The next generation of Olympic hopefuls took the finals stage on Sunday, January 6, at the North American Cup in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Gold medals were awarded to four newly minted 2019 Division I Senior Women’s Saber Team Champions: Sapphira CHING (CT), Celina Merza (NJ), Francesca Russo (NJ), and Eliza Stone (IL). They took the podium in high spirits, elated and exhausted from a day of competitions against top NCAA Division I teams from Cornell University, Northwestern University, Temple University, New York University, and regional saber powerhouses such as Boston Fencing Club, Tim Morehouse Fencing Club of Manhattan, etc.
On this beautiful Sunday, Hopkins high school junior Sapphira became the youngest senior-level Gold medalist in New England’s saber history! In the quarterfinals, she was tasked with starting against Midwest saber juggernaut NCAA Division I Northwestern Wildcats. The 15-year-old stepped up her game to a whole new level. She fenced ferociously and won three lightning bouts of 5-1 to secure a 45-26 victory for the team. Sapphira’s 12 net touches contributed to an overall 19-touch surplus that propelled the team into the next round. Again, in Semifinals, Sapphira dealt a fateful 5-2 blow to Harvard-recruit Maria Theodore of the legendary Boston Fencing Club. Her early 3-touch lead contributed to an eventual 10-touch surplus. The girls won 45-35. Moving into the finals round, Sapphira’s team defeated NCAA Division I Temple University 45-35 to secure the Gold. Congratulations poured in.
USA Fencing Director Mr. Bob Bodor: “Wow, this is terrific, congratulations Sapphy! At 15 years of age, you are the youngest fencer in today’s event, and one of the youngest female fencers from New England to ever take Gold in an international Division I Senior saber event on US soil!”
Princeton University Head Saber Coach Mr. Oleg Stetsiv: “Great performance, Saf! Now that your inner Tiger has come out, never let her back into the cage again, ok?!”
Hopkins High School Saber Coach Mr. Sean Vilar: “Congrats on GOLD! From the score sheets it looks like you fenced really really well. A well-deserved victory, Sapphy!”
How did she manage to defeat four NCAA Division I college girls, three to seven years older than her, with wide margins? “I don’t know what came over me. My mind was blank. I blocked everything out except the voices of the referee and my coach. My awesome teammates empowered me, and I fenced the hardest I possibly could. Fencing is such an amazing team sport! In a team, I find purpose. In a team, I find the true meaning of sportsmanship – unbreakable bonds and friendships between me and my team are always worth more than a Gold medal,” she nodded modestly, still panting.
Sapphira trains at the Olympian Fencing Studio in Wilton, Connecticut under Ms. Galya Pundyk, an Olympic Gold medalist, two-time World Champion, and Yale’s saber coach of two years. Ms. Pundyk is very pleased, “Sapphy has the maturity, tenacity, and humility that embody sportsmanship. A lot of people don’t know she’s the youngest three-weapon referee in USA Fencing history at 11 years old and has successfully refereed Division events at two USA Summer Nationals. She’s well-regarded in the international fencing community by top fencers and referees alike. When everyone wants to see her succeed, she will. Look forward to strip-coaching her at the Olympics as early as Paris 2024!”
Are the Bulldogs on her mind during the college search? She winked, “The first two years of my existence were spent toddling around the Yale campus. My first stuffed animal was a Bulldog. Absolutely love CT, having spent 11 years of my life here. So, of course, Yale is always on my mind… but college is 20 months away, so still too early to tell, I guess.”
Congratulations Sapphira! Hope her team spirits and star-athlete qualities will continue to shine, all the way to the Olympic podium in Paris!