Fencing sophomore Katelyn Sherry has seen her share of the world. A member of the sabre "A" Circuit of US Fencing, Sherry has been to Italy, Budapest, Germany, Cuba, Spain, France and a host of American cities during her career as a fencer. But no where in the world can compare to the strip she has right here at Penn.
"Penn offered everything I was looking for in a school - the city of Philadelphia, which I love, a feeling of community, a team atmosphere, great coaches. Penn really welcomed me when I came on my visit, both athletically and academically. Once I saw the Quad though, I was sold," Sherry said.
Goal-oriented is a serious characteristic of this student-athlete. Heading into Penn as a freshman, Sherry already had a host of fencing accolades she was ranked seventh in the junior national rankings and 10th on the senior national rankings; she represented the U.S. on the World Cup circuit; she participated in two Olympic Trials in New York and Cuba; and she was the Under-17 New Jersey state champion in 2002. Because of her pre-college success, Sherry had some definite ideas about where she wanted to be following her rookie season, and through her determination, strong work ethic and passion for the sport and her new school, she was able to achieve every one of them.
Her goals were as follows - help her team win an Ivy title, be named All-Ivy League and earn All-America honors. Rather lofty for a first-year student-athlete at any school, no less one that has a history of being a fencing power. Nonetheless, Sherry was determined and that in turn brought excellent results. Her story was not one of ease though as her favorite place became her worst nightmare literally overnight.
"I made a wrong turn on Locust Walk and dislocated my knee cap," Sherry explained. "I guess the fourth time was the charm. I had injured it three times and had surgery to correct it when I was a junior in high school and then I did it again the Wednesday before the Columbia meet (which was to decide the Ivy League championship). The ambulance asked me if I had anxiety problems because I kept saying, 'this is not happening.' I was more upset that it happened, than I was in pain.
"The news was not good. I went to the doctor and he said I was going to be in an immobilizer for three weeks. I went home and the doctor wanted to start intense physically therapy right after resting it for a little while. I told him that I HAD to fence this weekend. He told me to get going then. So I got on the bike and started to get some of my mobility back.
"I brought my crutches on the road trip to Cornell [where Penn was fencing Columbia] and had to wear a brace," Sherry continued. "Because I had had this knee injury before, once I start competing and my adrenaline starts going, I have learned how to block out pain. The worst part was the start of warm up. I had to go slowly and get all my muscles warm or I wouldn't be able to fence."
And fence she did. Sherry went 2-1 against Columbia to help Penn clinch at least a share of the 2004 Ivy title before the Quakers defeated Cornell to be the lone Ivy League champion. The victory, for both herself and the team, was as bittersweet as they come.
"My main focus was helping the team win the Ivy title. I knew I had the whole summer to rebuild my knee, so I was very focused on finishing the season strong," Sherry said. "It was really exciting winning the championship. As a team, we fought really hard. I don't think Columbia thought we believed in ourselves and we caught them a little by surprise. Not only that, I think everyone on the team stepped up and really performed."
But Sherry and her teammates were not done yet. The Quakers moved onto postseason competition and captured the program's first Intercollegiate Fencing Association (IFA) title before finishing fourth, the highest finish of any Ivy League team, at the NCAA Championships. The team also finished the season ranked fourth in the nation by the United States Fencing Coaches Association (USFCA).
So the question remained, "How was she able to accomplish her goals while sporting a dislocated knee cap?" Easy. Mind over matter.
"Fencing is considered physical chess," Sherry stated. "A lot of what I wanted to improve on in college was thinking about what I was going to do. A five-touch bout (which is what they use at NCAAs) is very easy to lose, but also very easy to win. I knew I couldn't just be physical; I also needed to think about each move."
Sherry has truly committed herself to this sport, which includes her having to give up many other things in life to pursue her goals, but she also feels that fencing has given a lot back to her as well. When she decided to get serious about the sport, a friend told Sherry that she needed to be coached by the best, so she sought out the best - United States Olympic Coach Yuri Gelman, who teaches at the New York Fencing Club.
Impressed? She’s not quite done yet. Two of Sherry’s good friends won medals at the Olympics, including her roommate on the circuit, who went straight to Notre Dame following the Games. And although Sherry herself decided to forgo training to make the Olympic team to focus on her education and collegiate fencing career at Penn, she worked that summer on the Olympic Fencing public relations
campaign to help the general public understand that there’s more to the sport of fencing then “sword-fighting.”
"I think fencing is more of a mental sport than some other athletics," Sherry explained. "There is a lot more depth to fencing. It's difficult to grasp what exactly is going on while watching fencing. You really have to make the effort to involve yourself in the sport - even my parents are still a little confused about what is going on. I think they did a really good job in the Olympics about explaining the sport of fencing and the idea of having the right of way in the attack.”
Are you tired yet? The average person may find Sherry’s lifestyle to be exhausting - spending hours each day in class and then practicing or competing for hours each week. Luckily, this perky brunette continues to be up for the challenge.
“I expected coming to an Ivy League school that it would be a challenge,” Sherry explained. “This semester I am particularly busy with five classes. Fortunately, I find that running around and fitting everything in is very doable. Coach is very understanding about practice; he believes that school always comes first and he practices what he preaches. He does a phenomenal job of selling Penn to recruits. Any fears that I had, he really made me feel comfortable that I could succeed academically and athletically here.”
And succeed she has. Sherry looks to improve upon her seventh- place finish at the 2004 NCAAs after helping her team win another Ivy League title and another IFA championship. She’s in even better shape this season, but will continue to use the mantra that has already helped her engrave her name in the Penn fencing record books - mind over matter.
Written by Carla Zighelboim, director of athletic communications