Over the past five years, three of the fencing teams atop the national podium were clad in light blue. The Lions are not only regulars at the NCAAs, but also almost always in contention for the championship. Led by head coach Michael Aufrichtig, who heralds a strong “team first” philosophy, Columbia has produced numerous stellar individual fencers as well as three shining national champion teams over the past ten years.
Before Aufrichtig, there was renowned head coach George Kolombatovich, who helmed the program for 32 seasons and led the team to five NCAA championships. In the 2010-2011 season, Kolombatovich’s Lions came in seventh at NCAAs. Five Columbia athletes earned All-American honors.
Since Aufrichtig’s tenure began in 2011, the Light Blue has won three national titles under his tutelage: in 2015, 2016, and 2019. It was runner-up in 2018 to a particularly strong Notre Dame team. The Lions have been even more dominant in Ancient Eight play: The men’s team dominated with six consecutive Ivy titles from 2014 to 2019, and the women have claimed five.
The force that is Columbia fencing has been backed up by stellar individual performances. Jake Hoyle, CC ’16, won back-to-back national épée titles in 2015 and 2016. Then-senior Iman Blow won in foil in 2018. Last year, two members of the Light Blue squad found themselves atop the podium at NCAAs, with then-sophomore Sylvie Binder earning first in foil and Anne Cebula winning in épée.
Although canceled due to COVID-19, this year’s NCAAs would have added a new challenge for the Lions. Columbia qualified 11 fencers instead of the desired 12 for the national championship, which would have placed the Light Blue at a serious disadvantage. The Lions would have been the story to watch at the NCAAs to see if the defending national champions could pull off a near-miracle and win the national title without a full team.
Jake Hoyle claims back-to-back individual titles at NCAAs
Hoyle came to freshly-minted head coach Aufrichtig thanks to a recommendation from a fellow coach. Before that, Hoyle had been overlooked by most college recruiters due to a low age group ranking in high school. But Hoyle “had a great winning percentage in five-touch matches,” Aufrichtig said. There were no recruiting spots left in Aufrichtig’s first class, but he told Hoyle that if he could get into Columbia, the team would take him.
Hoyle performed well at his first NCAAs in his sophomore year, winning 12 bouts and placing 15th. Hoyle then worked so hard over the summer before his junior year that Aufrichtig said he arrived on campus in the fall with a stress fracture in his foot. After a month and a half in a boot, Hoyle returned to practice. He would be crowned an NCAA champion for the first time that year, helping lead the Lions to their first win in 22 years.
Hoyle repeated as national champion in épée his senior year, defeating Ohio State’s Marc-Antoine Blais 15-9. But it would certainly not be the last of Hoyle’s accolades as a fencer. As Hoyle wrapped up his final year at Columbia, he approached Aufrichtig and asked whether his coach believed he could make the Olympics.
“What was really cool was he graduated Columbia with a great GPA … in economics and was getting some decent job offers,” Aufrichtig said. “I said, ‘Jake, [it’s] probably costing you a lot of money at this time, but yeah, I really think you could make the Olympics.’”
Three and a half years later, Hoyle is number one in the country, ranked among the top athletes in the world, and is looking to qualify for the now-2021 Olympic Games.
In 2015, the Light Blue claims its first national title since 1993
For the first time (though certainly not the last) since Aufrichtig took the reins of the program, the Lions became NCAA champions. Columbia also boasted nine All-Americans and a national champion in Hoyle.
The Lions maintained a steady lead heading into the final day of competition in Columbus, Ohio, enjoying an 8-point margin over eventual runner-up Penn State. Notre Dame took third, with Princeton and Ohio State right behind them.
Hoyle’s fellow épéeist Brian Ro, CC ’16, took fourth after meeting Hoyle in the semifinals of the national tournament. They were the top two finishers for the Lions on the men’s side, though foilists Harry Bergman and Adam Mathieu took fifth and twelfth, respectively.
For the women, then-junior Margaret Lu shined, taking silver in foil. Fellow junior foilist Jackie Dubrovich grabbed All-American status for the third time with a seventh-place finish. The women’s sabre squad also performed particularly well, with Anastasia Ivanoff taking fifth and Lena Johnson earning ninth.
It was Columbia’s 14th national title, but more triumphs would soon follow.
Back to back: Columbia wins NCAAs again for second consecutive title
The Lions took the national crown for the second year in a row, led by superb performances from Hoyle and Dubrovich. Women’s épéeist Mason Speta tied for third, as did men’s foilist Adam Mathieu. All four were first-team All-Americans.
At the tournament in Waltham, Massachusetts, Hoyle’s semifinal match ended up being tougher than the finals. He edged Ohio State’s Lewis Wess 15-14 before taking down Blais 15-9 in the championship.
Hoyle’s two-peat—after claiming his first national title his junior year—complemented Columbia’s. The Lions had also won back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993.
The Lions had 10 All-Americans in total, outperforming themselves from 2015’s nine. But things continued to go up for the Light Blue: Columbia would find themselves atop the podium once more in 2019 with two individual national champions instead of one.
Both the men’s and women’s team top the podium at Ivies for the Lions’ first double outright win in 11 years
For the first time since 2008, Columbia fencing clinched both men’s and women’s Ivy titles outright. Though the Lions have consistently found themselves atop Ancient Eight rankings for the past ten years, they often shared the title with other teams.
There was no sharing in 2019. After narrowly defeating Harvard 14-13, the men’s team easily overtook Yale 16-11, Princeton 20-7, and Penn 19-8. The closest matchup on the women’s side was against the Tigers; Columbia won 15-12 and proceeded to dominate the other teams, tallying a 6-0 record on the weekend.
Nine Lions earned All-Ivy honors, including Andrew Doddo, Calvin Liang, Sam Moelis, Nolen Scruggs, Sidarth Kumbla, Cedric Mecke, Nora Burke, Iman Blow, and Sylvie Binder. Binder also won the foil competition.
The Lions shine again on the national stage with two individual winners in Sylvie Binder and Anne Cebula in 2019
The four-day competition in Cleveland, Ohio was a tale of domination for Columbia, who jumped ahead with an early lead on day one and never faltered. Standout performances by then-junior Anne Cebula and then-sophomore Sylvie Binder guided the Lions to their third national title in five years.
After the first three rounds of competition, Cebula found herself in the No. 13 slot. Teammate Karolina Nixon, a first-year at the time, was in eighth. It was after a particularly strong round that Cebula climbed to the top three and clinched a spot in the semifinals. After a laborious first two minutes in the championship bout, Cebula claimed the national championship 5-3 over Notre Dame’s Amanda Sirico.
Meanwhile, both Binder and then-senior Iman Blow claimed spots in the semifinal round for foil. Blow, who had won the NCAA title the previous year, narrowly fell to Katarzyna Lachman of St. John’s. She rebounded in the consolation championship and clinched third place. Binder went on to avenge her teammate with a 15-8 win over Lachman, capturing the national title.
The men’s team was led by Teddy Lombardo, a first-year at the time, who earned the runner-up title in épée, and sophomore foilist Sidarth Kumbla, who tied for third.
When Sidarth Kumbla began fencing at the California Fencing Academy, he started in foil. When it came time for athletes to specialize in one weapon—some were diverted to sabre by coaches, others to épée—Kumbla remained in foil.
“It worked out well, I guess,” said the junior, who won the NCAA Northeast Regional last year and took third at nationals. In addition to being a member of the top fencing team in the country, Kumbla is also active on the international circuit, becoming a Junior World bronze medalist in 2018.
For Kumbla, one of the advantages of his weapon is that he considers foil a mix of the other two: “It provides the speed and intensity that sabre has, and the thinking and precision that you need in épée,” he explained.
Foilists must hit with the point of the weapon in order to register a touch. They also have a limited target area; in order to score a point, they must hit their opponents on the torso, shoulders, and back. To make things even more complicated, for the point to be valid the fencer must have “priority,” a fencing term well-known by sabre and foil fencers but that may leave épéeists cringing.
“Priority is probably what makes fencing so confusing for other spectators,” Kumbla said.
Kumbla explained that the term is best described in relation to attacking and defending fencers. In the event that both fencers register touches, the point goes to the attacking fencer. However, the defending fencer can become the attacking fencer by parrying the other’s blade or making a move forward, Kumbla said.
Though collegiate athletes fence electrically, or hooked up to equipment that registers touches automatically, a referee is still in place to monitor details like priority. This adds a layer of subjectivity to the two weapons that use priority—foil and sabre—which is missing in épée.
“Obviously the refs work very hard to make sure they’re being consistent and accurately calling the calls, but with any sport, there’s going to be a lot more mistakes, especially when you have a referee that judges whose points are [whose],” Kumbla explained.
On occasion, Kumbla has tried the other weapons, sometimes even during meets. When a teammate was injured during one bout this season, he substituted in as an épée fencer. Though Kumbla was disappointed that he didn’t win the bout—he wanted to avenge his friend, he said—it was still enjoyable.
“Competitively, I just don’t think those two are for me,” Kumbla said. “... in sabre, it’s just too fast for me sometimes, and then in épée, it’s just too slow for me sometimes; I think foil gives me that kind of middle-ness that I like.”
Although he enjoys the fact that foil is a union of sorts between sabre and épée, Kumbla said it may be the most challenging part of fencing foil.
“You kind of have to have the athleticism of a sabre fencer and the mind of an épée fencer,” Kumbla said. “I’m constantly training like a sabre fencer would be training, like going really fast up and down the strip, but I’m also trying to think tactically, at a much slower pace like an épée fencer.”
After a lagging start to the decade, the men’s team powered to the top of Ivy League rankings and refused to leave, claiming six consecutive Ivy League titles from 2014 to 2019. This past year, they came up just short to Harvard, whom the Lions have often shared the Ivy title with over the past ten years. Similarly, in 2018, Harvard and Columbia each earned a piece of the men’s title, along with Princeton, after the Lions fell to the Crimson 16-11.
The women’s squad has proved itself a force to be reckoned with as well. Most recently, the women picked up the 2020 Ivy League title, its third since 2018. The women’s team found itself just one bout short of the Ancient Eight crown in 2017, when Columbia’s Amy Tong lost to Kat Holmes of Princeton. The Tigers went on to win the title that year.
There was sharing on both sides in 2016, but Columbia did have a piece of both the men’s and women’s titles. Penn and Princeton also found themselves atop the podium on the men’s side, while the women tied with Princeton and Harvard. In 2015, Harvard, Penn, and Princeton nipped at the Lions’ heels, tying for second place for the women. On the men’s side, the Light Blue split the title with Harvard after losing 17-10 to the Crimson.
Other teams in the Ancient Eight conference have had to settle for silver for much of the past decade, but Princeton and Harvard have consistently been in the hunt for the Ivy League Championship title. The Tigers were particularly dominant in the first half of the decade; in 2012, Princeton was perfect throughout the weekend at Ivies, earning the women’s and men’s titles outright.
But no other Ancient Eight team has been as dominant as Columbia on the national stage in the past decade. The only other Ivy team to claim an NCAA title was Princeton, in 2013. Meanwhile, the Columbia team has outpaced the conference by far, with three national titles as well as a runner-up showing in 2018.