Ber­gen Tech fenc­ing


201 Family - - CON­TENTS -

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

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