Sparks Magazine Online
On the Of(fence)

On the Of(fence)

The sabres clash against one another with the sound of metal on metal as opponents advance toward one another. Carefully anticipating the other’s next move, the fencers move with agility and confidence, thrusting and parrying with each step. The attacker lunges and her blade makes contact with her rival’s chest. Touché.

For Northwestern University political science junior Cindy Oh, this is home.

As a first-generation Korean American student, Oh knew she had to fulfill her parents’ dream of attending a top-tier university. Keeping up with academics was a given, but it wasn’t until sixth grade that she discovered a talent that would set her apart.

When Oh was 12 years old, her mother discovered the sport of fencing through a classmate’s parent. Originally wanting to play basketball, young Oh had no interest in attending fencing classes. However, her mother wanted her to get involved in a less popular sport to make her stand out among other applicants. After attending classes and practicing footwork with other students, Oh realized that she had an affinity for the sport and developed a passion for it.

“It was such a welcoming environment, and the people who were my age in the class helped me have fun with it,” Oh said. “As I stuck with it, my love for the sport and anything that came with it kept growing and is growing to this day.”

Oh practiced about two to four hours each day on average. Although her parents wanted her to put school before fencing, Oh felt that athletics taught her skills such as responsibility and time management that future employers would look for.

Despite falling in love with fencing and how it strengthened her mind and body, Oh noticed that there weren’t many other Asian Americans in the sport when she first started. However, as time went on, she noticed an increase in the number of successful Asian American fencers, which she believed was due to the push to get into better colleges and the fact that the sport was becoming more popular in Asian countries.

“All the top-tier schools, the Ivy Leagues, have fencing teams, so that has a major impact,” Oh said. “For a lot of parents, they see their home countries doing it too, so seeing your people excel at it incentivizes you to do it as well.”

Before the sport became popular, Oh especially noticed the lack of Asian American athletes when she attended international competitions in countries such as England, Austria and Germany, where tournaments were larger and more intense. She observed that there weren’t many Asians competing, and of the ones that were competing, most were on the United States team.

“To (be) able to represent the U.S. is incredible, but to be one of the few Asians and good enough to do well at competition makes me feel a lot of pride to be representing the Asian community,” Oh said.

Despite being an Asian American student at Northwestern University, Oh doesn’t feel very familiar with the Asian community at her school because she feels she is part of an athletic bubble. It surprises students when they see Oh walking down the street speaking fluent Korean and wearing athletic clothes, because there is an unspoken stigma that Asians and sports don’t go together. Prevalent in all platforms of media, there is always an emphasis on Asian mental prowess rather than physical agility and strength, according to Oh.

“I hate the tiger mom or the nerdy Asian stereotypes, so I want to prove that I can be booksmart, but successful athletically, as well,” Oh said. “Even at school, we don’t have that many Asian student athletes, so to eliminate that unspoken Asian stigma motivates me to do well.”

As Oh heads into her last year of undergraduate school, she feels that she may not have time to continue honing her passion for fencing regularly. She once dreamed of competing in the Olympics, but gradually realized that she would have to give up that dream due to the level of time and commitment it would take and the fact that she would have to take a year off of school.

Despite having to forego this aspiration, Oh does not regret her decision. She is content competing with her school team and pursuing political science. Even though Oh may not be aiming for the Olympics anymore, she encourages Asian Americans in the future to defy society’s expectations and limitations based on race.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement of diversity in sports for minorities, especially for Asian Americans to step in, improve and to have a voice,” Oh said. “It’s important to be involved and to bring down the stereotypes, because there are a lot of opportunities available to break the stigma. There’s a need for change, and if there’s a time to do it, it’s now.”

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