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Fierce Fencers: An interview with two SFU students gunning for a gold

Marie-Rose Bruskiewicz and Isaac Velestuk say it’s time for SFU to grow its list of varsity sports

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In late May, two SFU student athletes earned bronze medals at the 2016 Canadian Fencing Federation’s National Championships in the University Division.

If you’ve never heard about SFU’s fencing team before, it’s because we don’t actually have one. In fact, even as Marie-Rose Bruskiewicz and Isaac Velestuk stood up on the podium to represent SFU, the university was completely unaware of the talent in their halls, and the achievements that were being earned under their name.

The Peak itself might have never uncovered the story of these two athletes if it hadn’t been for the determination of Marie-Rose, Isaac, and their coach, Jonathan Hutchinson, to make their story known. I sat down with the trio to discuss fencing, life lessons, and hidden talent at SFU.

The beginnings

If you were to see Bruskiewicz, Velestuk, and Hutchinson sitting together around a table at a coffee shop, the comfort and ease they share would lead you to assume they had been lifelong friends. Even the three fencers themselves attest that it feels like they’ve known each other forever — even though it’s only been two years.

The three are all at various stages of their SFU careers. Velestuk will begin studying economics at SFU this upcoming fall, while Bruskiewicz is currently attending SFU as a kinesiology major; meanwhile, Hutchinson was in the criminology program at SFU three years ago, but after taking a kinesiology course that got him interested in coaching, he transferred to Douglas College to study sports science.

Bruskiewicz and Hutchinson met while both attending the university. “We met through residence,” Bruskiewicz said. The two started dating shortly after meeting, and six months into their relationship, Bruskiewicz began her fencing career.

Hutchinson and Velestuk met through Dynamo Fencing Club in Richmond, where they both competed. Velestuk got his start in fencing thanks to his mother, through a deal at their local club where parents got to fence for free if their children fenced as well. “I did two years of fencing so my mom could go for free,” he joked. Ultimately, it was the environment and the friends he made in the fencing community that made him stick around.

Bruskiewicz had competed in a multitude of sports in her life, including competitive figure skating and soccer, both of which she was becoming serious about at the time. She first tried fencing as a way to learn more about her boyfriend’s world. “[Jonathan] had his club on the Sunshine Coast, and so I decided to try it out,” she explained. “He thought it would be funny to watch his girlfriend try to fence.”

But it soon became apparent to Bruskiewicz that fencing was unlike any other sport she had played: “What draws you initially into the sport is the uniqueness of it,” she said. “I didn’t take it very seriously at first [. . .] but what keeps you in the sport is its competitive nature. It’s the most challenging sport I’ve ever taken up.”

“Masters of fencing, masters of life”

While pauses in the interview were always punctuated with jokes and laughter, there was a certain intensity that grew in the group as they explained their passion to me.

Hutchinson elaborated on how fencing stands apart from other sports: “[In combat sports], when the risk of losing is getting knocked out, you train very hard,” he pointed out. “[In fencing], if you lost, you would get hurt, stabbed, killed [. . .] That’s what factors into the brutal training. Strength, conditioning, and sprinting until you puke — that mentality bleeds into a lot of different training sessions.”

Bruskiewicz vehemently nodded her head at this, testifying to the brutal training sessions she’s been subjecting herself to since she began fencing.

“I was the only girl [at the club],” she explained. “Before [Jonathan] would teach me any fencing technique, he said, ‘We need to get you strong.’”

Perhaps the pinnacle of their training sessions would be what the group called “Mount Everest.” Mount Everest lives up to its name, and it goes something like this: you start with one sprint, three push-ups, three jumps, and three sit-ups. And then you double it and do it again. You keep doubling the routine until you’ve gone up to a rep that includes 32 sprints, 96 push-ups, 96 jumps, and 96 sit-ups. And then you go back to one sprint and three of each.

“When I started, I would do the mini version,” said Bruskiewicz. “I couldn’t keep up with the boys. But eventually I did.

“I started with knee push-ups, and now I can do 100 regular push-ups. I’m so much stronger than I ever was before. Mentally stronger, too.”

Fencing, for Bruskiewicz, is the most stressful endeavour she’s ever pursued. Her experience in competitive figure skating, soccer, and academics — another important part of her identity — pales in comparison.

“I was always so nervous coming into my first year of finals,” she recalled. “I wouldn’t be able to think straight. But there’s nothing more stressful than being down one point with 10 seconds on the clock in fencing. It teaches you to compose yourself.

“Finals are nothing anymore. I handle them like a champ,” she grinned.

“You’re not destined to become an Olympic athlete just because you started training [before] me” – Marie-Rose Bruskiewicz

Velestuk related to the mental control that fencing has allowed him to develop: “Outside of this competitive environment, I’d never have learned how to beat someone mentally in just 15 minutes.”

For Hutchinson, fencing led to him building his strongest relationships. Despite growing up in a very small community, he’s kept in touch with only a single person from that community. But to this day, he remains friends with the six or seven people he trained with, day in and day out, at the Dynamo Fencing Club — one of whom was Velestuk.

For Hutchinson and Bruskiewicz, balancing their romantic relationship with their professional one hasn’t always been an easy task. “It was tough at first,” Bruskiewicz confessed. When your boyfriend becomes your coach, it’s safe to assume there will be an adjustment period. When asked how they managed to make both partnerships work, Bruskiewicz and Hutchinson shared with me the concept of ‘the coaching cap.’ On a trip to Alaska, Hutchinson purchased a baseball cap. This cap is now how the two distinguish when Hutchinson is speaking to her as a mentor or as a boyfriend. When he puts on that cap, he means business. But when the cap comes off, she can turn to him for emotional support. “It can be tough to hear that you let your emotions get the better of you in a competition,” Hutchinson continued. But he stressed how valuable that feedback is. Hutchinson joked that sometimes Bruskiewicz just needs a hug before he puts on the cap and gives her technical critiques.

Despite hiccups in the beginning, the two are every bit as happy together now as they were when they first started dating.

Olympic aspirations

When describing the intense training sessions he prepped for his players, Hutchinson threw out phrases such as “high-performance athletes” and “dedication to reach the Olympic level.” When I inquired further into these notions, asking if Bruskiewicz and Velestuk were genuinely working towards fencing in the Olympics, I barely had a chance to finish my sentence before Velestuk responded.

“Yes,” he declared. “Having a good coach, working hard, financial hurdles, a healthy body and mind . . . I think those are all hurdles I can overcome. There are going to be challenges, but [if] I weren’t to make an effort, I’d feel like I was surrendering.

“If I’m [aiming for the Olympics], it’s because I can’t see myself stopping [fencing].”

Bruskiewicz added her own perspective on the Olympic-level dreams: “Olympians used to feel like celebrities to me, like ‘untouchables.’ But I was reading The Champion’s Mind once which said, ‘If you can spot greatness in others, you have greatness in yourself.’ And two years down the road, and I have a national medal which I’m very proud of.

“I have a lot left to do,” she admitted, “but I’m catching up, and I feel I’m on that path.

“You’re not destined to become an Olympic athlete just because you started training [before] me. It’s the hours and hours of deliberate practice that you put yourself through, that I believe I’m putting myself through, the mentality, you need to be hard-working and have that drive, and constantly make sacrifices,” she said.

SFU’s golden opportunity

It was made clear to me that one of the main reasons these three superstar athletes were so eager to sit down with The Peak was to raise awareness about their sport and get acknowledgement from the SFU community.

“We want to start a varsity team or club,” declared Bruskiewicz.

Velestuk, deemed the brains of the operation, mentioned that the research he’s been doing has led him to the conclusion that they could “easily start a club.” Getting into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is another issue entirely. “We wouldn’t be able to go to NCAA-sanctioned events,” he clarified. “But we could create and attend club competitions.”

At the minimum level, the athletes are urging SFU to provide training space and minor funding for basic equipment for training. In addition, Bruskiewicz and Velestuk want fencers at SFU to be recognized as athletes of the university, so as to receive similar academic accommodations as other SFU sports teams. They’re also hoping to gain financial support to have their coaches accompany them to their tournaments.

This year, Hutchinson was unable to pay for his ticket to the championships. “So our SFU student didn’t have her coach, the person who trained her. I ended up coaching her on Skype between rounds,” he said.

Bruskiewicz recounted an experience she had trying to secure a place to train as an independent party. She believed there to be a lack of cooperation: “I tried to rent out the squash court for one-on-one lessons with my coach, but [SFU Athletics] wouldn’t allow it.” For her, communication with SFU Athletics was not as easy as she was hoping. “So I tried a classroom, but the floors were too slippery. Eventually I found the Forum Chambers, and now I go there from 9 p.m. to midnight,” she added.

“We want to start a varsity team or club.” – Marie-Rose Bruskiewicz

For Bruskiewicz, currently attending SFU, and Velestuk, looking forward to attending SFU next year, just the commute to and from the university and their training studio drastically cuts into both their training and their studying time.

“Last term, my class ended at 3:20. I’d be carrying my fencing gear around school all day. And then I’d jump on transit for two hours to my fencing studio, and then two hours back,” recalled Bruskiewicz.

“That was four hours total on a regular school night. Four times a week.”

Hutchinson provided his perspective on the matter as a coach: “[Marie-Rose and Isaac] are high-performance athletes. They are unable to train, in my opinion, in a way that high-performance professionals train because of the travel time here and stuff like that.”

By creating an environment that nurtures fencing at SFU, the trio argued that the university could be taking advantage of the wealth of untapped fencing talent present in the Lower Mainland.

Bruskiewicz spoke about her fencing peers at Dynamo — “people on national teams,” interjected Hutchinson — who are interested in SFU, but dismayed at the lack of fencing opportunity. Velestuk corroborated her experiences by attesting to the multiple athletes who relocated to the States to fence in the NCAA.

Hutchinson passionately described his vision for SFU: “This place is such a wealth of talent, and has future potential for Olympians. When I talk to guys that I train with, they say the best wrestlers come from SFU. In half a second, the best fencers could come from SFU. Olympic medalists could come from SFU.”

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