It didn’t take long for Jonathan Yergler to make an impact on the national scene in fencing.
Taking up the sport at age seven after showing a propensity to play with sticks as a toddler, Yergler shot up the national ladder in epee.
“I started in local competitions and I did my first nationals at 10 and I got third,” said Yergler, a native of Winter Park, Fla.
“There were only 40 people in my group but it was still a big confidence builder. I was loving the competition. The higher level I competed, the more fun it was.”
During his high school years, Yergler made multiple national teams and competed in the Junior World Championships.
He joined the Princeton University men’s fencing team in 2009 and distinguished himself as one of the top college epeeists in the nation, taking second in the NCAA championships as a sophomore and winning the title as a junior.
Last month in San Antonio, Texas, he helped Princeton earn its first-ever joint men’s/women’s NCAA team title under the format adopted in 1990.
For Yergler, helping Princeton to the team championship triggered a deeper sense of satisfaction than winning his individual crown.
“When I won the individual title, I was really happy and my teammates came over and congratulated me but it wasn’t the same as having 30 or so people so excited,” recalled Yergler, who took second in the individual epee competition.
“It was great having that team trophy and having the bus rides and that plane ride together with all of us celebrating.”
Yergler has traveled a long journey to become accomplished in epee. “It was pretty intense, I would go to school all week and then my parents would drive me 200 miles to Boca Raton and I would spend the whole weekend training with my coach,” said Yergler, who has been training with coach Mario Jelev since his sophomore year in high school. “I was also getting on a plane and going to national and international events.”
When it came time to choose a college program, Yergler concluded that Princeton would offer him a good chance to keep moving up in the fencing world.
“In my weapon, Princeton had a great team, it was one of the strongest,” said Yergler, who was recruited along with another top epeeist, Ed Kelley.
“I thought the only way to get better was to go against these guys in training everyday. Zoltan [Princeton head coach Zoltan Dudas] was very welcoming; he answered all of my questions on my visit. I could picture myself at Princeton; I felt that connection.”
Once at Princeton, Yergler had to work hard to get himself into the picture for a starting spot.
“It was great, going to training everyday; I loved sparring with those guys,” said Yergler.
“I was trying to make the starting squad. I was told by others that I wouldn’t make it because the epee team was at such a high level. I was thinking that anything worth doing isn’t going to be easy. It was a struggle to get better than the rest. I was clawing my way, working everyday to get better and better.”
True to form, the precocious Yergler didn’t waste any time in showing that he could make Princeton a better team.
“Our first dual meet was at Harvard against North Carolina,” said Yergler. “Zoltan didn’t have Ed or I in the starting lineup; we lost six matches and Zoltan subbed Ed and me into the match and we won our matches. That was a proving point. I didn’t want to leave the starting lineup after that.”
Yergler ended up earning All-American honors that season as he took ninth in the epee at the NCAAs, helping Princeton finish sixth in the team standings. In his sophomore year, he placed second in the epee at the NCAAs with the Tigers moving up to fourth overall.
As a junior, it didn’t look like Yergler was headed to the podium at the NCAAs.
“I did really well in the regular season but I had a terrible tournament at the regional; I didn’t even make the round of 12,” recalled Yergler.
“Because of my scores and getting second in the NCAAs the year before, I got an at-large bid. I felt really lucky to be there and have a chance to see what I could do. I lost some matches but I was able to squeeze into the bottom part of the top four. I had the experience from the year before.”
Utilizing his extensive experience, Yergler topped Columbia’s Alen Hadzic 15-8 in the finals to win Princeton’s first individual NCAA crown since Soren Thompson ’05, also an epeeist, accomplished the feat in 2001.
“In the final, I went against the guy who I had beaten in the semifinals the year before,” said Yergler.
“It is a good matchup for me. I felt really good, I was able to pull it out. I felt great. I was thinking OK, I have accomplished one of my big goals. I was very close to being counted out of it so that made it more satisfying.”
With Princeton having taken second in the team standings in the 2012 NCAA championships, Yergler was confident the Tigers could take the next step.
“We have improved mightily as a team; we knew the women were incredibly strong,” said Yergler, reflecting on the format which consists of the two days of competition each for the men and the women with the school winning the most matches in the four days earning the team title.
“The men’s team hadn’t proven itself at this level. We have been doing better each year but compared to Penn State, Notre Dame, and Ohio State we weren’t there; they have the Olympians and the national team guys. We wanted to put the team in a position to win. If we were close to the No. 1 team; we knew the women would pull out the title.”
The Tiger men took care of business, putting the women in prime position to close the deal.
“We ended up second, a few points behind Penn State but six points ahead of Notre Dame,” said Yergler. “I am really proud of the men’s team for stepping up like that.”
During the women’s phase of the competition, Yergler and his male teammates provided emotional and logistical support.
“We were cheering; we were being caddies, serving them and doing whatever we could to help them,” said Yergler.
“We were watching Notre Dame and keeping tabs in the scoring. I knew before they did that they clinched it because they were in the middle of the matches. It was really exciting finding out. I was super excited.”
Now that his college career is completed, Yergler is looking to make a big impact on fencing’s international stage, setting his sights on the World and Olympic championships.
“I will work to do whatever I need to do to make the Olympics in Rio,” said Yergler, who has set up a twitter page, @yerglerj, and an athlete account on facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Jonathan-Yergler-athlete/410272639010116 to chronicle his efforts on the international stage.
“I need to get my job situation taken care of, I want to end up in New York City. I want to keep doing national and international competitions to get the experience I need. I still love the sport.”