor for their one-credit course.

“I wasn’t expecting someone that good to be teaching the class,” Tom Coman, a senior health science major in Marchant’s intro class this semester, said.

Marchant has been working to grow the sport’s popularity in Connecticut and beyond. She has performed more “stunts” beyond New York Harbor, including bouts in front of lighthouses and Bannerman Castle on the Hudson River and even in trees.

“I’m trying to promote the sport as much as I can to get more people involved,” Marchant said. “It’s not for everybody, but you know what, but if it’s for the person who wants to find their niche or build self-confidence, that’s what it’s about.”

Photo contributed by Sandra Marchant
Looking forward, she is seeking her shot to compete for Team USA. If she can maintain a top-three ranking up to the point she turns 50, she will earn her red, white and blue cage and a chance to represent her country at the Senior World Fencing Championships.

“Well I’ve got three years,” she said. “Hopefully I can maintain what I’m doing and make the team.”

Marchant has also set lofty goals for what she hopes to accomplish at Quinnipiac. She says she wants to create a collegiate program at the school that introduced her to the sport she is pioneering for.

“I would like to coach a college team ultimately as well, so maybe that will be in my future as well. I love the Quinnipiac campus. I love the students here,” Marchant said. “I work at my club, but I think working for a university would be a huge thing to be able to see all my work come to fruition and go on a national level with students.”

Until that point, Marchant will continue working to turn her students into fencing fans.

“I’m having a good time with this,” Harry Weinman, a senior accounting and computer information assistance major in Marchant’s Quinnipiac class, said. “I’m glad for the opportunity because otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered this. I think I might pursue it.”

If the dinosaurs, lighthouses and tree sparring aren’t enough to bring fencing attention, Marchant says the core of the sport still has its appeal.

“And really,” Marchant said, ”Who doesn’t want to stab their friends?”

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About Max Molski

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Email: maximilian.molski@quinnipiac.edu
Twitter: @MolesDontSki
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Year: 2018
Major: Journalism