A Fencer with an Edge | Teachers College Columbia University

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A Fencer with an Edge

For many Olympic athletes, the toughest challenge is to avoid being intimidated by the competition.

Maya Lawrence (M.A. ’05) had to fight her impulse to go make friends.

“I found myself wanting to float around and meet as many people from different countries as possible, but I had to remember to keep my focus,” recalls Lawrence, who helped lead the U.S. women’s fencing team to a first-ever bronze medal in London this past summer.

Education may partly explain that cosmopolitan outlook. Lawrence, who fences épée, grew up in ethnically diverse Teaneck, New Jersey, the daughter of a father who was a sports referee and
a mother who was an art teacher (and also a TC alumna). After majoring in political science at Princeton and receiving her master’s degree in TESOL (the teaching of English to speakers of other languages) from TC, she worked as a language assistant in a high school and taught English to businesspeople. 

Around that time, Lawrence, who didn’t start fencing until she was 15 – significantly later than most Olympians – was also rising rapidly in the women’s épée rankings,
and she needed to train at least four hours a day. With a sponsorship from the U.S.
Fencing Association and the New York Athletic Club, she moved to Paris, where her coach, Daniel Levavasseur, runs an organization called Escrime Sans Frontières, or Fencing
Without Borders.  

Lawrence says her TC degree has helped her not only support herself as an English teacher abroad but also make the jump to living in a foreign country.

“If you’re not used to being in a foreign environment, it can be quite overwhelming,” she says. “I wasn’t scared to go, and the fact that I had previously been surrounded by people from many countries of the world is one reason why.” 

In Paris, Lawrence trained with top fencers from Brazil, Venezuela, Tunisia, Australia, Italy and Cameroon. In the summers, Levavasseur also invites international teams, including the Swedes, the Chinese (who took gold in London), the Koreans and the Russians, to take part in his training camps.

That experience, along with having twice recovered from anterior cruciate ligament injuries, gave Lawrence an extra toughness that served her well in London. The American team was young and less battle-tested than many other teams, having won only a couple of medals in international competition during the run-up to the Olympics. Lawrence – at 32, the second-oldest member of the team – was a steadying influence.

“There are some athletes out there, in fencing specifically, who don’t handle the bad times as well as she has,” says Michael Aufrichtig, the head men’s and women’s fencing coach at Columbia and Chairman of the New York Athletic Club. “When something goes wrong, she doesn’t complain, and she doesn’t find excuses. She just tackles it.”

As it turned out, Lawrence needed to summon all her internal resources. During the individual competition, she drew a first-round bye and won her first match in the second round against Mara Navarria of Italy, but then lost to another Italian, Rossella Fiamingo. “It was hard to bounce back from that,” she admits. “I had to convince myself that, even though I wasn’t happy, it was still the best result I had ever achieved.”

Then came the team competition, and after losing to Korea, the eventual silver medalist, the Americans found themselves facing Russia, a perennial power. Motivated by their presumptive underdog status, Lawrence and her teammates pulled out a victory. “No one expected us to get a medal, so it was really great to come out and show them we could do it,” she says. “Up on the podium, I felt it was just as special for us as it was for the other two teams.”

After a vacation in the south of France, Lawrence was back training by September. Still, she took a break to visit the White House, where, with other Olympic athletes, she met President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President
Joseph Biden.

Might another Olympics be in store? All Lawrence knows is that she would like to compete internationally for at least another year. Her goal is to achieve a solid result at the 2013 World Championships in Budapest next summer.

“I feel that all fencers, and probably all athletes, can’t really let go until they’ve accomplished a lot of the things they want to,” Lawrence says. “I feel like I could keep going until my body gives out. You have to be kind of obsessive and manic to be an athlete. Letting that go and doing something else can be difficult because you have to find out how to replace it.”

Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2012