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Marx, Leslie

2-time US Epee champion Leslie Marx

When Leslie Marx is asked how she is able to juggle her position as an assistant professor at the Simon School of business at the University of Rochester with her standing as the top U.S. epee fencer, she responds with a laugh, “A forgiving employer.”

Leslie Marx fencing for the United States in the ’96 Olympic Games

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More Than Athletes
Despite the demands of their sport, some Olympians find success and fulfillment outside of the arena.
Article by Lawrence Mondi

Baron Pierre De Coubertin, the French nobleman who revived the Olympic Games, was a firm believer in the ancient Greek ideal of exercising mind and body in harmony. The role of sport is “at once physical, moral and social,” he wrote, “I have often noticed that those who find themselves first in physical exercises are also first in their studies. The serious devotion in one area promotes the desire to be first throughout.

Photo by Joe Gawlowicz for Time

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More than a century later, Coubertin’s image of a sound mind in a sound body continues to flourish. Competing with the millionaire basketball players and logo-laden runners will be fencers and rowers and shooters who have no major endorsements but who do have demanding careers as teachers, doctors, law-enforcement officers, and lawyers. While they’re not necessarily smarter or faster than other athletes, they can say that they have a better balance.

Take Nancy Reno for example. She is not only an Olympic hopeful in volleyball, but a marine biologist as well. Or rower Ruth Davidon, who became the fastest single-sculler in the U.S. while pursuing a medical degree at Johns Hopkins and a doctorate at Harvard simultaneously. Or triple jumper Mike Conley who happens to be a deputy sheriff at Washington County, Arkansas. And Americans aren’t the only ones with uncommon pursuits. Conley’s arrival in the triple jump, Britain’s world-record holder Jonathan Edwards, worked in a genetics lab in Newcastle until recently.

They are all smart, yes, but they are also efficient managers of time who can maintain intense concentration and energy for long periods. In some cases they need a helping hand. When Leslie Marx is asked how she is able to juggle her position as an assistant professor at the Simon School of business at the University of Rochester with her standing as the top U.S. epee fencer, she responds with a laugh, “A forgiving employer.”

In fact, during the last winter quarter, Marx was able to get a teaching schedule that put her in the classroom three days a week, but allowed her enough time to leave after her last class for weekend competitions in Europe. Even finishing school for the summer didn’t free up much time for training or family. Her husband Michael, a five-time Olympian, is her coach. In mid-June she flew to Iowa to present a paper in her area of research: games theory. “Fencing, actually, is a good application,” she explains. ‘Fencers have to choose good strategies and try to influence the beliefs of their opponents.” Even the stratagem of trying to make an Olympic team should be considered with some deliberation. “What if you put your spirit on the line and it doesn’t work out?” she asks. “Should you not make the team, you have to believe that you are still a valuable person, that your friends will still love you and your family will still be there or you. It takes that set of beliefs to enable you to expand all of the energy, time, and emotion to try to reach that goal, knowing that it might– or might not– work out.


Biography of Leslie Marx

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Upon arriving at Duke University in the fall of 1985 as an undergraduate, I realized that there was no chance I would be able to continue my high school sport of basketball at the college level at a place like Duke.  So, in hopes of finding a new sport, I attended an assembly for the freshman where each PE instructors made a pitch for his or her sport.  Alex Beguinet was up on stage talking about fencing, and he made it sound like lots of fun.  So I signed up for the PE class.  As it turned out, 1985 was Alex’s first year at Duke as well.  It some years before he had a regular stream of recruits coming to Duke, so there were a few years during which he took people from the PE classes to participate on the varsity team.  Because of that opportunity, I was able to complete on the varsity team for part of my sophomore year and all of my junior and senior years.  Back in those days, women were only allowed to fence foil in NCAA competition, but I switched to epee upon graduation.

After graduating from Duke, I married fencer Michael Marx.  I started graduate school at Northwestern while Michael continued working at Notre Dame.  During graduate school I practiced with the Notre Dame fencers and at the Indiana Fencing Academy.  My first big international competition was the 1991 University Games in Sheffield, England.  Taking a break from graduate school, I spent much of 1992 living in Katowice, Poland, and trained with the fencers there.  As a testament to the benefits of that experience, by the end of the 1992 fencing season, I was ranked first in the U.S.  During 1992 I made one World Cup final, had one top-16 finish, one top-24 finish, and one top-32 finish.  Although women’s epee was not included in the 1992 Olympic Games, there was a special World Championships held for women’s epee that year in Havana, Cuba.  (I was soundly defeated in the individual event, but the U.S. team finished 7th.)

Health issues interferred with my fencing in the early part of 1993, although I won the U.S. National Championship that year (and again in 1996 in an undefeated two days of competition) and competed at the University Games, finishing 25th.

In 1994, I finished my PhD in Economics, took a job as a professor at the Simon School of Business at the Univeristy of Rochester, and started training at the Rochester Fencing Centre.  I was consistently ranked first during 1994, 1995, and 1996.  During the 1993-1994 season, I made one World Cup final and had four top-32 results.  I finished 29th at the World Championships.  I finished the year ranked 36th in the world.

In 1995, I competed at the Pan American Games and won the gold medal in the individual event and helped the team to a gold medel in the team event.

During the winter and spring of 1996, I competed in 16 international fencing competitions, including 13 in Europe and one in Cuba (travel to Cuba can take as long or longer than travel to Europe).  During the same period I taught two MBA courses and one Ph.D. course and completed research on collusion among the NASDAQ market makers. The hardest part about such a schedule is that for each pursuit, complete concentration and focus is required.  You can’t be pondering Bayes’ Theorem while facing off against a world champion fencer from Italy and expect victory; you can’t prove the existence of a competitive equilibrium for the NASDAQ market if you are worrying about how to get to Bratislava and back; and you can’t teach a class how to calculate a risk premium if you are so jet-lagged that you can’t concentrate at all.

The cost of making the 1996 US Olympic Team was high, but the event itself was incredible.  The competition itself was a success — I finished 16th in the individual event and the women’s epee team was 8th, both good results. I entered the Olympics as the 23rd seed, so the top-16 finish in the individual was above my expected finish.

I believe USFA Point Standings in the Athlete Programs Handbook for the 1996-1997 season reflect points at the end of the 1996 season — the Olympic year.  They show that I have 10900 points, including 6880 from international competitions, and the second place woman, Elaine Cheris, has 6010 points, and the third place woman has 4575 points.  For comparison, the top fencers in the other weapons had the following points: women’s foil – 11890, men’s epee – 7148, men’s foil – 6480, men’s sabre – 3920, women’s sabre – 3700. During the Olympic season, I placed in the top-16 at seven World Cups, including the bronze medal in Zoetermeyer, Netherlands.

[ASIDE: In introductory statistics classes, students are taught how to use Bayes’ Rule to update their beliefs about an uncertain situation to take into account the impact of new information.  This mathematical formula was developed in by Thomas Bayes (1702-1761), an English mathematician.  In the context of business decision making, Bayes’ Rule is important for calculating, say, how a good outcome in a test market affects the probability that a product will be a success.  In fencing, you are continually updating your beliefs about your opponent.  Each move they make reveals something about their intentions, tendencies, and ability. Successful fencers consciously update their beliefs about an opponent – they have  Bayes’ Rule running in their heads (whether they know it or not).]

[ANOTHER ASIDE: In MBA-level decision analysis classes, students are taught to solve decision trees by a process called “rolling back the tree” or “backward induction.”  In this process, you first determine the best course of action in the last period, then the next to last period, etc.  Finally, you determine the best course of action today, taking into account the fact that you will behave optimally in the future.  You must know what you are going to do in the future before you can figure out what the best decision is today.  Using backward induction forces you to be forward looking – something clearly valuable in usiness, and also valuable in fencing.  In Olympic level competition, you must be able to see all the way to the end of a bout.  You must realize that the attacks or defensive moves you use at  the beginning of a bout are going to affect how your opponent fences you later in the bout.  Sometimes you may want to “save your good moves for last” or at least try to disguise your true intentions initially.  You may want to make your opponent believe that she is doing OK so that you do not force her to try drastic measures.  A cornered animal can be a dangerous thing.]

My most memorable touch was in a bout to make the top-two in the final of a World Cup in The Netherlands.  I was fencing Gianna Burke from Switzerland, who won the silver medal at the 2000 Olympics.  She attacked and I parried. As I attempted to repost, she retreated quickly, but I was able to land the
repost on her foot before she got completely out of distance.  I lost the bout, soundly as I recall, but it was satisfying to get a round of applause from the audience on that one touch. A USFA news release from April 11, 1994, talking about the NAC#3 states: “Missing from this competition Leslie Marx who leads, is remaining in Europe to compete on the international level.  Without the dominating spectre of Marx, the field is open for other tome competitors …”  I thought it was kind of fun to be described as a “dominating spectre”, so I saved a copy of the news release.  The points standings in that news release show me with 2312, Margo with 1641, and Donna with 1520.

[Denouement: I continued fencing during the 1996-1997 season, but as an untenured professor, had to scale back my training to essentially nothing. Nevertheless, I made the world championship team that year and was the top-finishing women’s epeeist in that event.