When Michaela Joyce took her first fencing class four years ago, the sport filled her dreams for weeks. Michaela, now 15 and a rising star on the international fencing circuit, had found her passion.
As the Sterling teen rises in world rankings, with a good shot at a world championship competition next year and Olympic dreams for 2024, she’s handling the pressure with joy and grace.
“Sometimes I think there’s one thing that all of us have in life,” Michaela said. “There’s always something that just clicks. …What clicks for me is fencing.”
“She has fun with it. The thing that makes someone good at fencing is that they love it,” said Ilya Lobanenkov, Michaela’s coach and founder of Cardinal Fencing Academy in Sterling. “She’s very artistic on the strip, she has good reaction times and she’s joyful. … She’s there because she wants to be there.”
Michaela is an internationally ranked contender in the highly athletic epee event—one of three disciplines of competitive fencing. She recently took second place in the cadet (17 and under) division at the North American Cup in Kansas City, MO. She’s also a gifted student and one of several young role models for her sport as it grows in Northern Virginia.
For Michaela, it started in sixth grade when Lobanenkov did a demo at her school, Nysmith School for the Gifted in Herndon. Already a promising volleyball and basketball player, Michaelabrought her mom the flyer for the academy that afternoon and told her she had to give it a try. And the real draw was the psychological side of the sport.
“I was just hooked,” Michaela said. “It’s physical chess. You’re creating a game. You’re building a way to win from the beginning. That mental aspect of the sport just took me away.”
Michaela laughs when she remembers her first tournament at age 11, just three weeks after starting lessons at The National Fencing Foundation’s annual Capitol Clash Tournament in Maryland.
“I fenced, I tried my best, I came in second to last place. … I looked at my parents and said, ‘Mom and Dad, when I’m 12 I’m going to get top 16. When I’m 13, I’m going to get top 8 and when I’m 14, I’m going to win.”
For the past four years, Michaela, a sophomore day student at the prestigious Madeira School in McLean, has balanced an increasingly packed competition schedule with a challenging academic load. It’s meant plenty of sacrifices for the teen and her parents.Michael and Johnetta Joyce have supported their daughter’s dream, traveling with Michaela to several international competitions every season and covering the costs of coaching, equipment and travel expenses.
“She’s a natural, but what’s most important is that she loves it,” Johnetta said.
The familyhas already traveled to Budapest, Hungary, this season and will head to France and Germany in coming months as Michaela becomes a well-known face on the international circuit, with friends and fans around the world. For the Joyces, these are sacrifices worth making for theironly child, who always preferredsword fighting with her dad to playing with dolls.
“I know I’ve only gotten to this spot because Coach Ilya and my parents were willing to invest in me and make sure I had everything I needed to be in the place I am today, and I’m just so grateful for that,” Michaela said. “Every lesson I put in 110 percent, 120 percent because I know what they’re doing for me. This is my way of giving back to them.”
And Michaela’s combination of intelligence and athleticism may be just the right mix to take her all the way.
“[In fencing] there’s an action and there could be six ways to defend yourself, but then the other person has seven ways to defend themselves from your defense,” Michaela said.The sport has always had a similar appeal for Lobanenkov, who started around the same age as Michaela. Born in Russia, Lobanenkov emigrated to Seattle with his parents at age 12. He took his first lessons in the European-dominated sport in the Pacific Northwest with an old-school Ukranian coach. Lobanenkov graduated from Portland State University and initially worked in information technology but wound up using a severance package from an IT firm to pursue his passion in Budapest, training with champions in a country known for producing top-level fencers.
When Lobanenkov moved back to the states, he chose the D.C. area to be near his parents in Bethesda and eventually got a full time coaching gig at the D.C. Fencers Club while he worked to build a program in Loudoun and Western Fairfax. Lobanenkov offered lessons and camps out of rented gyms in Reston and Sterling for several years and officially launched Cardinal Fencing Academy in an industrial space in Sterling in June, 2018.
Lobanenkov said fencing is on the rise with young athletes in U.S. and the D.C. region thanks to a new generation of coaches who are focused on technique but also on making the sport fun.
“We’ve really tried to introduce the joy of the sport to kids first,” he said. “Kids really light up when they see that it’s a sword fight with rules and etiquette…There’s this elitist mystique to it but we try to do a very inclusive approach.”
Michaela loves working with younger children at the academy and is a great role model with her work ethic and positive attitude, Lobanenkov said.
“She’s the first trailblazer who’s going places but she’s not going by herself. She’s bringing people with her.”
To learn more about Cardinal Fencing Academy, go to cardinalfencingacademy.com.