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The Athena Project: History in the Making

Updated: Mar 7




The following is an edited conversation between Liz Mayerich, co-chair of the WFencing Allies Committee, and Sandra Marchant of Rogue Fencing Academy, one of the lead coaches on the Athena Project. We begin by discussing the first Athena Project camp in December of 2023, and then discuss the upcoming summer camp, scheduled for August 2024. Learn more about this summer’s camp and register here.


So far, the main project of the Allies committee has been to put out blog posts about what allyship looks like in fencing -- different ways that women have been supported by men or that men have supported women -- seeing it from both perspectives. We are working with the end goal of people understanding what it means and what it takes to step up for full inclusion in fencing. Read on to learn more about the ways that the Athena Project is working to build up girls and women in our sport.


Liz: My understanding of the first Athena Project camp is that an all-male coaching staff invited in female coaches, and so I thought that that might be a really good example of allyship. So I wanted to talk about how they approached you, what the mission was, how they supported you, that sort of thing.


Sandra: Sure, sure! So it started out with Michael McTigue. He's at Northwest, one of the coaches there, and he’s on the board. We've been friends since he transferred from the East Coast out to the West Coast. He has two daughters so he knows how it is, as a father and also as a fencing coach. He's seen all the different things that can happen, that have happened, the good and the bad. He called me up and said “Hey, you know we've been friends for years and I think that you're the perfect person for this job,” and I said “What you got cooking?” When he mentioned that he wanted to do something like this I immediately said yes because this has been needed for years. Why has no one done this before? I immediately said, “Sign me up, I want to help.” He said he wants this to leave as a legacy and he wants it to continue procreating along. He said, basically, we will give you the keys to the place, it's yours, and you can lock the doors. And I said, “Hell yeah!” We started brainstorming and he quite honestly had this whole thing already in his head, and it's been ruminating there for quite some time but it was just a matter of bringing it to fruition.


Liz: By “this whole thing” do you mean like a framework for the camp or just the existence of a camp with all female staff?


Sandra: The existence of something left behind for just girls and women, people who identify as women and girls, so that there would be no men/boy influences and that we could speak freely for ourselves because we are very, very different.


Liz: It does sound like something that is needed, you know, I've seen that from my side too. The approach to fencing is different; the approach to coaching is different. Had you worked with Michael before? Y’all knew each other or had coached together?


Sandra: Actually, he was my mentor here on the East Coast. I met him at a fencing competition and we were thrown together on a team by a friend and we immediately hit it off. He is kind of like my big brother figure. Because we were not in the same state but we were both coaches and I was a new coach at the time and he was a seasoned coach, I felt like I could reach out to him because he was easy to talk to. Whenever I had problems or questions he was always willing to help me. When I didn’t have a coach at an event that was a national event, and he was there, he would always come over and give me a hand. When I could, I would take lessons from him. He was super generous with his time, he was honest with his knowledge, and as a friend and a mentor he means the world to me. So for him to even think of me, to call me and say, “Hey, let’s do this,” I was like, “Wow, hell yeah.” Growing up I didn't do fencing; I started when I was 25 and it was hard, a no man's land, but you know as a female, older, coaches were like “eh, whatever,” but I was still driven and wanted this.


Liz: So he said, “We're going to give you the keys.” Then did he give you ideas on who else to recruit or did you go out and recruit Kat Holmes and Delphine DeVore?


Sandra: So he said, you can basically facilitate and be head coach, then grab another epee coach and a foil coach. I said I do have connections with Kat and he’s like, “Great, I do too, and that’s who I thought of!” We do think very much alike. We both reached out to her and as far as the foil coach, quite honestly, we were looking for somebody young that was a coach. I honestly don’t have that many connections with young women coaches and he said, “Do you know Delphine in Connecticut?” and I said, “Actually I do, I’ve watched her grow up in this sport.” So Michael reached out to her and we both reached out to Kat and I was super excited when they both accepted, because I feel like having the young energy from Delphine really helped push the foil girls and having Kat there, I mean, you know, she’s Kat Holmes!


Liz: How old is Delphine?


Sandra: Delphine is in her early 20s. She’s at Columbia and she’s starting her foil career coaching.


Liz: So he reached out to you with the idea, and gave you a lot of control over the format?


Sandra: Oh, yeah! And it was funny because when we came in that Friday night to meet everybody, to do a meet and greet, all the other male coaches were there and each and every one of them were super gracious and they came up to us and they were like, “Hey, you know, we’re really upset; we wanted to be here for this! We wanted to see this! We’re so happy you’re here!” The warm welcome we got was unbelievable. They were super excited and gracious, like, “Man, we wish we could be here,” and we said, “Well, you can look in the windows!”


Liz: That’s awesome. In what ways did Northwest Fencing Center promote the project? Did they promote it to their members, to their list, or did they mostly leave that up to y’all?


Sandra: I put it on my social media –Instagram, Facebook–and Northwest promoted it to their members, put out in emails to their students, and I believe they also put it on Instagram and Facebook, and that was it! And we had 53 athletes fly in from all around the country to attend this weekend clinic with us. It was mind blowing. It was pretty incredible. And it tells me right off the bat, we need to do this. This needs to happen. 


Liz: What was the thing that surprised you most during the winter camp?


Sandra: We had a lot of veteran women sign up. I purposely did not look at the signup sheet. Michael would tell me, we’ve got x amount of people coming, Ok great. I didn’t know how many foil, I didn’t know how many epee, until like the weekend before. Still didn’t look at the name list until I got there. Kind of like when I’m competing, I refuse to look at the list, nationally, until I'm on the plane going there, because I’m so nervous. When I got there, I saw all the veteran women that were coming, and I was like, “Wow!” And they told us, “Thank God you did this, Sandra,” and that just resonated so deep with me. And then we had these young women and young girls who said,we’re here because this is where we want to be. These are our people. I thought that was pretty fantastic.


Liz: What was something that you were looking forward to that was exactly what you hoped it would be?


Sandra: We had lunch discussions! So I wrote out a whole bunch of index cards and I had them at each table and they could look at it and discuss each day. They all had different cards and then the second day we took all the cards and then I had Delphine sit down and she discussed with everybody the other questions that they hadn't heard. And we discussed everything from having hot flashes fencing, having hot flashes coaching, to menopause, to having women coaches vs. male coaches, we talked about everything. And even some of the young girls were like, “wow,” to hear some of the answers, so hopefully we helped them, too.


Liz: That’s awesome, I love that. 


Sandra: Oh! And we also had an incredible person, Lynn Christian, who is a nonbinary person, and they came up to me and - this wasn’t planned, this was organic - they came up to me and said “I think we need to have a pronoun talk.” And I was like, wow, boom, hadn’t thought of that. And I said, “Why don’t you lead this before lunch?” And they did, and that was pretty fantastic too, because we had a few people come out and say “I identify as this, or this, or that.” And it was really good that that happened because I didn’t even think of it.


Liz: I think it is a testament to the atmosphere that Lynn felt comfortable coming forward and saying “this is something that I need.” For Lynn to feel comfortable enough to come up and say “this is what we’re doing” I think that really speaks to what a welcoming atmosphere you guys had.


Sandra: Gosh, that’s the goal, right? That’s the goal, that’s what we want! We want everybody to be able to have a voice, to understand and learn. Us, too! All of us!


Liz: Did you wait until the weekend was over to start discussing the summer, or had you already started planning for the summer event when the winter clinic happened?


Sandra: We started planning the summer event probably a month before the clinic took off. We knew it was gonna be a hit, we knew this was needed. And we knew how much it’s been wanted. 


Liz: Tell me a little more about the process of planning the summer clinic. What did you feel like you wanted to do differently, how did you want to expand it?


Sandra: For the summer clinic we want to have a lot more collaboration. We intend to have four coaches for each weapon. We want to have other coaches come and bring their athletes. We want to discuss everything, I mean everything. We wanna go over how training happens, we wanna go over periodization, we wanna cover everything. And it’s gonna take a week to do it. And we want to have all different ideas, all different angles, because I don’t care what you say, there’s no one right answer for anything. We intend to have four coaches per weapon, athlete presenters, legacy coaches, long-term athlete development, coach development, it’s a cooperative camp, it’s a conference, and it’s going to encompass all three weapons. 


Liz: What has you really excited for the summer? You just told me a lot of really great stuff, but what’s something you’re really, really looking forward to this summer?


Sandra: I’m looking forward to seeing more new faces, I’m looking forward to hearing more viewpoints of women and girls and how we can help change things for the better. Bottom line, like, that’s what we want to do: How do we change things for the better? How do we help people? How do we help these athletes? How do we help these coaches? We need more women coaches, we need more girl mentors. How do we grow them, what do we do? This is the project to get this off the ground. This is the project to visualize to get people involved, to get these athletes involved and to get these athletes involved. How do we make them better?


Liz: Tell me about the process of getting WFencing involved. Because the first round I think WFencing wasn’t involved, so how did that happen? Did you reach out, did Northwest reach out?


Sandra: That is correct, so the first one was not WFencing involved. We had originally talked about all three weapons, but they have clubs close to them which do saber and they didn’t want to put any strain on that relationship by having saber in a winter camp. But for a summer camp, to include it, we knew we’d have to have people from the other fencing center come in and be coaches or presenters. So we talked about other coaches, seasoned coaches, from the United States. And [Michael] was actually at a function with Jen Oldham and the two of them started talking, and that’s how WFencing got involved. 


Liz: Yea, that’s awesome.


Sandra: It’s gonna be a fantastic event. It’s going to be star-studded, we’re gonna have the legacy coaches, we’re gonna have fresh, young, competitive athletes, we’re gonna have veteran athletes, we’re gonna have adult athletes, we’re gonna have coaches  -- all levels – it’s going to be an incredible event.


Liz: So I am not terribly competitive, I’ll do a tournament like once a year, and I coach at kind of a mid-level. Is there a place for someone like me in this camp? Or like a low-level athlete?


Sandra: Of course! If you are a competitive athlete over the age of 12, this will be the camp for you. If you are a mid-level coach, of course! Because this camp is designed to make all of us better. And that would include you! So, absolutely, yes! Yes, yes! We want coaches, we want everyone to learn. We want women and girls to get better. Bottom line, yeah. 


Liz: That sounds awesome.


Sandra: It’s gonna be great energy.


Liz: Ok, I think this wraps up my questions. Is there anything else you feel like people ought to know about the Athena Project?


Sandra: I think we covered pretty much everything. We’re limiting it to about a hundred athletes, so if you’re serious about going, sign up right away. Northwest has been super, super generous about this and I’m so excited WFencing jumped on board because, you know, this is just going to make everything even better.


Liz: Well, thank you so much for talking to me. 


Sandra: Of course, Liz!



 

Sandra Marchant led the first Athena Clinic at NWFC in Portland, OR last December, 2023 with assistant coaches Kat Holmes and Delphine DeVore.  She is currently the Head Coach/Co-Owner Rogue Fencing Academy in Woodbridge, CT.  Her students include Youth fencers, Veterans, and National Champions.  Sandra has been part of several Veteran Women's Epee World Teams, winning Gold in 2022.  A part of the WFencing Professional Development Committee since its start -- and a leader of the first WFencing Summer Colloquium in 2022 -- Coach Marchant always can be counted on to be a lively leader and collaborator in virtual or face-to-face settings!


Liz Mayerich is an owner and coach at Houston Sword Sports in Houston, Texas, and co-chair of the WFencing Allies Committee. She is an epee fencer, a USFCA prévôt in epee and foil, and has been known to run a decent first saber class. She has an epee fencing husband, an epee fencing mother, a saber fencing older daughter, and a younger daughter who wields a mighty foam sword.


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