“I stuck with fencing because it felt natural to me. It is an awkward sport… I felt and looked natural.”
Activities: Fencing, US Fencing Team, Peter Westbrook Foundation
Social Media: IG: @Iwashingtonusa
If someone were to ask me what words I would use to describe Isis Washington, I would say, “confident, and humble, with a dry wit.” She’s basically “my kinda people.” I had the opportunity to get to know her a little between 2017/2018 at work, and when she disappeared in 2019, I was disappointed because I had started to look forward to our chats. Little did I know, she was up to big things and making even bigger moves. She was out chasing her dreams, capturing them, and making them come true. Even during this time of uncertainty, she is remaining calm, cool and positive.
I’m so thankful to have spent what time I did with her and that she agreed to be a part of MCBMI. Her lofty goals will inspire both young and old. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her in sport and life. In the interview below, please enjoy a glimpse into her past, present and future.
Q: Where are you from?
I am from Parsippany, NJ.
Q: I always wanted to ask you, how did your parents decide on the name Isis?
My aunt brought the name to my parents and they went with it.
Q: Do you believe you have to be aggressive to play sports? Why or why not?
I think it depends on the sport and the level of competition. I can’t speak for other forms of fencing, but with my weapon, the epee I think there’s a way to be good without being aggressive, but it’s something you can’t teach. I always tell kids it’s better to be aggressive in the beginning, because it helps to understand your goal when you are fencing.
Q: Looking back on your childhood, do you feel your parents had great expectations for you, beyond the ordinary? If so, in what ways did they show that?
I think my parents had very basic goals and expectations but were open to anything my siblings or I brought to the table if it encouraged learning and development.
Q: How old were you, when you started fencing? Did you play any other sports?
I started fencing when I was 12 in an enrichment program, and by the time I was 15, I sort of graduated from the enrichment to the elite program and started training with the team. Yes, I played other sports. I ran track and played field hockey until I was almost 16.
Q: How did you find the enrichment program?
My cousins are from Newark, NJ. They heard about the Peter Westbrook Foundation (PFW), which is a fencing enrichment program for inner city youth. They told my mom and she started sending my sister with my cousins, because she really wanted to try it. I was in dance class at the same time the foundation’s Saturday program took place. When the class ended for the season, my parents decided instead of going back to dance, I would join fencing the following season. I was completely opposed to the idea. Next thing I knew, I was part of the PWF after school program, which develops top level athletes.
Q: What was it about fencing that made you want to stick with it?
I stuck with fencing because it felt natural to me. It is an awkward sport. The positioning of your body and the movement with your leg and arm are different than in any other sport but, somehow I felt and looked natural. I stuck with it because I knew I could be good.
Q: Why did you choose Epee as your weapon of mastery and not Foil, or Saber?
When I began taking classes with the Saturday enrichment program, the time came for me to choose a weapon. I was presented with two options, sabre or epee. When I looked at the sabre group, they were on the ground doing push ups simultaneously; I then looked at the epee group, there were younger instructors and the kids looked like they were having fun. So, naturally I chose epee.
Q: Please explain the difference between the three forms?
Epee, foil and sabre all have different rules and target areas. Epee is the easiest to understand for non-fencers because there is no right-of-way and the target is the entire body — you can hit anywhere with any action. Both sabre and foil have right-of-way which means you have to establish your attack or end the other person’s attack. It’s really complicated, even a lot of fencers struggle with the concept. Sabre and foil are different because of the timing and target areas. Sabre is really fast and the bout doesn’t stop at any point until someone hits on target, then it’s up to the director to make the call. Also with sabre, the target is from the waist up and they hit with the side of the blade while foil and epee hit with the tip. The target area for foil is the torso and the bout stops whenever a hit is made on target or off, which means the pace of the bout is typically much slower.
Q: You carry an unusual name and participate in fencing, not a typical sport. Do you believe it was instilled in you, to stand out be different, and have your own identity? How do you feel taking the road less traveled has shaped your life?
Fencing obviously changed my life because it has provided so many opportunities that I never imagined. When I started fencing, my teammates told me I had a fencing name because many of us have very unique and beautiful names. I think that my name has a lot to do with who I am. I think I have a lot more ground to cover in terms of my life; however, I think I’m on the right path.
Q: You are an NCAA fencing champion. Where did you go to college?
I went to St. John’s University in Queens, NY.
Q: What other titles have you held during your fencing career?
I hold the 2019 US National Championship and 2019 Pan American Team Champions titles.
Q: Do you hope to compete in the Olympics and if so, how close are you to making that your reality?
I began training full time for the Olympics in January of 2019. However, I made the commitment in 2016 to make a bid for the 2020 team. The top four ranked in the US, in each weapon, will go to the Olympics. I’m 5th and I have one qualifier remaining.
Q: I know you fence with the US team, so you know many of the athletes who have had to postpone their Olympic dreams due to the pandemic. How do you think this situation will affect the future of sports on a national and international level, for both athletes and spectators? How has it affected you mentally and physically?
There is a lot of unknown right now. My goal is to stay positive and to try not to think about it too hard. I feel like I was just getting the hang of competitions. I was strong and I was performing at a high level. It will be interesting to see how I get back to that. I don’t think sports will be the same for a while. Organizing international events is going to be extremely tough for a long time.
Q: What does a normal training schedule consist of, and how has that changed since the quarantine?
I usually trained 6-7 days a week, splitting time between two fencing clubs, my personal trainer and occasional Pilates training. I would spend 4-7 hours at the fencing club Tuesday through Friday and work with my trainer 2 days a week. On Mondays and Saturdays, I would only participate in group class. Quarantine to me just means staying active. There’s no way to replicate what I was doing before the pandemic. I feel that training for an unknown event is unnecessary; however, making sure my body is ready to resume training is important. My goal is to work out everyday and include some time for footwork and target practice, and above all, if I need to rest, I rest. That was something I never did before. I didn’t take days off.
Q: I had the pleasure of interviewing US fencer Nzingha Prescod for MCBMI in 2015. She was a 2012 Olympian and was training with hope of returning to the games in 2016. In 2012, she was one of four people of African descent on the Olympic team. That was eight years ago. How, if at all, has the face of US fencing changed and will that change trickle over to other Olympic sports?
Nzingha is my friend and teammate. We come from a talented group of predominantly Black American fencers. Our club has sent fencers to the Olympics since our founder, Peter Westbrook, retired after the 1996 games. The face of fencing has been evolving since then. This Is evident by the team’s exceptional international results. Last year, 8 athletes from our club participated at World Championships and we sent one athlete to Junior and Cadet World Championships. That talented young woman won both the Junior and Cadet individual World Championship titles. Fencing is becoming a bigger and a more diverse sport in major ways. New York is the mecca of that transformation.
Q: Have you had to deal with any adversities as an athlete? If so, what, and what has kept you going?
The sport was basically for privileged elite white athletes. Starting the sport at a competitive level is a road block because it’s really expensive. Luckily, the PWF provided financial support for people in need. They still provide support however it’s commitment and results based now. There also have been little things here and there but, because I have teammates who share similar experiences and look like me they weren’t really difficult for me personally to overcome. There’s always a battle to overcome.
Q: What does the future hold for you with fencing and your career?
I hope that I will be able to complete the qualification for the Olympics and compete with my teammates. If I don’t make it, I’ll just try again. It will be a totally different journey but, worth the experiences. When I qualify and compete at the games, I think I’ll be content and able to move on from the sport and experience everything that I sort of missed out on because I was busy training. I’m excited for when that time comes.
Q: Why did you agree to be a part of MCBMI?
I really believe in supporting people, especially when it’s tied to something positive. I also try to promote active lifestyles to the people around me. It is easier for people to understand me if they are active people. It’s also a chance to share my story because to me it’s not such a special story but my story could help or encourage someone during these uncertain times. I thought if I can make a difference for someone… why not?!