Fencer Represents Yale Around the World
By Lillie Lainoff
At 5-foot-10, Katherine Miller is one of the tallest members of the Yale women's fencing team. However, in the international epee competition circuit she's considered average height. And when she goes home she's one of the smallest in her family. Her mother is the same height, but her father is 6-foot-1, and both of her brothers (one older, one younger) are 6-foot-5.
Although epeeists tend to be some of the tallest fencers, Miller started out as a saber fencer through an after school program at her elementary school. She hated it so much that she quit as soon as she was able. But, as she put it, her younger brother "made her come back," this time as a foilist. Her final decision to fence epee was equally serendipitous.
"Again, that's kind of my brother's fault," explained Miller. "He had switched to epee; I was still fencing foil but I would come down on Sunday mornings for practice with him just to do footwork… and my coaches figured if I was going to be there, I might as well fence for fun."
After competing for a few years in both foil and epee, Miller's coaches told her she had to focus on one weapon. She picked foil and gave up epee, until one fateful day a few months later when she decided to fence epee, "in a competition for fun, and I did better in it than I'd done in foil, so I figured I should change," Miller described. "So I changed my mind again [and] went to epee, and then I stopped changing." She recites this series of events humorously and a bit detached, as if she were an older sibling commenting on the antics of a younger brother or sister.
While Miller may have had a hard time picking a weapon, it's clear she chose the right one. At only 21 years old, she is currently training on the Brazilian team for the Summer Olympics, only the second Yale student fencer in recent memory to attempt this vast undertaking while working towards her degree (Sada Jacobson '06 fenced saber in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics for the United States, winning a bronze and silver medal, respectively.)
Miller has a dual citizenship from the US and Brazil because her father was born in Sao Paulo. She originally fenced for the U.S. at international competitions, but decided to make the switch a little over a year ago to fence solely for Brazil. After winning Brazilian nationals only a few months into the transition, she decided to train and compete for an Olympic berth.
Just like Jacobson, Miller decided to take a year off from school to focus on her training. But don't let the hiatus fool you. While studying Global Affairs, one of Yale's most highly-competitive and sought after undergraduate majors, she has managed to retain her place on the Brazilian national team, which requires maintenance of a top-four spot in point-standings throughout the entire country in her weapon. This meant that she would fly out of the country over weekends during the school year in order to participate in international competitions.
"It was very, very difficult," said Miller. "It was… kind of a whirlwind. I did try to pick classes according to my fencing schedule so I would be able to go to these competitions. But, for example, when I was in South Africa [for a World Cup], which was at the beginning of reading week, I got [there] and pretty much stayed in the hotel the entire time writing papers. I did not see one bit of South Africa."
Miller, always resilient, manages to joke about the burden she's chosen. "Thankfully I'm really good at sleeping on planes now, otherwise I don't think I'd be alive – but it's also a little bit surreal."
She was dealing with jetlag and the exhaustion of constant travel to fence in competitions in places she has never been. Knowing her to be a committed student, it isn't hard to picture her holed away in a hotel room while the rest of her teammates are off exploring monuments, hiking up mountains, and shopping in local flea markets.
"I had a World Cup in Buenos Aires," she says with a perfect accent, "this year in February. I was doing an Econ Pset (problem set) during the break between pools and DEs (the direct elimination round of fencing competitions). It was awful, actually… but it was fine in the end. It'll be nice to be able to focus on one thing at a time."
Miller finishes with a relieved smile and leans back. We are talking via Skype, and she is set to leave the next day from Brazil to the Senior World Championships in Moscow, the highest-level of annual competition for fencing.
This summer Miller is working at a consulting firm, Falconi Consultores, full-time and training at her fencing club in the mornings and evenings. Despite her busy schedule, she is optimistic about the prospect of upcoming training.
"I'm very excited for this year, to have time to be able to breathe during these competitions."
Otherwise, she says, the competition happens in the blink of an eye – it definitely isn't helpful for her performance when she's worrying about a midterm she'll have to take the next day.
Although now, instead of worrying about exams, she's worrying about the language barrier. "It's all in Portuguese! I am dying! I did my job interview half in English and half in Portuguese, so they knew what they were going to be dealing with."
All joking aside, Miller tells me that she has learned a lot. "I didn't have any of the business vocabulary because I've never had to talk about expenses and revenue and cost elimination before, so it's been a pretty steep learning curve," she says, unintentionally making an economics pun. "I'm enjoying myself, but it's just mentally exhausting."
Once the summer is over and Yale is back in session, Miller will return to her home in New York City to continue her training. She fences at NY Fencers Club, one of the most prestigious centers for the sport in the U.S. The club boasts multiple members on the U.S. National Team, including fencers on the Women's Foil and Saber squads, as well as the Men's Foil squad. She doesn't know exactly what her practice schedule will be yet, but she knows it will include "pretty intense practices everyday with some of the people who are on the U.S. team or who are trying to make the U.S. team." The practices, she tells me, will focus more on the mental and strategic components of the sport, which at school the team doesn't have as much time for.
When Miller discusses how her training as a college athlete differs from her training for the Olympics, she is thoughtful, but also eagerly anticipating the upcoming year. "As a Yale student, you definitely have restrictions on how much time and energy you can put towards training because academics do – they should and they do – come first… I think sometimes people underestimate what a commitment it is to be on a varsity team and also be a student at such a rigorous university." \
She then goes into detail about the sacrifices student athletes have to make, whether it is not being able to take a class they're really interested in because it meets during practice, or not being able to hang out with friends on the weekends during the competition season. "At Yale, we don't have as much academic support, and I don't think we necessarily need the academic support other varsity teams get at other schools, but it does mean you have to be very independent. You have to be driven in order to manage the competing demands."
Although she'll miss her teammates during her time away from Yale, Miller is excited to have found another supportive group of fencers, this time on the Brazil women's epee team, which she tells me is largely international.
Despite her "far from perfect" Portuguese, she loves living in Brazil. She doesn't know exactly what she wants to do after graduation, but ideally she would want to work in both Brazil and the U.S. She wants to keep her connection to both places. When she begins to talk about Sao Paulo, the city where she currently works and lives, her voice grows bright and eager and she has trouble finding the right words, telling me she can't even begin to describe how happy she is.
As I tell her, it sounds like she's found "her place," that elusive, seemingly mystical location that undergraduates wonder when (or if) they'll ever find. One where they can see themselves putting down roots; a place to call home after being a transient nomad, constantly moving from their childhood home to college to summer jobs and internships, and back to college.
Whether Miller decides to live in Sao Paulo, like she does now, or not, is on the backburner. First up is training for the world's most prestigious international sporting event, then returning to Yale to finish up her final year of academics and NCAA athletic eligibility.
Lillie Lainoff is a junior sabre fencer on the Yale women's team