BY KATHY CHANG
WOODBRIDGE – Dagmara Wozniak didn’t even know what fencing was when her father enrolled her in her first class at the age of 9.
She found out fast. She fell in love with the sport on the first day.
“But once I started, I got addicted to it,” Wozniak said. “It was just something about people hitting other people with metal sticks.”
Wozniak has come a long way since then. But her dream of making the United States’ fencing team for the 2008 Olympics seemed far away when Wozniak, now 18, sprained her ankle last year.
“I thought for sure it was all over,” she said. “I missed competitions for two months. I went from third place to eighth place.”
But with the encouragement of her coach, teammates and family, Wozniak didn’t give up.
“I worked hard and managed to climb up from eighth place to fourth,” said Wozniak. “For the world championships in April, a team of three goes to the competition, and a fourth is for the alternate.”
As Wozniak was getting ready to go to the world championships as the alternate, she got a break.
“The third-place fencer hurt herself,” said Wozniak. “I was fortunate to step in.”
There are three types of fencing: saber, foil and epee.
“I started out with epee, but my current coach switched me to saber,” said Wozniak. “The targeted areas are from the belt and above. It involves fast hacking moves. Competitions last less than a minute.”
Wozniak graduated from Colonia High School in June. She heads to St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., this fall on a full athletic scholarship. She will compete in NCAA Division 1 fencing as well as outside competitions.
“If this year goes well in the competitions, then next year I will take a leave from school and train for the Olympics,” she said.
Wozniak’s coach, Yury Gelman, says her chance for making the U.S. fencing Olympic team in 2008 looks promising.
“I think if she can handle school and the traveling, she can make the Olympic games,” said Gelman, who has coached Wozniak since 2003. “She is a hard worker and wants to be the best.”
Gelman is the men’s national saber team coach, a two-time Olympic fencing team coach, and the head fencing coach at St. John’s University.
“She deserves this,” he said. “Some people are not willing to sacrifice their personal time, and she has.”
Wozniak started out at the Polish Fencing Academy in Clark, which is now the Polish American Fencing School in Linden.
“I was there for six years,” she said. “It was an amazing beginning. But I realized if I wanted to move up, I had to make a move.”
Wozniak joined the New York Fencers Club in Manhattan when she was 14. The club, which began in 1893, is the oldest fencing club in the United States.
“Yury Gelman, my coach, actually came up to me at one of the competitions when I was with the other academy and asked me to consider joining the club,” she said. “I compete worldwide. I have traveled to Italy, Hungary, Poland, Georgia, Korea and California, and many other places this year.”
Wozniak travels to the club in Manhattan to train four days a week – Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday – year-round.
“When I started at the club [beginning of her sophomore year], it wasn’t too bad because my classes weren’t too bad,” she said. “But my senior year was hard. Managing advanced placement English, advanced placement psychology, training and fencing competitions was not easy. I missed many school days and I had to catch up.
“I would come home from school around 2:30 p.m., eat, and start some of my homework,” she said. “Then I would have to be on the train by 4:30 p.m. and I wouldn’t get out until 10 or 10:30 p.m. Then, I would have to study and finish my homework. I would only get four hours of sleep.”
Her family – father Gregory, mother Irena and sister Zuzana – are proud of Wozniak.
“We are so proud of her, she is doing very well,” said Gregory. “It’s important she stays busy rather than deal with drugs and other stupid things. The sport has given her discipline and she’s more quiet. She is very independent. She’s been traveling all over since she was 15.”
Wozniak’s family would love to travel with her, but it’s too expensive, her father said.
“Before, we would travel a lot with her, but it’s getting too expensive,” said Gregory. “The last time we traveled with her was to the summer nationals last year in California, which lasted for a week. It was a nice vacation for us.”
Wozniak made the American National Fencing Team for women’s saber under the age of 19 this year for the second time.
“I placed seventh in the individual tournament and first in the team event,” she said.
She competed on the American National Fencing Team for women’s saber under the age of 16 in Linz, Austria, in March 2005.
Wozniak is currently in second place on the junior national ranking list, fourth place in the junior world ranking list, and fifth place on the senior national ranking list.
“We compete all over the United States, and then the best compete overseas,” she said.
Wozniak’s next competition is in Odessa, Ukraine, on Sept. 2.