Susie Scanlan: Made to hold a blade

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2012 - 6:48 AM

Once a girl simply seeking a good swordfight, St. Paul's Susie Scanlan figures to find plenty in London.

Not long after Susie Scanlan earned her way into the London Olympics, someone reminded her coach of a prediction he made in 2004. Scanlan was only 14 then, but Ro Sobalvarro believed she would make the U.S. Olympic fencing team in 2012.

Sobalvarro doesn't recall saying it, but he is more than happy to lay claim to that moment of clairvoyance. And in all honesty, he said, he wasn't exactly going out on a limb. Scanlan first showed up at his Twin Cities Fencing Club when she was 9, a neighborhood kid looking for a swordfight. In her feisty attitude, strong will and bottomless appetite for practice, Sobalvarro could see the makings of a world-class fencer.

Scanlan, though, never envisioned things turning out this way. Even now, as she prepares for her Olympic debut, she seems happily astonished by where fencing has taken her. The graduate of St. Paul's Central High School has trained and competed in countries all over the world, becoming an international medalist with the U.S. women's epee team and an All-America fencer at Princeton.

None of those things were in her sights when she first picked up a weapon, intrigued by the swashbuckling in movies such as "The Princess Bride" and "The Parent Trap." Nor did she anticipate competing in the individual and team events in women's epee at the London Olympics. In fulfilling the vision Sobalvarro had for her years ago, Scanlan remains the same as she ever was: a spirited, driven young woman who relishes a good fight.

"It's just really fun," said the 22-year-old Scanlan, who took a leave from Princeton to pursue an Olympic berth. "It's easy to dress it up as a sport, but you're swordfighting! Come on! It's a huge adrenaline rush.

"When I started fencing, I really liked it. But I didn't expect this to happen 12 or 13 years later."

Sobalvarro saw plenty of evidence that it could. The head coach of his St. Paul club, he recalled when Scanlan shattered a knuckle on her hand in gym class as a high school freshman. Though her doctor had not cleared her to resume fencing practice, she told Sobalvarro she had gotten permission -- and told her unsuspecting mother she was at a friend's house, so she could sneak off to the club and spend hours perfecting her footwork.

That determination is balanced by a fun-loving personality that has made Scanlan a favorite on the international fencing circuit. In February, on the day she laid claim to an Olympic berth with her performance at a Grand Prix event in Budapest, Hungary, Sobalvarro received high-fives from a global crowd of coaches and athletes who had gathered around the strip to cheer for her.

"She's funny, outgoing, accepting and friendly," said Sobalvarro, a longtime coach for USA Fencing's national teams. "Then when she fences, she is a wolverine. She has a lot of belief in herself, and she kept accomplishing things. She's rarely let herself get down and stay down; it's just not in her. I still don't know how good she's going to get."

The long haul

When her daughter asked to try fencing, Ann Scanlan knew it would not be a passing phase. Susie was very persistent, and competitive to a fault.

"Even as a wee child, if she lost a game, she wanted to play again," Scanlan said.

Ann set out two conditions: Susie would have to find a club, and it had to be near their home. The Twin Cities Fencing Club -- hidden in the basement of a small apartment building on the corner of Holly Avenue and Grotto Street -- fit the bill.

Soon, Susie quit her traveling basketball team to put all of her considerable energy into fencing. Sobalvarro noticed that in contrast to many kids who try to avoid practice, Scanlan couldn't get enough of it. She developed excellent footwork and flexibility to complement her natural quickness, giving her the physical tools to begin competing in national tournaments by age 12.

The emotional tools would require more time to develop. Her competitive streak frequently veered into hotheadedness, causing her to lose her cool and attack opponents without regard to tactics or strategy.

"If someone rattled me, I would get so riled up I'd stop thinking and just go down the strip and cream them with the blade," Scanlan recalled. "I had to learn to control my temper and take a more analytical approach."

Swordfighting, she discovered, was a lot more fun when it wasn't powered by anger. It became even more fun when she made her first national team in 2006. By her sophomore year of high school, Scanlan was traveling regularly to Europe to train and compete.

She entered Princeton as one of the country's best young epeeists, part of the U.S. teams that won gold in 2008 and silver in 2009 at the junior world championships. But Scanlan eventually had to make a difficult choice. She was doing homework on buses in Bratislava and in hotels in Qatar. During finals week of her freshman year at Princeton, she stayed up until 4 a.m. to finish a paper before flying to China -- only to be detained and quarantined upon her arrival, with her exhaustion misjudged as swine flu. With the 2012 Olympics becoming a realistic goal, something had to give.

"In fencing, it's important that you have no distractions," said Zoltan Dudas, Scanlan's coach at Princeton. "If in the back of your mind, you're thinking about the exam you have next week, that's a lot of distraction. And Susie did not want her academics to suffer. Ro, Susie and I all agreed it was not possible for her to be in school and qualify for the Olympics."

Scanlan decided to take two years off from school, beginning in the spring of 2011. She splits her domestic training time between St. Paul and the New York City area, where she continues to work with Prince- ton coaches and athletes. In addition to practicing her fencing skills, she bikes, lifts weights and runs, devoting five to six hours a day to workouts every day except Sunday.

Sobalvarro said Scanlan is intelligent and fearless with her epee in hand, and fellow fencer and friend Camille Provencal-Dayle said she believes her drive sets her apart.

"A lot of people quit when it gets hard," Provencal-Dayle said. "Susie knows the work you have to put in, and she's willing to do it. She knows what she wants. And she will fight for it."

Final push

Scanlan got her sternest test in late 2011 and early 2012, as she fought for one of the three spots on the U.S. Olympic women's epee team.

"From December until the end of March, I have never felt that kind of stress," she said.

After leaving school, Scanlan learned that training alone would not get her on the team. She needed to feed her soul, she said, to make time for happiness. Just as she did years ago, when she banished the anger from her attitude, she had to remind herself of the fun that drew her into her sport.

All of the American fencers were gripped with anxiety, Sobalvarro said. That led to wildly inconsistent results in many of the 13 tournaments that counted toward Olympic qualifying, and Scanlan stood in seventh place in the U.S. rankings when she traveled to Budapest for a Grand Prix meet in late February.

The only way to get to London, she realized, was to stop thinking about it.

"One morning, it was just the two of us at breakfast," Sobalvarro said. "And she said, 'I need to stop worrying about this. I just need to fence my best and see what happens.' That was a big change for her. And that was the attitude she needed."

In Budapest, she was on top of her game. Scanlan finished 16th, vaulting her into third place. But others still had an opportunity to pass her, which kept her nerves on edge -- until the results of a World Cup event in France a month later locked her into the final Olympic roster spot.

Scanlan gave her mom the news, then stayed up all night telling her friends via the Internet.

"I was just thinking, 'This is really happening,"' she said. "I'd been trying so hard not to think about making the team. It was really exciting to realize I was going to London."

Ann Scanlan never has seen her daughter fence outside the U.S. She will be at the Olympics, along with Susie's dad, three siblings, two grandparents and assorted aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

"It's going to be a big adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Ann said. "She took a big risk by taking the time off from school, but it paid off."

Unlike her coach, Scanlan didn't see it coming. She just wanted a good swordfight. Next week, when she steps onto the Olympic strip, she will be looking for the same thing.

"It's such a fun sport," she said. "I told myself a lot this season that I'm happy with myself. No matter what happens, I love fencing."

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