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Caroline Purcell

Balancing Academics and Athletics

By Susan M. Buchman

Eleven years ago, Caroline M. Purcell ’02 took up fencing almost by chance -- she was just tagging along with her older brother. Nine years later, she was the U.S. National Champion in Women’s Sabre.

Her success had began long before then, however, and has continued since. She is one of the country’s top-ranked Junior Female Saberist and is ranked sixth in the nation overall.

Most notably, in addition to her national championship, she has won the 1998 Junior Olympic Championship, and she just returned from the 1999 Junior Pan-American Games as champion.

The Tech: When did you first become interested in fencing?

Caroline M. Purcell: I started fencing when I was about 11 years old, so about eight years ago. My brother started fencing about two years before I did. He started with a bunch of his friends, so I tried it out, and I enjoyed doing it. I started fencing foil, but I eventually switched to sabre after trying epee out for a few months. I’ve been doing Sabre ever since--and enjoying it thoroughly [editor’s note: the goal of foil is to hit the torso, the goal of epee is to hit anywhere on the body, and the goal of sabre is to hit the upper body].

The Tech: How often do you train?

Purcell: When I first started practicing, I was only doing it for a couple hours a week, usually once a week. Later I practiced more frequently: two summers ago, I was fencing four times a week, for a couple of hours a practice, and then I would work out after practice -- weights, sprints, etc. The club I started fencing at held practices on those four nights, but I didn’t always get to practice, especially when I was at school. I played soccer in the fall, and I fenced Foil at school -- during those seasons, I got went to my club to fence at least once a week. Practices here are the same as other varsity sports -- 5 days a week, 2 hours a practice, but I’m always hanging around the room, fencing after practice, getting individual lessons from the coach, and teaching new fencers. I probably put about three hours a day into fencing.

The Tech: How has your training changed as you’ve become more successful?

Purcell: I’d definitely say that my practice time has increased as I’ve become more successful. But then again, I don’t think I would have become that successful if I didn’t increase my practice time. Also, my interest in the sport increased as I learned more about it.

The Tech: Is there anything that has played a large role in your success that is unique to MIT?

Purcell: I love the team here at MIT. I’d never really had the team experience that MIT offers me. Each one of my teammates is super-supportive, which makes me want to do twice as well as I had done before.

Also, our coach here is absolutely fantastic. He has turned people who had never fenced before into NCAA competitors in four years. There are about seven guys at my club at home who started about six years ago, who still have bad footwork, and a horrible attitude about fencing. Jarek has formed us into a solid, hardworking group, which is really apparent by the quality of fencing that can be observed in our fencing room every day at practice.

The only problem with MIT is the lack of space that we have to deal with, but that is because we have a large team, which is good in the long run, so it isn’t really a problem.

The Tech: Do you have a rival, someone you are constantly challenged by?

Purcell: We do have some really good sabre fencers -- men’s sabre though, because the women are still learning. Our captain, Evan E. won the Division 2 Nationals this past summer. He always keeps me on my toes while I’m fencing him. Also, one of our alums, who is presently the Women’s sabre coach, has repeatedly demonstrated correct parries on me during our bouts together.

The Tech: A lot of people feel that it’s hard to be serious about something non-academic at MIT due to time constraints. Is this the case for you? Have you ever had to decide between academics and fencing --for example, choosing between attending an important meet or getting extra lab time to complete an assignment?

Purcell: I wouldn’t actually skip a meet to do work, but I have skipped practice quite a few times. For me, fencing has been a huge part of my life -- I go to practice just like I would go to classes, and I attend meets like they are tests. Just as I wouldn’t skip class unless I had something very important to do, I wouldn’t skip practice unless there was nothing else I could do; I know my limits. Usually, though, if it is a choice between academics and fencing, academics will win.

The Tech: You’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling abroad through fencing (France, Brazil). Do you have time to enjoy this, or are you kept busy be the tournaments?

Purcell: This depends on how much time I actually have at the tournament. Last year I went away to competitions for the weekend, which basically meant that I would get in on Friday morning or afternoon, I’d get about a half a day of rest and then I’d have to fence Saturday and Sunday. As they were in Europe, I had to deal with extreme time changes. Basically, I’d stay up until about 8 p.m. local time, and of course I wouldn’t get much sleep on the plane, so it was very hard to stay awake, when it would be so easy to just crawl into bed, crash. Wake up the next morning and fence.

I used the time while I was trying to stay awake to look around the area where I was staying. I went on tours of the cities and towns where I was; sometimes I went shopping. There was usually time after the competition on Saturday and sometimes on Sunday too. I made sure I got some understanding of the culture I was immersed in -- otherwise, what’s the point of being in another country.

But when I’m fencing with a team, we are at the mercy of the manager sent by the United States and the other officials sent to take care of us, and they tend to not give us too much freedom.