Jessica Burke overcomes illness, hardships to become star fencer
Not many athletes can boast that they are Olympic candidates in a sport that they once hated. And not many athletes can return to championship form after suffering a career-threatening illness.
Senior Jessica Burke of the Penn State fencing team is one of a rare breed, however.
Burke was first introduced to fencing when her mother stumbled upon an advertisement in her hometown library in Maryland. Burke, then only 8-years-old, reluctantly followed the lead. Burke’s first experiences on the fencing strips were ones of discouragement and dejection, and her fencing career nearly ended almost as quickly as it started.
Her father, Greg, however, would hear none of it. Unbeknownst to Burke, her father urged one of the team members to persuade her to stay with the team.
PHOTO: Adam R. Harvey
Jessica Burke fences during the Garret Penn State Open. Burke has fenced on two national champion Penn State squads, captured a women’s epee championship and garnered All-America honors twice.
Though her father’s scheme bordered on bribery, it paved the foundation on which a champion was built.
Fast forward to 2003 where Burke has fenced on two national champion Penn State squads, captured a women’s epee championship and garnered All-America honors twice.
If the resolve of a champion is measured by the adversity that she overcomes, then Burke is a champion of champions.
After a stellar freshman season in 1999-2000 in which Burke posted a 32-5 record en route to winning the NCAA Women’s Epee National Championship, Burke was forced to look adversity in the eye.
In 2000, she began her sophomore campaign 7-0 but battled constant sickness, severe abdominal pain and drastic weight loss.
Burke’s season abruptly came to a halt as she was later diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an illness that attacks the gastrointestinal system and impairs the immune system.
“For the first time, my life was at risk,” Burke says, recalling the first moments in which she tried to come to grips with the disease.
When Burke was admitted into the hospital, doctors had not yet deemed Crohn’s as the root of the symptoms. While in the hospital, the pain in her intestines was so excruciating that she couldn’t muster the strength to eat, and instead her diet consisted of only liquid foods.
Things took a turn for the worst when Burke suffered an allergic reaction to her drug treatment. One night, Burke, on the way to the bathroom, suddenly passed out and remained unconscious for three to four hours. Fortunately for Burke, her father, who stayed with her throughout her hospital stay, broke the fall, catching her before she hit the ground.
“She was white as a ghost,” her father says, detailing the frightening collapse. “The sweat was just pouring off her face.”
For Burke, the hospital stay wasn’t the hardest part. Because of severe weight and muscle loss, she was unable to walk on her own — even after she was permitted to leave the hospital.
“I was petrified,” Burke says. “I felt helpless.”
For weeks, Burke was confined to a wheelchair and when she attempted to walk she had to cling to others for support. Burke’s boyfriend, Jonathan Cohen, played an active role in helping her get back onto her feet.
“I remember when it was a big accomplishment for Jessica to walk to a car 50 feet away,” Cohen says.
Depending on others was a role that Burke was unfamiliar with as she learned to become self-sufficient when she moved to Rochester, N.Y., to live on her own at 14.
In Rochester, she enrolled at the Rochester Fencing Centre, where she was coached by 6-time Olympian Michael Marx.
Because her parents lived hours away in Maryland and because she was new to the program, Burke often traveled to her first World Cup competitions on her own, sometimes finding a family to stay with, or if need be, sleeping in airports.
“When I look back, I think it’s incredible how she did all this stuff by herself,” her father says.
From an athletic standpoint, the experience was positive, Burke said, but she suspects that the stress and anxiety she experienced at the Rochester program caught up with her.
“You become a machine,” Burke says. “I became more afraid of losing than wanting to win. Where do you go from the top?”
In retrospect, Burke suspects that her bout with Crohn’s disease was related to repressed feelings at Rochester stemming from the fear of losing.
“I think that it was caused 100 percent by stress and eating habits while I was at Rochester,” she says.
Because she was living independently and on a tight budget, Burke would sometimes go without food for days — and sometimes as long as a week.
Life vastly improved for Burke upon her arrival to Penn State in 1999. Whereas she was used to taking care of herself, at Penn State, 21-year Penn State fencing coach Emmanuil Kaidanov helped to lift that burden, Burke says.
“He takes on a very grandfatherly role,” Burke says of Kaidanov. “He’s very compassionate. He’s always looked out for me.” Even when she was in the hospital, Kaidanov — and his wife — continued to lend their support.
“They were very supportive,” Burke says. “Someone was always there.”
Thanks to the support of her family, coaches and teammates, Burke made a strong comeback last season, tallying five more wins (37) than her solid rookie year.
She placed second at the Mid-Atlantic/South Regional tournament and earned All-America status at nationals with a second-place finish.
Burke’s been at it again this season, posting a 21-4 record and capturing the women’s epee title at the Penn State Garret Open and the NAC Open.
Burke’s biggest challenge still lies ahead — a possible Olympic appearance in the summer of 2004.