Feb. 20, 2014
Maura Jones, Class of '14
Minnesota might not be the fencing Mecca of America, but for the Irish fencing team, it is precisely this unlikely location where they found one of their sophomore fencing ingénues, women's sabreist Johanna Thill.
Growing up fencing with the Minnesota Sword Club, Thill was a big fish in a small pond in the relatively small fencing circuit in Minnesota. Her club was located in a former bowling alley where the bowling ball racks now held fencing helmets, and the target arrows are still visible on the floor.
"That was one of the biggest feelings of family outside of mine own growing up," Thill remembers. "Everyone really worked together, and it was competitive, but nothing like collegiate fencing. A lot of my closest friends come from there."
Aside from the possibility of competing at a collegiate level, Thill was drawn to the world of fencing because of the intersection of the mental and physical game.
"If you are going to beat someone, then you have to think faster than them and be faster on your feet," she says. "That's always been more thrilling to me than any other sport. Fencing was always something different. There is this huge adrenaline rush and strategy, and that is really fun."
Before coming to Notre Dame, the majority of Thill's fencing experience was individual, often traveling great distances with just her parents or her coach to compete.
As she advanced throughout her high school years, Thill began to be recruited more seriously by college coaches. It first started with the people watching her early in high school, but it wasn't until a while later that she met Notre Dame's associate head coach, Gia Kvaratskhelia. She was ultimately between Notre Dame and Northwestern, but one moment that has remained with her is when at a tournament Kvaratskhelia told her, "Remember, we want you the most."
"I feel like I am a lot better and a more prominent fencer now than when I was in high school, so for a coach who is recruiting Olympians to say that to someone who was just barely getting recruited, that was great," Thill says. "I felt like everyone really mattered here, regardless of whether you were the Olympians or just someone who helps your team out."
Among the other qualities that led Thill to choose Notre Dame were the Irish's new fencing facilities, the level of competitiveness, and the team family.
"There is the whole Notre Dame family, and to be honest that was a little overbearing at first," she admits. "I understand it now that I am here, but the fencing team really felt like family, and they had a reason to be. They were all really cohesive, and I wanted to be a part of that. Everyone really matters on this team."
Fencing with a larger team has been an adjustment for Thill, but she has embraced it. As an individual competitor in high school, she did not enter tournaments with a team often, nor did she have the support or training that comes along with competing with a nationally recognized squad. For Thill, having a team behind her has made all the difference in the world.
"The team wants you to win, but it doesn't matter if you win or lose - they are still going to say `Come on, come on, come on,' either way," Thill says. "Then when you are cheering for someone else, you are on the edge of your seat waiting for the point to finish. It's really great to be a part of that team dynamic."
A year ago, during Thill's first trip to New York with the team, she experienced what it meant to be on the Notre Dame team when she turned around after a point and saw her teammates cheering for her.
"You're up there by yourself, but having the team makes a huge difference," Thill explains. "When you're up there, and you get a point and you cheer for yourself, but then you turn around and you have all of these people who are there for you and who you have worked with, that is something incredible."
Last season Thill progressed throughout the season from one of the youngest members of the team to the middle of the pack to finally earning the chance to compete at the NCAA National Championship. She placed 11th overall in women's sabre, earning her third-team All-American honors.
"I didn't think that I would go to championships that year, and then when I qualified I didn't think that I would do well at all," Thill says. "It is easier when there isn't as much pressure. I didn't have a lot of expectations on me, in hindsight. They expected a lot out of everyone else, but they didn't expect a lot out of me, so that made it easier."
Although she may not have felt the pressure as a freshman, Thill is now the most experienced fencer on the women's sabre squad and has moved into more of a leadership role.
"In some ways I am the leader," she explains. "This weekend I had the best record, but there are a lot of things that, as a sophomore, I don't do. One of my teammates plans team dinners, and another gives great pep talks, so we all bring something to the team."
Thill plans to improve as a squad, a team, and individually, ultimately making it to the championships again and improving on last year.
"This year I want to grow together as a team," she says. "The nature of any squad is that you can't just have one superstar, you need to have everyone really grow together with that."
Thill has set goals not only for fencing but also academically and personally. As a mechanical engineering and Spanish double major, she hopes to one day work in the field of renewable energy in South America or Spain or spend some time working with the Peace Corps. Additionally, she plans to take a three-month long sailing trip from Greece to Spain with her dad after graduation.
"There are other things that I want to do with my life," Thill says. "I can get more out of life if I try something a little different. I want to do something meaningful that leaves a mark on society, but I think I will always fence."