MACHIAS, Maine — Redemption is the only thing that will be on the mind of 16-year-old local resident Azaline Dunlap-Smith as she boards her flight traveling to Grenoble, France on Wednesday.
A competitive fencer since the age of 9, Dunlap-Smith is headed across the pond to spar on the international level in a European Cadet Circuit tournament that will pit her against some of the toughest competitors in the world.
She is one of 15 fencers selected to represent the country by the United States Fencing Association. She qualified for the team as a result of her performances on the national level, including a victory in a field of 170 at the National Championships in Reno, Nev., last year.
“It is pretty cool,” said coach John Krauss. “She comes out of Machias, which isn’t exactly the largest town, but she still won the national tournament. I’ve had a lot of students that have done well nationally, she is the first student who has done well internationally.”
Scheduled to start Saturday, the Cadet Circuit — cadet is the title for fighters in the 13- to 17-year-old category — invites all national teams to bring teams of 20 or less to the match to take on fencers from across the globe.
”There are few fencers in the country, let alone Maine, who are doing international competitions, and she is one of the few that can say they reached the international level,” Krauss said. “She is probably the first fencer from this area that has been able to perform at a level where she can win nationally on a consistent basis and compete internationally.”
The global competition in France consists of two rounds of qualification for a final round of duels that take place in a playoff-style elimination round, winner takes all.
Grenoble will be the second international event for Dunlap-Smith. After she traveled to Sweden last year and did not perform as well as she hoped to, the loss motivated her to make her way back into the field for revenge.
“I didn’t get to go to this event last year, but I took part in another European tournament,” she said. “I am looking for some redemption against international competition because I pretty much got steamrolled last time.”
Dunlap-Smith sounds determined to reverse the outcome this time around but is remaining realistic. She recognizes the competitors she will face are stronger and smarter than any opponents she has faced on the national level.
“Last time, in Sweden, was a very different experience — but it was a good experience,” she said. “I’m hoping that I will get past the first round, which I am pretty sure I will.”
According to Krauss, the experience in international sparring makes her a stronger competitor and will provide a boost this time around.
“Just like anyone else during their first event at a higher level, she didn’t know what to expect and didn’t fence at her best,” he said. “With it being her second time, I think she will do better. It is a pretty big jump to European fencing because they’re very fast and better decision makers; it is a much more competitive field, everything is at a higher level.”
Dunlap-Smith also acknowledged the higher level of competition and added the challenge is exciting to her.
“European fencing is phenomenal, they’re completely different mentally,” she said. “For Americans the mindset seems to be that either you’re going to win or just give up and accept losing when they reach mental breaking points. The Europeans I watched and faced don’t have that ‘I’m just going to lose’ attitude. They keep working toward how they are going to win.”
Figuring out how to win is something that she is familiar with as international events are the next step in what is becoming a successful young career in competitive fencing for the talented teenager residing in an area not considered a hotbed for the sport.
Dunlap-Smith picked up fencing at age 9 after she watched her middle brother take a fencing class at the University of Maine at Machias. When she discovered that the class was open to all ages, she became interested and has stuck with the sport ever since.
She enrolled for sparring classes locally with the Machias Fencing Club, a community program, and two years later was introduced to Krauss after the fencing club discontinued classes. According to her, Krauss has helped her develop into a fencer that became a competitive force at the national level and helped her grow as a person.
“He has helped me develop a better understanding of myself,” she said of Krauss. “It is a very emotional sport. He has helped me develop a much better appreciation of learning a skill.”
She travels a minimum of 1 1/2 hours each way to practice with Krauss two to three times a week. According to Krauss, who has coached Dunlap-Smith for the past five years, she is the perfect mold for a fencer.
”She is drawn to fencing because there is a lot of tactical and stimulating info that needs to be gathered while fencing, it is a highly complex sport and very bright people get drawn to the sport because it is very stimulating, it involves a lot of intellectual and physical control,” he said. “She is a very bright girl and she finds fencing as challenging as college classes.”
Regardless of what it is that draws her to the sport, she is glad that she made the commitment, and excited to see her hard work pay off.
“I went to classes and it just stuck with me,” she said. “There are times when my schedule is hectic or I’m traveling that I wonder why I am doing this, but I am glad I have stuck with it. I would have far less of an understanding of myself at this point had I decided not to stick with it.”