Former Tiger Star Lawrence Sticks with Program, Breaks Through With U.S. National Title in Epee
By Bill Alden
Maya Lawrence got off to a slow start when she joined the Princeton University women's fencing team as a freshman in 1998. Having competed mainly on the state and local level in her high school career in Teaneck, Lawrence quickly found that she was in over her head matched against college foes, many of whom had experience in national competitions. After a distressing loss to Penn State in that freshman season, Lawrence met with Tiger head coach Michel Sebastiani for some soul searching. During that session, Sebastiani told Lawrence that she could be a champion if she agreed to put in some extra work in a rigorous training regimen that combined conditioning and heavy doses of fencing fundamentals. Lawrence accepted that proposal and proved to be a precocious student. She went on to win the Ivy League and Junior Olympics titles in the epee in the spring of her freshman year.
Earlier this month, Lawrence took a key step in her development into a world class fencer as she won the U.S. National title in the epee in the competition held in Sacramento.
In reflecting on her national title, Lawrence acknowledged that her college teammates played a vital role in her ascension up the fencing ladder.
"It was difficult but the squad was very supportive," recalled Lawrence, a 2002 Princeton graduate who is winding up graduate studies next month at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "A lot of the people on the team had been in United States Fencing Association (USFA) competitions and they gave me a lot of advice. It really helped me to practice with them."
Of course, it also helped to have Coach Sebastiani in her corner. "He was constantly reassuring me about my ability," said Lawrence, who is still being trained by Sebastiani through weekly commutes from New York City to his Cercel D'Escrime de Princeton/Sebastiani Fencing Academy.
"His program for me was a lot tougher than anything I had been used to. There was a lot of conditioning and cross training in addition to the lessons on fencing technique. I enjoyed the structure of it. He also helped me with metaphors and images. He was in the French military for a long time and he helped me to see things from a different perspective."
It didn't take long for Lawrence to thrive, utilizing that new structure and perspective. "At first I didn't think it was working but then I started winning matches," said Lawrence, who went on to win the epee title at the Pan Am Games in 1999 as a sophomore.
"When I won the Junior Olympics, it seemed strange. I was in shock for a couple of weeks. I was thinking why had these people let me beat them but I started to realize that I was good."
Sebastiani, for his part, realized that he had something special on his hands in Lawrence. "She is extremely serious and very dedicated," asserted the veteran coach who will be retiring from Princeton after the 2005-06 season, his 25th at the helm of the Tiger men's and women's fencing programs.
"I designed a program specifically for her. It was a very heavy program, she had to work hard on a daily basis. There was lots of running, weight lifting, study of fencing technique, and psychology. She listens well, I think she has taken in every word I've told her over the last six years."
Being a good listener to Sebastiani's instructions in Sacramento helped Lawrence take the national title. "She is too polite and shy, that is why she hadn't won yet," said Sebastiani, noting that Lawrence had been second and third in recent U.S. national competitions. "I was screaming at her next to the mat, 'don't go back, don't go back.' She did extremely well."
Lawrence acknowledged that aggressiveness was a key to her breakthrough in Sacramento. "I saw a tape of my semifinal match and I was stepping back too much," said Lawrence.
"I was not as aggressive as I should've been. I felt that on the final day I was fencing at my best. Everything came together. I won by one point in overtime in the final match, I felt so relieved. It was nice to finally do it after coming close before."
In the wake of her win at the Nationals, Lawrence will be competing in the World University games this August in Izmir, Turkey and then in the World Championships in Leipzig, Germany in October.
Lawrence, whose specialization at Columbia was English as a Second Language, believes the competitions fit in well with her plans to teach and train in Europe this fall.
"I'm really excited to finally get to go to the World University Games," maintained Lawrence, who is shooting to make the U.S. team for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
"I had a chance to go before but it was cancelled. I hope to fence well. At the World Championships, I'm going to soak up the atmosphere. This is my first one and I'm not going there with a real chance to win. There are a hundred fencers who have been there before. I just want to get the experience and go to the Worlds the next three years before the Olympics."
With the amazing progress that Lawrence has made since her freshman year at Princeton, she could emerge as a force on the international scene over the next three years.
"I've learned that confidence is so important in athletics," asserted Lawrence. "If you have that extra bit of confidence, it can put you over the top. I've learned to adapt to situations. Now if I'm behind in a match, I'll take a timeout and figure out solutions to the problem."