En Garde!: The Fencers of Penn Engineering

By Patricia Hutchings

Senior Akshay Malhotra (center) pumps up Penn Fencing. He is one of several Engineering students on the team, including senior Alexandre Amice, sophomores Kristina Khaw and Jerry Wu, and freshman Enzo Bergamo. (Photos courtesy of Penn Athletics)

What were the chances? Captivated by a fencing demonstration at his elementary school in St. Louis, MO, an American-born son of French parentage went straight home and announced his desire to learn the sport. Meanwhile, an internationally recognized fencer, who had once coached the Egyptian National team, had settled in St. Louis and was busy making plans to establish a fencing club there. Two dreams collided: The Fencers Academy of St. Louis took shape and the boy learned to fence, and to fence well. Meet Alexandre Amice (BSE’20, MSE’20).

Amice’s passion for the sport remained strong throughout high school, and the year he walked on to the Penn Fencing Team as a freshman engineering student, he was voted by the captains and coaches as Most Dedicated Fencer.

Of the three types of fencing swords: the épée, the foil and the sabre, Amice’s weapon of choice is the light and flexible foil. In foil bouts, the target area for scoring touches is limited to the torso, requiring the fencers to remain closely engaged and in constant motion. Amice characterizes his fencing style as “athletic,” with his build and skillset well-matched with his weapon.

Amice cites his measured and deliberate competition strategy as useful in his intellectual life. As he concurrently works toward his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and mathematics and a master’s in robotics, Amice clearly is not one to waste energy.

The sabre is the weapon of choice for Penn World Scholar and freshman electrical engineering major, Enzo Bergamo. At an early age, he determined the discipline of sabre fencing to be “the cool one,” with its reputation for quickness, aggression, slashing touches and split-second decision making. Compared in speed and spirit to Formula 1 racing by Olympic sabre fencer Daryl Homer, the target area for the discipline is the entire torso, the head, and the arms up to the wrist.

Andy Ma, Penn’s head fencing coach, also serves as sabre coach, and Bergamo feels fortunate to be able to work with him one-on-one in lessons once or twice a week. After twelve years of high-level fencing in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Bergamo attributes his renewed love for the sport to Ma’s influence and attentive demeanor. For Bergamo, being able to face down frustration and maintain physical and emotional balance are valuable attributes, with or without a sword in his hand.

Bergamo notes that he and his teammates are known as “student athletes,” not “athlete students,” and, with an electrical engineering concentration in data science and a minor in computer and information science, he envisions a master’s degree in his future. Bergamo’s overarching goal, he states, is “making a positive impact in my home country.”

At 5’3,” Kristina Khaw, a sophomore bioengineering major, fences with the épée, the largest and heaviest of fencing swords. Bouts in épée have been described as “aggressive defensive,” and points can be scored with touches anywhere on the body. Fencers train especially hard to perfect their skills in counter moves.

Obeying her mother’s directive to put her books aside in favor of exercise now and again, Khaw followed her sister, Kathryn (ENG’19), onto the fencing strip. She admits that, as a seventh grader, her greatest incentive to take up the sport was watching Kathryn delightedly stab their cousin with impunity in club practice.

As Khaw describes it, the muscle memory to succeed in épée came easily to her. Her stats provide proof: From the USA Fencing Nationals in the summer of her high school sophomore year, Khaw brought back to her Plainsboro, NJ, home the title of Division ll Women’s Épée Champion. Other notable wins and honors followed.

Khaw is a problem solver by nature and believes that her strategizing as a fencer creates new brain connections, enhancing her ability to think about things in new ways. Accordingly, she finds myriad applications of her athletic training to her life as a Penn Engineer.

“One touch at a time” is Khaw’s fencing mantra and, as she continues her studies on the pre-med track, her calm and logic will undoubtedly inform her journey.

Read the full story on the Penn Engineering blog.