Becoming an NCAA Champion in fencing is a greater feat than most people realize. Student athletes, especially at the Ivy League level, do an incredible act of juggling seemingly impossible acts of academic achievement and athletic prowess. Iman Blow showed us how this can be possible.
Her list of achievements in fencing start with her training at the Peter Westbrook Foundation. She would go on to become part of the Cadet World Championship Team in 2014, then the Junior World Championship teams in 2015, 2016, and 2017, bringing home three Silver medals in the team event and a Bronze in the individual competition. As part of the Columbia University Fencing Team under the guidance of Michael Aufrichtig, Iman has continued to excel. She is the 2018 NCAA Women’s Foil Champion and is an NCAA National Team Champion in both 2016 and 2019. She is currently participating in the Olympic qualification process, with hopes of making it to Tokyo in 2021.
Iman Blow is a foilist who has forged her own way in fencing. She is both a powerhouse fencer and a powerhouse student, a remarkable athlete and a relatable young woman. More than anything, what we find extraordinary about her is the grounded nature with which she views both her success and how she has gotten there. Iman lays out each step she has taken to lead her to the doorstep of the Olympics, and she does so in a refreshingly accessible way.
Iman is generous in her zeal for the sport of fencing, firm in her resolve to promote it. To that end, she has organized the Aspire to Inspire National College Tour, which allows middle and high school fencers to learn more about fencing in college, direct from the people who are living it – college fencers. It’s a rare opportunity that we encourage you to participate in. You can register for this series of events, which begin on July 11, by clicking on this link. Iman was kind enough to give readers of this blog a discount of 40% with the coupon code AFM-SPECIAL-40OFF
When you read this interview, you’ll find insight into Ivy League and internationally competitive fencing that is actionable and reachable.
Iman Blow Interview
Igor – It’s great to see you. How are you doing?
Iman – I’m doing really well. I’ve been feeling energized with all that I’ve had going on.
IG – What’s energizing you now?
IB – I started working on some projects to help increase representation and access to fencing. Just creating those projects, creating those programs has given me a lot of energy.
IG – Is this Aspire to Inspire College Tour part of this project?
IB – Yes. The Aspire to Inspire Academy. The first thing that I did was the Fundamentals of Fencing clinic, which was an introductory clinic for people who haven’t been exposed to fencing. Then I did a “#This is what a fencer looks like” Instagram live video, where I talked to a bunch of different athletes about how they started fencing and why representation in our sport is important. Most recently, I created a virtual series of college panels (The Aspire to Inspire National College Tour), for high schoolers and middle schoolers, for parents and clubs, just to provide more information on what it is like to actually be a student athlete and manage that experience. We have fifteen colleges that are part of the panel.
Finding a love of fencing
IG – Not many people understand it. It looks like a holy grail for many parents, many fencers. It’s definitely one of the ways to get to the college. People don’t really understand what sacrifices an athlete makes in order to succeed both academically and athletically.
How did you find the sport?
IB – My family friends told us about the Peter Westbrook Foundation, their Saturday program. We all signed up for it, me and my two brothers. In the end, me and my twin brother were offered a scholarship to the afterschool program. When Peter Westbrook invited us to do the competitive program after school, he told me that I had potential and that I could be an Olympian one day. That was important probably in me deciding to try it more intensely, but also just believing that I could accomplish something as great as being an Olympian.
IG – That’s how you started. Why did you like it?
IB – That’s the funny thing. I didn’t like it. It was very physically challenging for me. I don’t think I had ever done anything that was as hard on my body as fencing was, but my dad told me to keep doing it because fencing was going to take me places. At the time, I was young and I was thinking that all we were doing was going down the block from my house to Brooklyn to the fencing club or coming to the city to Manhattan. We’re not really going anywhere. It took me until I was about fourteen to really appreciate fencing.
I think between nine and fourteen I really liked competing. I really liked trying to win. I worked very hard. I had Nzingha Prescod as a teammate, and she would lunge long, so I would try to lunge as long or longer. I became fourteen and I fenced in my second Cadet event and I came in third. It was at that tournament that I really connected with that idea of fencing well. Living it and wanting to train and improve my skills – my technique and my strategy, so I could trick people and make really nice touches and really beautiful moments. It took me a while.
IG – For the first five years you didn’t really love fencing.
IB – It was something that I was good at and I recognized that. Peter told me that I had potential. For a couple of months after I won that first tournament, it felt good to work hard at something and see the results and be successful at what you’re doing. I liked competing. I like the community that I had with the people at the Foundation. With young kids, it’s just about stabbing people and winning. It took me until I was fourteen to understand the ideas behind fencing.
When I’m out here, I’m not just trying to hit. I’m not just trying to attack or parry. They’re trying to hit me here, and I need to try to show them where and get them to attack. The thoughts about trying to trick your opponent and make those beautiful decisions. That’s when I got more involved in the fencing logic. The fencing strategy part.
I think the crazy thing is that it wasn’t even that I was like “I want to be an Olympian one day. Everyday I’m working hard to be an Olympian.” Moreso that I’m on a path where if I keep going and I keep working hard from where I am that I could be an Olympian.
IG – So you knew back then that you could become an Olympian.
IB – Yes. Because I was surrounded by a bunch of Olympians.
The process of becoming an Ivy League Champion
IG – How was your process? What did you start to do as an athlete to pursue this path?
IB – My process was very specific to me. I spoke about the Peter Westbrook Foundation and one of the things was that many of the people I fenced with had gone to Columbia. Erinn Smart, Olympic silver medalist had gone to college at Columbia University. Nzingha Prescod, two time Olympian, had gone to Columbia University and was there when I was in high school. Other people in my program had done these things. I just knew a lot of people from there in my program. They all went to Columbia and they made these teams and they became Olympians, so for me it was like a path – I’m going to go to Columbia and make these teams and become an Olympian.
For a lot of kids, it’s a really stressful process to apply to colleges. For me, I think that I was a pretty good student. I didn’t have all A’s, but I was a pretty solid student and in my junior year I made the Cadet World Team and I was fourth in the world and second in the country. I wasn’t working super hard in fencing to get a recruitment, nor was I specifically trying to get super good grades to be a good candidate. I think it was just a general idea that these people did it and I’m going to do it and the excellence that I was surrounded by and the examples that the people showed me that put me into that position if that makes sense.
My fencing coach was also saying at the time that if I wanted to be an Olympic fencer that I should probably go harder on Columbia because they would have the resources for me to compete at the level that I was. There’s a lot of other schools, but I was always being set up and put in a position where I could go to the Olympics one day. Part of that was being set up going to university that would provide me with those tools. Clearly academically strong, but then also have the athletic resources to continue to develop the way that I was developing.
Michael Aufrichtig was super welcoming towards me. I would be in New York. I could still train with my coach, which was something that was really important to me. The academics were great. The athletics resources as I came to find out were really really solid.
IG – You did need to personally work hard to be recruited, but fencing by itself worked hard for you.
IB – I didn’t work to be recruited, I worked to make teams and I tried to learn in school and it worked out for me personally. I think for me, I was able to be successful enough as a fencer at that time that I was a good candidate to be recruited to Columbia and possibly to Harvard.
IG – Definitely Harvard lost the NCAA champion, that’s for sure.
IB – Something else to think about is Michael. He’s very welcoming, he’s a great coach. He creates a comforting environment. When I visited Harvard, I didn’t feel that same way. I didn’t have that same feeling. Even though I was looking at both the schools and seeing which one I was going to go to, I feel like I am more wanted and happier and accepted at Columbia.
IG – You’ve said previously that life for a student athlete was totally different from anything else. You miss a lot of opportunities. You need to juggle between tons of different tournaments.
IB – There’s levels. There’s not being a college athlete. There’s being a college athlete. There’s being a college athlete that competes nationally. Then there’s being a college athlete that competes nationally and internationally.
IG – You went for the whole nine yards.
IB – I did. For me, I think the thing you have to consider is I just don’t think fencing, once you start going to college you have to start thinking about how serious a commitment fencing is to you. I think a lot of us love fencing, there’s a lot of things as an adult that you can love, that you can find ways to fit into your schedule that don’t dominate your schedule.
Even social events like birthday parties, things half the time you’re not there. Sororities. Being able to commit to joining a sorority. All those different things, you’re making a sacrifice. It’s thinking about, what do I want from fencing? Then more realistically thinking about, what can I actually obtain from it? Am I going to be an Olympic fencer? Am I going to be an NCAA champion? Am I going to compete well at NACs and really enjoy the NAC experience while going to college? If the answers are yes, then I’m into that fully. If you’re questioning it, it might be more reasonable to explore other options where you can still have fencing be a part of your college experience or your life, but maybe not dominate that experience.
I think there’s take backs from both ends depending on how rigorous the academic experience is and how rigorous the athletic experience is. I think people just have to consider what part they want fencing to play in their life, and I think it’s important to be open.
Stress and balance
IG – Why was it so important for you to be an international fencer? What was the drive?
IB – For me, again I just had examples of it working and I just saw myself going to Columbia and potentially an Olympian. I wanted to make sure I didn’t take that opportunity away from myself. Seeing that it was a viable thing that I could do was something that I didn’t want to let go of and that I thought I could definitely balance with being a college student.
IG – Pushing through and making a goal for you and making sure you do everything possible to reach it is one of the characteristics of what I hear. You put in a gap year in your studies to work towards qualifying for the Olympics. You have to fight for this. Knowing you, as you know yourself, how do you deal with this kind of pressure?
IB – I can tell you that during the season it was very stressful. I’d never dealt with the type of stress like this because there are so many variables. I think that my approach at this point is just try as hard as I can to be present in the moment. A lot of the reason why people don’t compete well, particularly during the Olympic season is because they’re very stressed about what could happen and what couldn’t happen. If I lose this bout, I may not make the Olympic team. Which feels like a different type of pressure.
What I have to be resolved with is that I may not make this team. There are a lot of people going for this same spot. Anything could happen at the tournament. I could twist my ankle in the first pool bout. There was a tournament where I rolled my ankle really bad in the second pool bout and still had to fence for four days. I could have a horrible path. I could have an amazing path.
There are so many variables that the only thing you really can do is to prepare yourself mentally and physically to execute one touch really well and hopefully that’s enough. I think that this pressure that I could either be an Olympian or bust doesn’t make a lot of sense because there’s so much more about me. Whoever makes this Olympic team is going to be great for it. Whoever makes this Olympic team is going to have earned it and worked hard for it.
For me, it’s about allowing myself to give my best performance and me being ok with whatever that is. I could make a top eight and someone could just go off and go crazy and make a top four and I don’t make the team. Did that mean that I didn’t work hard? Did that mean I didn’t make a great result? No, it just didn’t work out my way. I think it’s a balance between working super hard to give your best performance and being ok with that performance, no matter what it is.
IG – It’s very difficult to realize for people that what matters is not the result but the effort you put in to get there.
IB – I think I was really fortunate growing up that my dad really emphasized me competing and doing my best. I honestly think the reason why I was making a lot of these teams is that I didn’t feel like my parents hated me when I lost or that it was the end of the world. I was more able to focus on being relaxed and trying to fence when I needed to fence. You mentioned me taking a year off – even if I don’t make it to the team, the amount that I have learned about myself, about my ability to work under pressure, stress techniques, stress dealing techniques, and about my capabilities, is enormous. That’s something that I could use in my life, moving forward. Beyond the Olympic Games.
IG – You are very wise for a twenty-two year old woman.
IB – Maybe it’s because I turn twenty-three on Thursday.
The critical role of honesty and planning
IG – How did you cope with all the academic requirements?
IB – One is using all of your academic resources. I would meet with the career development department. I would meet with my advisor regularly from the very beginning so that I would make sure that I was able to graduate in the four years. I’d be able to start Olympic qualifiers in my fourth year. From the very beginning, I made sure to plan out my academic career so that I could get everything done and also be able to fence.
In terms of classwork and classes, I didn’t go to every class. College students don’t typically go to every class whether it’s due to exhaustion or work or for me also traveling. I always made sure to have someone in each one of my classes who was taking notes in the case that I was not there. Whenever I did go to class, I always made sure that I was really present when I was there. It’s that compartmentalization. When I’m at practice – fully there. When I’m in class – fully there.
In terms of study and exams, I’d have a lot of communication with my teachers. I let them know at the beginning of the year “My name is Iman. I’m trying to make a World team this year, but I also really care about my performance in your classroom. Here’s when I won’t be here. Can I discuss what assignments I can do earlier, do later, all that stuff.” I let them know that I am actively trying to do well in their course but also let them know that I have other goals so I don’t seem like I’m slacking off in their class or not giving enough effort.
That way they are aware of what I’m trying to do and that I’m committed to both. Initially using my coach and my advisor to make sure that if I have any conflicts and difficulties with teachers that I had somebody to advocate for me and what I was doing. Picking and choosing what has to get worked on, what really needs to get done for you to accomplish the goal in that class. Understanding what your goals are for that specific class and how that works in with your other courses.
Lastly, I would definitely mention mental and emotional resources. I had a sports psychologist that really helped me to manage the stress, both from fencing and from school. I spoke a lot with my family when I would get really stressed. My fencing coach Michael Aufrichtig was always willing to speak with me and help me with my difficulties. I had friends who would help me out, whether they would study with me or just be with me when I’m coming back from a tournament and I’m super jet lagged and I need to relax for a second and get myself together. I really do think that the core thing is using all of your resources and making sure to invest with what you’re doing in the moment and to create plans for what you’re going to do in the future.
IG – How acceptable is this to the professor?
IB – They just want to know that you care. You just have to communicate that you care about the work that they’re doing for you. The teachers are all working with you and for you. They’ve all been very understanding. One teacher, who as a rule never gave makeup tests, let me take a makeup test two weeks later because I was going to be at the World Championships during the exam. It’s simply because they want their students to be successful. They like it when their students are doing great and amazing things. They like to be communicated with. For me it’s really worked out well. I think it’s just about communicating.
IG – Did you get this advice from somebody?
IB – It’s something that I did in high school and worked out for me there and that I continued to do in college. It’s something that I thought of myself. The whole idea is if you collaborate with someone, it’s no longer just you versus them. Them versus you and your schedule. It’s them working with you to have the best experience.
What’s next for Iman Blow?
IG – What’s next for you? What do you see in fencing for you?
IB – I think I take things step by step. So I did the college step, and now I’m post college. Right now, I’m at an interesting point where I can do a lot of different things. I know I’m going to complete these Olympic trials for sure. After those, I’m going to negotiate how I’m going to do my fencing career and what capacity I’m going to do it at. All that also depends on whether or not I make the team.
I’ve also been working on creating resources, education and general resources for people in the fencing community and people outside of it for people to be more familiar with the diversity in opportunities in fencing and to fill those gaps. Then preparing for medical school so that I can get to be a doctor. Those are kind of what I’ve been juggling around and focusing on different areas at different times.
Aspire to Inspire National College Tour
IG – So you don’t see fencing as your career. Not an end goal, but a milestone along the road. This project, the Aspire College Tour. For you, what do you think students will gain from it and why is it important for them to sign up?
IB – This first iteration of it, this student athletics for fencers, in a lot of it I talked about communicating with my teachers or using the resources that I have at my school. It took me four years to really understand all of the resources that I had. I was fortunate that I even had some of these resources before applying at Columbia.
Additionally, I think it’s important to just get an idea of what being a student athlete is like. Whether it’s for you or which one you would like, because at these different universities it’s different. Columbia’s team is different from Harvard’s which is different from Ohio State’s which is different from Stanford’s.
Then also, getting an introduction to what you could be doing, what college fencing could be. Whether you want to do that or not in general and just having the idea to explore what it would be like at different universities. Even for me as a graduate, I don’t know what it would be like to have gone to these different colleges and it will give me the opportunity to learn about that.
I’m asking everyone to talk about, at least briefly, now that they’ve graduated and gone to university for four years, what’s something they would have thought about or considered when they were applying? I’ve done this process. I’ve done this applying thing. I have more information that might have been helpful when I was applying and trying to choose how I wanted to do it and where I wanted to go.
IG – Looking back at yourself, what didn’t you know back then four years or five years ago that you know now and what would you change?
IB – For me, using all of the resources that I have. Particularly, using sports psychology has been essential to me being able to manage my academics and my athletics. One example is like my best semester was my last semester, in which I had Olympic qualifiers, NCAA tournaments, and I had to graduate. Because I had my sports psychologist who I got to talk to both about competing and about managing my academics, I was able to complete it successfully and very well.
Something else I would say is to look at the resources that your school has specifically for athletes. Columbia has a career development center for Columbia University, but Columbia Athletics has its own department specifically for athletes. I’ve found more than anything that I can use that department. It’s been specifically helpful and useful for me as a student athlete to get opportunities that fit in my schedule and work with what I’m trying to do.
I think that if you want to be a high achieving student and an athlete, or even if you just want to be a student athlete and really focus on the academic side, having someone like that is very important. Not all schools have that. That would be something that I would want someone to consider. Does your school have good resources academically for athletes if that’s something that you really want to pursue.
IG – Could you describe the difference between collegiate fencing and club fencing?
IB – Fencing in college is very team oriented. I know that clubs have teams, but in college you work very closely with your teammates. Not only are you working with them athletically, but also you tend to be working with them academically. You end up having the same crazy schedules, you hang out a lot, you eat together. It’s more of like a close knit team that you spend a lot more time with than you would at a club. In addition at tournaments, like the NCAA‘s Ivy Championship, your bout matters for the whole team. It’s not just about you winning your tournaments for the school, it’s about you winning with other people.
IG – You have both titles, team and individual right?
IB – Yes.
IG – Describe the difference between the feeling for each on.
IB – I know that winning an individual title is special for me because of what I had to overcome to do it, but winning a team title is super special because it’s not just about having you perform your best, but to have everyone perform their really well and do it for one another.
IG – And everybody got their ring.
IB – Yes, everybody got their rings. I think I have like five or something. I used to wear my Ivy League ring like a class ring. Earlier this year I was honored as a top ten NCAA athlete, so I wore it to that ceremony. Any time I have a big ceremony, I’ll wear it.
IG – You are very relatable, whether it is as an athlete or as an academic student. It’s great when a typical American girl can reach those big dreams and put the goals and pursue them. I have learned so much from you in this interview, and I wish you great luck for Tokyo.
Iman – Thank you for having me. I really appreciate your time!
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Iman was so generous with her time. It is published with her approval on this blog.
We at AFM are so grateful to Iman Blow for her time. Her candid answers and openness about what it takes to fence at the highest levels gives us a great deal of insight! Thank you Iman!
Please check out Iman’s Aspire to Inspire College Tour to learn more about college fencing from the athletes themselves. Apply AFM-SPECIAL-40OFF coupon code for 40% discount