Bergen Tech fencing
ATHLETICS AND ACADEMICS COMBINE FOR A BRIGHT FUTURE
Gianni Natale once finished a health essay squeezed underneath a scorers table. Dana Chou once crammed for a biology test while being crammed by bags of equipment – and knees and legs - in the middle of a moving school bus.
“It wasn’t my favorite moment, nor was it comfortable, but it’s something that I’ll look back on and laugh about,” Chou says.
Welcome to the Bergen Tech fencing program.
“Obviously, for my program, academics always come first,” Bergen Tech fencing coach A.J. Safavi says. “Any time one of my kids says something about academics, I know what it’s like, because if your academics are successful here, you will have a successful future.”
Bergen Tech is comprised of three separate campuses in Hackensack, Teterboro and Paramus. The school in Hackensack is called the Bergen County Academies or just “the Academies,” where the courses are a bit more specialized. Students have to pass an entrance exam to get in to any of the schools and pass three different interviews.
On the strip, the Knights are one of New Jersey’s deepest and most talented teams. In just its ninth season as a varsity program last winter, the boys squad won the Bergen County championship. The Knights girls program won the district championship and finished third at states.
Away from the gym, the course load is staggering. Natale, a senior, is taking Engineering Capstone, Advanced Electrical Engineering and something called Linear Algebra Differential Equations. But don’t worry – he says he’s lightened his workload in comparison to his junior year.
“I don’t study just for the sake of getting the A,” says Natale, who lives in Allendale. “I study to actually learn and apply the subject material for use in life. If as a student you are interested in the majority of what you’re studying, like me, you would spend way more than just enough time doing that work.”
Chou also made the joke about reducing her studies for her senior year. She’s only taking AP Statistics and AP Psychology, while also interning at Alfalfa Studio, a creative design firm in New York City.
“My workload really varies from day to day although one thing for certain is that my bedtime is never early,” says Chou, who lives in Upper Saddle River. “Students here are always flooded with papers, labs, projects, studying, and for me personally, a huge additional amount of hefty art assignments.”
They both kind of fell into fencing, which is made of up three distinctive weapons: epee, saber and foil. Natale prefers the foil and was 10th in the state last season with that instrument. Chou uses the saber and will be a team captain this winter.
Natale was originally interested in the sport because his mother did it in college and, you know, it was kind of cool being in middle school and running around with swords. Chou had done Taekwondo for seven years but wanted to be involved in a sport in high school. She wanted to try something new so she joined the Bergen Fencing Club.
Even Safavi is relatively new to the sport. He was a volleyball player in high school and college, but also had a martial arts background. He was at first a volunteer coach at Bergen Tech, but his knowledge of the sport began to deepen and he was named the head coach in 2011.
With so many talented kids at his disposal, Safavi tries to take a relaxed approach. There are no practices on Saturdays. If someone needs time to study for a test, they are excused (the school also excuses all kids who participate in a varsity sport from having to take daily physical education). Safavi keeps things light, focusing on fundamentals and creating a sense of unity and togetherness.
“A lot of times I don’t know how these kids do it,” Safavi says. “I’ve had three jobs at the same time. These kids are waking up at 5:30, 6 a.m. to get on a bus to go to school, sit in on lectures, then for the athletes, after they are done with school, they come to practice, get on a bus, go back home, eat, get washed up and then they do homework. On average, the kids go to bed at 2 a.m., I bet. It’s insane.”
So, we’ve established these kids are intelligent. Former Bergen Tech fencers have gone on to Notre Dame, Yale, Princeton, Brown and MIT, just to name a few, but does being smart help them compete? They say yes.
“Fencing has been called ‘physical chess’ by a lot of people, and I totally agree with that,” Natale says. “I think that a certain level of physical strength, from learning and reaction time is necessary to become a fencer. Beyond that, the strategy is all upstairs. When I’m on the strip, I’m anticipating what my opponent is going to do and trying to psych him out and trick him as much as possible. But he’s trying to do the same thing…. just thinking about it gives me a headache.”
Chou agrees. “Fencing is a wonderfully unique sport that puts one’s athletic and mental skills to the test and it really pushes you to be quick both on your feet and in your head,” she says. “You need strategies, you need confidence and you need tricks in order to outsmart the other fencer before they outsmart you. You also have to be able to constantly adapt and respond to changes in your environment.”
Natale wants to major in Biomedical Engineering with the dream of becoming a surgeon. He has applied for early decision to Columbia.
Chou has committed to fence for University of California, San Diego and will major in Media and/or Design.
“All the skills I’ve developed from high school, varsity fencing and competitive fencing have taught me invaluable life lessons,” Chou says. “I’m very excited about what’s to come in my future.”
TOP OF THE CLASS Dana Chou and Gianni Natale are set to star for the Knights during their senior fencing seasons. – DARREN COOPER