FROM NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS TO Ö THE WORLD  by Michael El-Saleh  
Michael El-Saleh is a sophomore at Penn State where he is on the 2010 NCAA champion menís fencing team. He also was on the U.S. fencing team that competed in the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel, and is a member of the Jewish Athletes Alliance, which is sponsored by the Center for Sport and Jewish Life. Mike recently competed in the Grand Prix in Shanghai, and headed from there to St. Petersburg Russia for another competition where he filed this special report to JewishSport.org.

We were on our way: eighteen fencers, four coaches, a manager, and trainer. All of us destined for Harvard, Boston, the site of the 2010 NCAA National Fencing Championships. We, Penn State were heading into the tournament ranked number 2, behind the strong favorite Notre Dame. I have to admit that as determined as I knew we all were, I was a little uncertain about how we would do. True, we were the reigning champions, but our team was weaker than last year's. But I tried not to think about it all too much as the events started on a Thursday morning. The first two days of the NCAAs were womenís events followed by the men on the final two days. Unlike most sports, fencing is a combined sport, so the combined efforts of both the men and the women decided the championship. After day one, we were in third place, 7 bouts out of first place and only 4 behind second. I must say we were both surprised and pleased that we were that close because our women had not had the best day of fencing.

The second day was much better as our women were fencing with heart and passion ending the day still third, but now only 2 bouts behind the leader and our freshman, Italian Margarita, picked up an individual National Championship on the way. Then it was day three and our (menís teamís) turn. I remember feeling really sick, like I was going to vomit that morning. There had never been an NCAA Fencing Championship competition that was this close, involving so many teams still in contention so late in the competition. Having started as a rocky morning, day three ended with a strong effort by us so that we finished day three in second place, only 2 bouts behind the leader. The championship was in our grasp. Our menís captain called a meeting of all the guys, where he simply said if we fence our hardest and win our bouts we will be National Champions no matter how well the other teams do.

As Day 4 started, we knew that the first round was the most important. We finished this round with a 15-3 record securing our second straight National Championship and the 12th in our programís history. Iíll never forget the feeling of joy and incredible relief. I remember telling our girlís captain that it was important to win, or that 8-hour bus ride back would have been miserable. But, we returned to Happy Valley as Champions once again!
  A week after our national title I received a call from my mother saying that I had made the US National Team for the Grand Prix World Cup in China. It was 1:00 in the morning but the news made the time irrelevant. I was set to leave from State College, PA to Washington DC to San Francisco to Shanghai. Seems like a long trip, but if you travel as much as I do, they all start to be the same. I remember the good old days when I loved flying. The excitement of the seats going back, movies, and unlimited sodas, oh how my attitude has changed! But I arrived in Shanghai to the news that they had lost my fencing bag. This is a frequent tradition of airlines to lose fencing bags, but from experience I carry on most of my equipment. So, the only thing lost was my foils (fencing swords-which can be relatively easily, albeit expensively, replaced) and my clothes (but I donít really need those anyway!). So I had to travel to the lost luggage counter where a shouting argument was already in progress. The young man behind the counter and the angry customer were arguing, just like everyone does when they lose their bag. But, after a while, words became shoves and turned into an actual fistfight. I froze for a second as they were punching and kicking each other, then pulled the two apart like they were little kids needing a time out. After I gave the agent my information I thought to myself I hadnít been in China for an hour and I had already seen some Kung Fu! We got to the hotel and they had messed up our reservations, so they put us in another hotel across the street.

The first day we got to go to the venue it took my breath away -- it was gorgeous, a big room with our strips and with some press and cameras. I was in complete awe of the whole event. I had a rough first outing in pools with a 2-4 record, which meant that I ended up in the rankings just under the line and so didnít make it to the next round.

Shanghai was incredible, a very modern city much like New York or Chicago. The great appeal of China was the shopping and the fun of bargaining. I walked away with tons and tons of stuff, paying a fraction of what I would pay in the States. I brought back gifts for my friends and family and received word that I had also made the Team for the Grand Prix World Cup in St. Petersburg Russia. So here I am on a plane in transit through to Russia. Who knows how this will go but I am looking forward to it I just hope they donít lose my bag again.

Michael El-Saleh

P.S. I just got into St. Petersburg, and yes, unbelievably the airline has lost my fencing bag again. At least I am getting good at filing forms!
 
 

Mike El-Saleh

Photo from Penn State website