Bright lights flash as senior Tina Huang pulls on her fencing mask and enters the strip. Her mind clears as each clash of a blade prepares her for the biggest stage of her life, the upcoming Junior Olympics.
Officials reviewed her statistics from past national competitions and determined she placed high enough in her national competitions to qualify her for the Junior Olympics tournament that will be held on February 19, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Fencing didn’t always come easy for Huang.
Huang began fencing in 2017 to try something new after talking about it with some of her friends who fenced.
When she started, Huang said she didn’t expect the sport to be as hard as it was. However, she said she picked up the footwork easier than most because she’d been playing sports her whole life.
Since fencing wasn’t Huang’s first love, Huang often played other sports as a way to meet new people.
Huang has done swimming, soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis and now fencing since she moved to the U.S. after living in Shenzhen, China for 13 years.
Yet, she stuck with fencing because of its uniqueness and the challenges it posed.
At first, Huang only practiced two days a week.
Today, a week in Huang’s life consists of over 10 hours of practice, mainly during the night time at her gym, Premier Fencing Academy in Carmichael. She now attends every practice, including extras on Saturdays, to prepare for the upcoming Olympics.
“It’s hard to get up in the morning and show up,” she said. “But, in the end, it’s worth it.”
To ensure peak performance, Huang constantly practices her footwork.
She said a big part in her success is her coach, Testi Hristov.
Of Hristov’s 19-year career in the U.S., she has trained Huang for the past four years.
Hristov, originally from Bulgaria, is the first Bulgarian National Champion in saber, having competed in five World Cups.
Hristov commended Huang on her dedication, saying her work ethic is unmatched.
“Tina has always put in the effort and is a dedicated fencer. She always listens to my advice and is trying to improve at every practice,” she said.
Hristov added that Huang is a gifted athlete who she believes can take her fencing career very far.
Yet, Huang said she doesn’t really know how far she wants to go with fencing, adding that she looks to fencing as a retreat from her hectic life.
“Putting on my suit and being surrounded by this sense of serenity is unlike anything I’ve felt before,” Huang said. “It’s really you and yourself. No one can help you but yourself.”
However, fencing itself isn’t the only thing Huang enjoys about the sport.
Some of her favorite memories have come from the tournaments she’s been to with her teammates.
Huang has traveled all around the country for her national competitions, fencing in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“It’s always really fun to go on mini-vacations because I get to do what I love,” she said. “Every trip has made so many memories that are priceless.”
Hristov also said some of her favorite moments with Huang were at their away tournaments.
“It’s great to see how focused she is before her matches. She is really intense — like nothing can stop her.” Hristov said. “My favorite part is every time she wins a match. The pure excitement and relief that is expressed on her face are what makes being a coach worth it.”
Huang said the only bad thing about competitions is her pre-game nerves.
To prepare, Huang follows a strict routine.
She eats a lot of carbs and proteins the night before and goes to sleep at around 11 p.m.
From there, Huang will wake up, take a shower to ease her nerves and eat a light breakfast before her matches. However, once the match starts, her nerves begin to calm down as she hones her focus.
“Being in stadiums that usually carry 500 people, distractions are all around, so focus is key. Loss of focus can lead to the loss of points and potentially the entire match,” Huang said.
Due to the nature of the sport, fencing has taught Huang perseverance and the ability to keep a calm mind under pressure.
“A lot of the time, when you lose a point or mess up, it’s hard to come back from it,” she said. “You see the match crumbling before you, so it’s easy to have a negative mindset. But you just have to have a short-term memory and get through it.”
Hristov noted that fencing has made Huang more organized, confident and dedicated.
Adding to Tina’s praise, her mom, Rong Chen, said she has also seen her daughter develop tremendously over the past five years she’s been fencing.
“Fencing gave Tina lots of challenges to face, whether she succeeded against them or not,” she said. “It also gave her a good work ethic, perseverance and lots of new friends.”
Chen said it’s been difficult to watch her daughter in competition during the pandemic because attendance for guests has been limited.
However, when she’s watching her daughter compete, Chen said it gives her the greatest joy.
“It’s amazing to see her go out there with the skill she has and compete with such a calm mind. To me, she never really seems nervous,” she said.
Huang’s mother isn’t the only one who enjoys watching her fence. Huang’s teammate Sam Marsee, who has known her for three years, said the same.
“It’s been amazing to see her develop and master different techniques,” Marsee said. “I’d say her footwork has been improved the most, to the point where it’s like she’s almost dancing out there.”
Marsee said, with a laugh, that she attributes Huang’s footwork skills to their long hours of playing the video game Just Dance in hotel rooms in away competitions.
Marsee also noted that Huang’s whole personality has changed over the time she’s known her, becoming less shy with every practice she goes to.
According to Huang, with every dance session, every hour of sleep, every prep-meal, every practice and every extra Saturday training pushes her closer and closer to her final goal, becoming the next Junior Olympic fencing gold-medalist.
— By Jacob Chand
Originally published in the Feb. 1 edition of the Octagon.