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“Drip, Drip, Drip”

How Harvard fencers won an Ivy championship

May-June 2020

fencers celebrate a championship win

Cai (far left) and teammates swarm Filip Dolegiewiez, who clinched their Ivy title.

Photograph courtesy of Crimson Athletic Communications


Cai (far left) and teammates swarm Filip Dolegiewiez, who clinched their Ivy title.

Photograph courtesy of Crimson Athletic Communications

Erwin Cai ’20 knew he should make a defensive move. The problem was execution. A sabre fencer since age eight, he predicted that his opponent was about to attack. If he could parry and riposte—block the Yale captain’s attack and go in for his own—he could win the point. The move was instinctual, drilled into his muscle memory.

A freshman at the time, Cai was competing in his first Ivy League championship, a tournament with almost fabled status among his older teammates. “It’s something you buy into from day one,” he recalls. “When you show up as a freshman and you see the level of motivation that all the upperclassmen have toward winning the event, the amount they talk about it, how hard they work toward this goal, you understand something is special about this.”

But in that 2017 championship bout, Cai began to second-guess his instincts. A natural “destructive” fencer known for dismantling opponents’ prepared strategies, he saw that a calculated risk was the best move. But another option clouded his mind: if he attacked at the same time as his opponent, per the rules of sabre fencing, no one would earn a point. The safer, risk-averse option weighed on him. Fencing not to lose, instead of to win, was seductive.

“And what happened was I did neither,” Cai says. “I literally just stood there and got hit. And it was the most frustrating thing. I took my mask off and I was like, ‘Why didn’t I do anything?’ I couldn’t even do the safe thing.” Yale went on to edge Harvard 14–13. The Crimson men ended with a record of 1–4, finishing second to last.

 

Last September, four months after the sudden dismissal of longtime head coach Peter Brand for a conflict-of-interest issue (see harvardmag.com/brand-19), Daria Schneider took charge of the men’s and women’s teams. A 2011 U.S. national champion fencer and a fixture in the Ivy League, she had competed, and was a two-year captain, for Columbia before joining that team’s staff as an assistant coach upon graduation. She then spent three years as head coach at Cornell, earning Ivy League Co-Coach of the Year honors in 2018.

When Schneider accepted the Harvard position, she was well aware of the men’s team’s talent level. A slew of them had competed on the international stage for both cadet (under 17) and junior (under 20) fencing squads, and had brought home individual and team medals. But it wasn’t enough to be Ivy favorites; Columbia had the NCAA’s top ranking, after winning outright both the Ivy title and NCAA co-ed team championship in 2019. Harvard sat just below. In January, half of the top-10 programs in the country were Ivies: Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Penn. Brown, the lone Ivy League men’s team not to make the list (Cornell and Dartmouth lack men’s teams), was one of 11 other teams to receive a vote.

In the weeks leading up to the Ivy championship, scheduled for February 8 and 9 at Harvard’s Gordon Indoor Track, Schneider wanted to make something clear: the goal shouldn’t be to win the Ivies.

The announcement came after a meeting during wintersession when she had asked every student-athlete, men and women, to write down one personal and one team goal. “I looked at them—80 percent or something were, ‘The goal is to win Ivies,’ or ‘The goal is to win Ivies and NCAAs,’” she says. “It was a results-oriented goal.”

Schneider spoke to her assistant coaches, and then her captains. They decided it might make sense to shift their goals away from the actual results, and more toward process. For Geoffrey Tourette ’21—the 2019 Ivy champion in foil—the change made sense. “In the past, teams always thought that the main two goals were winning Ivies and NCAAs,” he says. “And I think it puts a lot of pressure on us. The entire season you’re working for these two things. And then as soon as you get there, it’s all or nothing. If you don’t perform well, it’s like you’ve lost the entire season.”

Schneider wanted the team to focus on things they could control: effort in practice, maintenance of proper diet and sleep, handling of issues before they became major problems. Tension and anxiety, always present in high-stakes bouts, escalate when things feel beyond an athlete’s control. “You don’t want anybody going into a really intense and fraught match with doubts or questions in their mind about whether this is really the right play for the situation,” she explains.

It’s the “Drip, drip, drip,” philosophy, Cai said: one of Schneider’s mantras. Small daily actions—not arching your back during planks, arriving at the facility 10 minutes before practice, always having working equipment—lead to great results.

Soon, “Drip, drip, drip,” became an inside joke among the team. “When you take time to do extra stretching after practice one day,” Cai says. “We’ll say to each other, ‘Nice job—drip, drip, drip.’ It’s kind of a symbol of the process.”

 

For the opening round of the 2020 Ivy championship, the Harvard men, the second-ranked team in the country, were set to face Columbia, the one squad ranked higher. The winner would be the favorite to win it all. In a three-round, 27-bout matchup, Harvard would have to win 14. They knew it would be tight.

Cai was the first one on the strip, tasked with setting the tone. A defensive stalwart with a notoriously quick hand and powerful attack, he has an unmistakable fiery presence in person and in competition. “He’s got an emotional intensity that I think is unique,” Schneider says. “I think when he’s locked in to that intensity with the right balance, he is almost unbeatable in the college circuit.” The problem, at times, had been harnessing that energy.

Cai was facing off against Christopher Walker, a first-year at Columbia. The pair had fenced for years in the same club in Atlanta, under the same coach. What had started off as a mentor-mentee relationship had evolved into something different. Walker, a powerhouse in his own right, had recently won a major national tournament—a key Olympic qualifying step.

The foil and épée bouts occur simultaneously in the Ivy tournament, but sabre bouts take place alone. So when Cai fell behind 2-0, all eyes were on him. “Christopher came out with this level of fury that I don’t think I’ve ever seen from him before,” Cai recalls. “That is so frightening. Because of the structure of the tournament, everyone is just watching you—everyone on your team, everyone else on the other team.”

But unlike during that freshman-year bout, the nerves didn’t get to him; he’d done all the prep, and in a first-to-five match, he still had time. “There was just this calm understanding that I lost those last few points, not a big deal,” he recalls. “I still have the ability to win the next five in a row.”

Cai scored two points, and later, with the score tied 4–4, Walker went in for an attack that pushed Cai to the back of the strip. If they hit each other at the same time while Cai was on defense, Walker would be awarded the point. Counterattacking in this scenario is considered risky; if the opponent can touch in time, it’s a losing move. But when Cai saw an opening in Walker’s hand area, he went in, no hesitation.

Only one light flashed: he got the point. He ripped off his mask and roared as his teammates celebrated. “It’s kind of a special moment because it’s an action I practice a lot, and it’s very high risk,” he says. “I’m willing to do it in practice, but it’s so rare for me to trust myself to ever pull out in competition.”

The Crimson men would go on to narrowly beat Columbia, and then defeat Brown, Yale, Penn, and Princeton in a series of dominant performances. The women’s team—gutting out the tournament with no substitutes—finished with a record of 3–3, falling to three teams who ended the season in the nation’s top seven. The Crimson women themselves ended the season ranked number nine in the NCAA.

Erwin Cai says the team’s past performances speak for themselves: a combined 14 Ivy League titles for men and women and the 2006 co-ed NCAA team championship, among other accolades. Now, he adds “It’s more about how do we change from ‘We’re a serious competitor,’ to ‘We’re dominant’? How do we reach that level where teams show up, and they’ve already lost?”

He might already know the answer: drip, drip, drip. 

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