They’ve competed with the fencing world’s very best. Juniors Sammy Roberts and Sean Leahy, between them, have competed at Junior World Championships and several World Cups, defeated All-Americans, received all-Ivy first team recognition on more than one occasion, and have even performed extremely well at national competitions within the U.S. However, this coming weekend these two Lions will go in search of something that, thus far, has eluded them: an Ivy League Championship.
Leahy and Roberts, respectively, are captains of Columbia’s rather young men’s and women’s fencing teams. Lions head coach George Kolombatovich understands the assets the two juniors provide, and rewarded them by making them the fencing representatives for the Columbia Leaders for Life program at the end of their freshman year.
“This weekend is going to be a very difficult one for us,” Kolombatovich said. “The Ivy League regularly has three to four teams in the top 10 in the country—and we don’t have a single senior on our team this year. We’re relatively young but have a lot of talent. It’s going to come down to their [Roberts’ and Leahy’s] leadership. It’s going to be important. I think they will both be examples of how to perform under pressure—and I think that will be the key for us.”
“For Sean, the main thing is his dedication,” Kolombatovich said. “He gets people to follow him. He’s got a very strong personality, and at the same time he is and was universally liked and respected.”
Roberts also drew tremendous praise from her coach.
“Sammy primarily leads by example,” he said. “I’m sure that everyone that knows her, or has worked with her, realizes that she is the perfect example of a student-athlete. Such a hard worker at everything she does, and the results show. She’s a tremendous talent combined with a very analytical mind. She’s able to spot weaknesses in the opponents and take advantage of them, and that makes her a very good competitor.”
The pair is very excited about what lies ahead. Leahy, who studies political science in the College, performed well last season at the Ivies, but his 8-7 record meant he narrowly missed out on all-Ivy recognition.
“I know I’m not the best fencer on my squad,” he said. “But I see myself on the team in a leadership position in motivating the younger fencers. Most of our fencers had their first college competition only a few weeks ago, and I don’t want to take too much credit but I think we [the captains] have done a good job with helping them settle in, and a lot of the freshmen results have shown that.”
Roberts echoed her classmate’s sentiments, and was optimistic about her team’s chances. The women’s team has finished second in both of the past two seasons, and in 2009 it was one bout that made the difference against the Crimson.
“I’m really excited going into the weekend because I think the women’s team has a very strong chance of capturing the title,” she said. “The past two years we’ve come in second and that makes me want to win even more. The strength of our incoming class and returning fencers is outstanding, and we work very well as a whole in motivating and cheering on each other.”
The Ivies have special meaning for the SEAS junior, who fenced for the U.S. at the 2010 Junior World Championships in Azerbaijan.
“Personally, the pressure that gets put on the Ivies is used as a motivator,” Roberts said. “I’ve found that in Ivy competition, I go into each bout with so much heart and want to win. Just knowing that I’m not fencing for myself, but for Columbia as a whole. It’s different from any other meet because we normally fence sort of individually, but Ivies is definitely a team meet.”
Besides helping the others vanquish memories of last season’s 0-5 team record, Leahy also hopes to improve on his own showing last year.
“I’m looking forward to a good Ivy season,” he said. “I missed all-Ivy by basically one bout, and I can definitely improve on that and hopefully make the first team.”
The Lions have already competed against two of the nation’s best in Notre Dame and St. John’s, but the Ivies bring out a certain passion, according to Leahy.
“I think there’s a lot more pride that we take from the Ivies. We want to win a lot more. There’s an immediate desire to bring home an Ivy League title for Columbia fencing—it’s constantly on our mind, and, as a team, that’s something we all want to achieve.”
Columbia assistant coach Daria Schneider, CC’10 and a former NCAA sabre champion, knows the duo as a friend and as a teammate as well.
“The main thing Sean brings to the team is knowing the spirit of Columbia’s men’s team,” she said. “And he’ll be able to teach that to the freshmen and get them excited for performing their best at Ivies, especially since it’s such a strong class. I think we’ll have at least two or three people who make the first team, and he’ll be the one leading the charge for getting them excited.”
Roberts, who has taken over the captaincy after Schneider’s graduation, will be charged with maintaining the focus.
“Sammy is a great captain, and similar to Sean, she’ll definitely be leading the way,” Schneider said. “She’s a contender herself for the All-Ivy first team and she’s working with a really good young team as well. Her biggest challenge will be keeping everyone focused, since it’ll be a long two days, making them fence well, and keeping the sabre squad focused on each bout.”
Roberts was pitted against Schneider in the last 16 of the North American Cup in January, and while Schneider won the bout, she acknowledges Roberts’ skill.
“I knew I had to be on top of my game,” Schneider said. “It definitely put me onto a higher zone of focus because Sammy’s a great fencer who finished second at summer nationals in the senior division, and I had to pull on all my experience and make myself run away with it to avoid a stressful bout.”
The competition also pits Roberts against her best friend since second grade, the reigning NCAA sabre champion, Harvard’s Caroline Vloka. Vloka was the reason Roberts took up the sport.
“She one day tricked me into coming to practice with her,” Roberts said, “and I fell in love with the sport. It’s hard to fence your best friend, but at the same time you have to look out for what the team needs, and usually that’s a win. So you’ve got to give it all you can, regardless of who your opponent is. As a captain I hope to make everyone confident that they can win each bout that they go into, and that everything they do is helping out the team.”
The Lions warm-up for the Ivies with the Historical Meet Plus at NYU this evening, but the real test for Roberts and Leahy begins at Princeton on Saturday morning.