Fencing: Love at first fight
PHOTOS BY TESSA BERG
The Shaito siblings share a Lebanese-American heritage, a Texas upbringing and a world-class talent at an unlikely sport—fencing. They plan to parry and thrust their way straight to the 2016 Olympics, and they just might get there.
The Panther and the Tiger usually have their way with their prey, devouring them with speed, aggression and superb tactical skills. But a seemingly innocuous visit to the denim jungle of The Gap for a pair of jeans is an occupational hazard for these world-class—and admittedly misshapen—fencers.
“We have weird muscles,” says Zain “Panther” Shaito, 22, a member of the Ohio State University fencing team, the 2012 NCAA champion in the foil and a competitor in the summer Olympic Games in London. “Our forward leg is bigger than the other leg, a lot bigger, and so is the arm we hold the foil in.”
And since jean manufacturers insist on making the right and left legs of their pants the same size, fencers are out of luck.
“It’s kind of funny, trying to buy jeans,” says Zain’s sister, Mona “Tiger” Shaito, 19, a member of the OSU team who also competed in the 2012 Olympics. “I have to get ones that have stretchy material, or I have to cope with one side being really tight or really loose.”
It’s easy for these two southpaws to laugh about their mismatched thighs. Winning makes everything a lot easier, and the pursuit of Olympic glory makes finding a perfect pair of pants seem
The Shaitos—Zain, Mona, and their sister Mai, who is 20—have emerged as the first family of fencing at Ohio State’s respected program. A trio of Texans who have found glory and a home as Buckeyes, these three young athletes are as different as siblings can be—right down to their individual fencing styles—and they share a healthy rivalry to top the others’ accomplishments, which have already landed them on the
Zain and Mona had an outside chance to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2012 games in London. But in order to compete in the series of international meets that shape the team, they would have been forced to leave OSU for the 2011-12 academic year.
“We had a chance to win the NCAA title, and I was a crucial part of that and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” Zain says.
A week after he and the Buckeyes won their titles, the Panther was crouched on the sofa, devouring pizza and ice cream, a reward for a big win and a rare break from his rigorous training diet. No matter how much he ate, he could not sate his appetite.
“Something was missing. I wanted more,” Zain says. “I wanted the Olympics. A lot of athletes think this way. You have to be greedy.”
There was still a way to get there: Through their father, Talal Shaito, who grew up in Lebanon but came to the U.S. to study and stayed after falling in love with wife Kim, Zain and Mona have dual citizenship and were eligible to compete for Lebanon’s Olympic team.
“My dad’s not from a rich background. He sold shoes on the streets to tourists to make enough money to come here [for school],” Zain says. “It makes me feel thankful and blessed for what we have here.”
But becoming members of the Lebanese team didn’t automatically punch their ticket to London. To compete, Zain and Mona had to qualify by winning the Asian and Oceania Olympic qualifying tournament in Japan only a few weeks after the NCAA championship meet.
“It was win or watch the Olympics on TV,” Zain says.
All six of the Shaito kids—including younger sisters Malak, 17, Manal, 15, and Samar, 10—are athletic. Zain was a youth ice hockey star. Mona and Mai did a little bit of everything. Among the others, Samar seems the most likely to get serious about fencing.
Almost 10 years ago, their mother, Kim, saw a flier for a fencing class—she’d wanted to learn fencing in high school but never got a chance—and took Mai and Mona, who were 10 and 9, to the Fencing Institute of Texas in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch.
Mai—so shy that she doesn’t have a ferocious nickname yet—remembers that first trip. “It was so embarrassing. We got there late and everyone else was already there and had started. But by the end of the practice, it was so much fun.”
Soon after his sisters started fencing, Zain broke his left arm playing hockey, and Kim suggested he take up the foil as a way to rehab his injured limb.
It was love at first fight.
“I just loved the whole idea of stabbing someone, and knowing they were OK,” he says. “I started fencing on Saturdays and playing hockey the rest of the week. Then I added a second day of fencing and a third, and then fencing was pretty much every day, and I gave up hockey.”
Soon the three Shaito siblings were winning medals.
“You can tell right away when someone is good; they have a certain determination,” says Brenda Waddoups, president of the board at the Texas Institute of Fencing. She relished watching the three Shaitos arrive for practice. “It was like watching a clown car when they got out, all these little bitty kids with big equipment bags and all this enthusiasm.”
Zain won three medals at Junior World Championship meets and helped the four-man U.S. team win the team title in 2010. His foil title at the 2012 NCAA championship helped the Buckeyes win the team title, and he finished sixth this year. Mona finished in a tie for third in the women’s foil the past two years, and Mai was 16th this year, her first at the NCAA tournament.
Vladimir Nazlymov, maybe more than any fencing coach in the world, knows what what he’s looking for in a student. Nazlymov competed for the Soviet national team in the 1970s and then coached it in the 1980s. In the early ’90s, he built a world-class fencing program in the least likely of places: the Kansas City, Missouri, public school district. By the time he left eight years later, he had coached three high-school kids to the U.S. national team and the world championships. He has followed suit at Ohio State, building a program that has ranked among the top five nationally for 12 consecutive years.
Zain first caught Nazlymov’s attention at a national meet. He immediately tried to recruit him to OSU.
“I explained to him he has a good opportunity here,” Nazlymov says, his Russian accent still thick after more than 20 years in the U.S..
But Zain was at home in Texas. He was thrusting and parrying for his club and the U.S. junior national team while taking classes at the University of Texas at Dallas and dreaming of a spot in the 2016 Olympics.
“I never planned to come to Ohio State. Dallas was my comfort zone,” Zain says. Nazlymov finally persuaded Zain to accept a scholarship.
“I finally sat down with my parents,” Zain says. “With all the kids, we thought it would save money on college.”
He arrived in Columbus in the fall of 2010, followed a year later by Mai, who graduated from high school a year early, and Mona. The wins and good grades soon followed.
“To make a good fencing result, they must be strong academically,” Nazlymov says. “They are at a high level academically, they are fencing very well. They are thinking of grad school.”
Zain is majoring in international studies, with a minor in neuroscience, and plans on attending medical school after the 2016 Olympics, which will mean the end of his fencing career. Mona’s major is criminology, and she’d like to go to law school after she finishes fencing. Mai’s major is speech and hearing science, and she wants to be an audiologist.
Each Shaito has developed his or her own fencing style over the years, based on athletic skill and personality. Zain is outgoing and lightning-quick. Mona is determined and always aggressive. Mai is shy, but she is gaining confidence on and off the fencing mat.
“Zain’s style is very elegant and kind of showy, but that’s how he is—outgoing, funny and laid-back and kind-hearted,” Mona says. “If someone says something he doesn’t like, he’ll just take it, but if someone says something to me I don’t like, I’ll argue with them.”
Mona is the driven one and “uses pure will to win,” Zain says. She hates to lose, whether it’s a fencing match or an argument, and her siblings know better than to disagree with her.
“Even if she’s wrong, you can’t win,” Mai says.
“She has a fire like no one else I have seen,” Nazlymov says.
Mai is “the quiet one,” Zain says. She’s had her ups and downs in fencing and has thought about quitting a few times.
“A lot of people think I’m in Zain and Mona’s shadow because they are Olympians, but I don’t see it that way,” she says. “I’ve always supported them. I just never wanted to go as far as them.”
It’s late April 2012, and Zain and Mona have arrived in Japan for the Olympic qualifying tournament. The siblings, who share a fierce rivalry and whose habit of constantly comparing results and trying to one-up each other drives their younger sister Mai crazy, advance quickly to the finals.
Mona is up first, against Ruth Yi Lin Ng of Singapore.
“To beat her, I wanted to be really quick and get her off guard,” Mona says. “As soon as the ref says ‘ready, fence,’ I ran her down the strip. I wanted to shake her mentally, to put the pressure on her.”
In other words, she went Tiger on her opponent, attacked relentlessly and led 14-13.
“I got the last touch, and people were screaming and yelling and giving me flowers, and I stood there amazed,” she says.
Zain took on Thailand’s Nontapat Panchan, a two-time (2002-03) NCAA champion at Penn State and participant in the 2008 Olympics.
“He was squirmy and hard to hit and very fast,” Zain says. “But I’ve been through a lot of nerve-wracking matches, and in my mind, I knew I was going to win.”
He did, and Zain and Mona were on their way to London, where the August crowds were bigger than anything they’d ever seen, and where they were somehow on the same bill as stars like Kobe Bryant and Ryan Lochte (Mona sat near the swimming sensation one day in the cafeteria but found herself too scared to speak). The competition they faced was punishing.
Zain fell 15-2 in his first match against China’s Jun Zhu, who had finished fourth in the 2008 Olympics. “He was better prepared,” Zain says. “I was a little overwhelmed, and it was hard to lose so fast and so roughly.”
Mona approached her first match, against a fencer from Egypt, with characteristic determination. “It took a touch or two to throw out the nerves, and then I got aggressive,” she says.
Winning sent her to the next round to face medal-favorite Elisa Di Francesca of Italy. Mona took a quick 2-1 lead.
“Then I got really nervous and started thinking too much,” she says. “And then she pretty much demolished me.” Di Francesca won 15-2 and went on to win the gold medal.
The losses took a toll on his star fencers, Nazlymov says. “After this crushing defeat, it was not easy,” he
says of Mona’s loss to DiFrancesca.
“It took her a long time, but finally she feels better.”
Zain and Mona say they learned a lot in London and will be better prepared in the future when they go up against the best in the world. Their goal is to win more NCAA individual and team medals and to compete in the 2016 Olympics.
“I think I learned that I need to think of [the Olympics] as a normal competition,” Mona says. “I can’t overthink it or get tentative; I have to be me.”
Which is aggressive.
Zain says losing so quickly and badly in his first Olympic match has motivated him. Now, he doesn’t just dream of competing in the Olympics, he dreams of winning a medal.
“2016 is it for me,” he says of the likely end of his fencing career. “In some ways it’s about representing your country, but in the end it’s all about the individual glory.”
Steve Wartenberg is a business reporter for The Columbus Dispatch.