Feb. 17, 2018
By John Heisler
Francesca Russo admits her passport is a mess.
That's what happens when you begin traveling the world to compete in international fencing competitions at age 13.
"I've had to refill my passport with extra pages. I've been to Europe a crazy amount of times," says Russo, who also has been to Asia, Africa and South America for various fencing events.
Now a senior captain of the University of Notre Dame fencing team, she expects to have more use for that passport in years to come.
After graduation in May, the Wayne, New Jersey, product plans to continue her fencing training in hopes of competing in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
But Japan can wait.
For now, Russo is in pursuit of her third NCAA individual title (she competes in sabre) after winning in both 2015 and 2017 and her second NCAA team title after helping the Irish to their landslide win last March.
"That would be pretty incredible if that happened," she says.
In Notre Dame's rich fencing history, no one has ever accomplished that daily double.
As the leader of the 2018 Irish teams (the women currently rank number one nationally at 35-1, while the men are second at 27-6), Russo has work to do.
Francesca started fencing at age 9, attending a summer recreational fencing camp with her older sister Jessica.
"Our coach came up and said, 'What weapon do you want to be?' And at that age I had no idea what a weapon even was," Francesca says.
"But my sister knew a little bit about fencing, and she said 'sabre,' so I just followed her."
Francesca wasn't a neophyte for long. Within four years she was competing internationally. She made her first world team as a freshman in high school.
"I was pretty persistent, and my parents were very supportive, signing me up for a lot of competitions," she says.
High school fencing in the New Jersey/New York region is akin to high school basketball in Indiana. Russo took the sport by storm, winning four consecutive New Jersey individual state titles, while also competing with the Bergen Fencing Club.
Then she came to Notre Dame and won the NCAA sabre title as a freshman, going 15-8 in pool fencing, defeating Harvard's Adrienne Jarocki 15-12 in the semifinals and then easing past Penn State's Karen Chang 15-6 in the title bout.
A year later in 2016 Jarocki took the sabre crown with Russo finishing sixth.
Then, just a year ago in 2017, Russo won an amazing 20 of 23 bouts in the pool competition, defeated Mathilda Taharo of St. John's 15-9 in the semifinals and then outpointed Penn State's Teodora Kakhiani 15-14 to claim the blue ribbon. That helped the Irish to an overwhelming team title triumph.
"That gave us a confidence boost, for sure. We kind of set a tone last year in terms of winning. Going into meets this year we have something to back up our abilities," she says.
"We're definitely riding that wave, but we're also trying to treat it like last year, because it clearly worked."
A five-touch college sabre bout is a flurry of aggression, power and athleticism.
"It's quick and it's stressful," Russo says. "You rely a lot on instincts."
She and her sabre mates focus on agility, quick training and situational fencing during their two-and-a-half-hour Monday-through-Friday workouts.
"My meets have been okay so far this year," she says. "I'm just trying to have fun with it. It's different because I know it's my last year at Notre Dame. In terms of my own fencing, I haven't been particularly satisfied, but I haven't been dissatisfied either. I've really been more focused on how everyone else on the squad has been doing."
And there's even a high-tech element to the Irish preparation.
"Our sabre coach, Aleks Ochocki, created an algorithm on Excel so we can watch videos and calculate attacks and defenses and different percentages of success," Russo says. "So we have kind of a database of the fencers we potentially could go up against in the NCAAs."
The Irish regular season is done. This next week Notre Dame heads for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Then it really gets serious at the NCAA Midwest Regional March 10 in Cleveland, followed by the NCAA Championship March 22-25 on the Penn State campus.
"It's difficult in a sense because everyone knows everyone else. And you generally know who likes to attack and who is good on defense," Russo says.
"All of us (on the Notre Dame team) who fence sabre will get together before a round and go over our opponents and talk about how they are fencing. We give each other little snippets of advice."
Since the fencing community is comparatively small, Russo now will begin fencing against many competitors she has known much of her life, is friends with and has fenced against before.
Russo stands an impressive 36-11 so far in 2017-18. And, so, in a perfect world she might remember every touch, for example, from her two bouts this season against Ohio State's Sarah Merza (who finished sixth in the 2017 NCAA sabre competition).
"You would think I would, but it's almost a blackout when you're fencing. It happens so fast. That's where the video can help after the matches," she says.
"A lot of times you come off the strip and you think, 'What did I just do?' You work off what you know you can do because you're gambling on what your opponent will do."
After graduating with a marketing degree, Russo this summer will intern in New York City for a soccer media company.
In the process, she will continue regular training in hopes of making the United States sabre team that will travel to Tokyo in 2020.
"I'm going to go back to New York, but I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I'm going to do as far as work and training. My training and travel schedules are going to be kind of crazy," she says.
"It's been a little stressful accepting my fate, if you call it that. I see everyone else at Notre Dame ready to get a job and start their lives and for me it's still two full years until the Olympics. I'm trying to figure out a good work, life and sport balance."
Russo certainly will head to Penn State next month as one of the sabre favorites-and she might end up facing off there against Nittany Lions freshman standout Zara Moss.
From a team standpoint Columbia (the 2015 and 2016 NCAA champion) again figures to pose a strong threat to an Irish repeat. After taking third in 2017, the Lions' squads currently rank second (women) and fourth (men). Harvard's men rate number one, while its women are sixth. Penn State's women are third, while its men rank fifth. Ohio State stands third (men) and fourth (women).
Notre Dame women have produced 20 individual NCAA fencing titles, but only five have come in sabre: two by Russo plus one each by freshman Valerie Providenza (2004), sophomore Mariel Zagunis (2006) and freshman Sarah Borrmann (2008).
Only four times have Irish men won NCAA sabre crowns-two by Mike Sullivan in 1977 and 1978.
The only Notre Dame women to win three or more individual titles are Alicja Kryczalo (she won three in foil in 2002-03-04) and Lee Kiefer (she won four in foil between 2013 and 2017).
Russo, with her 180-47 career collegiate record, would like to add her name to that list and help the Irish to a second straight team trophy to boot.
Then, and only then, will she search for that passport.