From the New York Times, August 30, 2000
OLYMPICS; First, There Was Parrying With Mother
Arlene Stevens remembers the day six years ago when her mother dragged her off the couch in their Rochester living room, bundled her into the car and drove her to the local fencing center as she protested loudly the entire way.
Stevens, now 19, remembers how she hated it. When she was 8, before she started formal lessons, she saw these stern older coaches yelling at children who scurried to obey. When she began fencing, there were the awkward stances she was forced to stumble through, and the aches of her muscles, strained by unfamiliar movements. There were silly spandex pants to wear under oversized T-shirts. There was the embarrassment of losing to fencers who were better.
”It’s scary going into something where you don’t know a lot of people and you don’t know a lot about it,” said Stevens, who will be the lone United States female epee representative at the Sydney Summer Olympics. ”It was always interesting, but when you’re learning something and it’s hard you kind of don’t want to do it.
”My mom was like, ‘You’re going to go,’ and I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t think so.’ ”
As she talks about the past, her expressive face shifts and her hands fly: widened 8-year-old eyes watch nervously as ”big powerful people” angrily ordered small pupils around; a memory of the time she visited her friends Iris and Felicia Zimmerman at their foil practices; her hands up with a 13-year-old’s defiance to ward off her mother, bent on making her fence.
And Stevens laughs, amused about the blocks she erected for herself and quietly proud that she overcame them. And beside her at the Olympics will be Iris Zimmerman, 19, and her sister Felicia, 25, who are members of the United States foil team. The best friends who all grew up in Rochester, possess the same Chinese heritage on their mothers’ sides and the same love of fencing, can now share one more thing: an Olympic dream.
”There are no words to explain how amazing this is going to be, my actual sister — and my other sister,” Iris said. ”It’s amazing.”
The Zimmermans guided Arlene through the early months, offering advice that ranged from fencing tips to how to fill out tournament applications.
”They seem to be like Yodas,” Arlene said. ”They have the experience. And we’re so close, like sisters. They’ve been, like, the whole year, ‘We know you can do it Arlene.’ ”
When she started, it did not seem as if she would do it — or even still be fencing in the year 2000. For the first four months, Arlene constantly begged her mother to let her quit, but was rebuffed. She wanted to join the drama club. Her mother said no.
”I’m a mean mother,” Vivian Stevens said, chuckling. ”We usually make a deal, you start something, you finish it. I wouldn’t allow her to quit until she finished the season. By the time she finished the season she was so good she didn’t want to quit.”
Arlene said: ”I think she knew that I could do really well with this. And she knows me. She’s one of my best friends. So she didn’t want me to give up so soon. I took a little time to learn how to make it exactly so I would like it, and it worked out really well.”
The change in attitude began when Arlene switched from foil to epee, an event in which a touch on any part of the body counts and both fencers get credit if they make contact at the same time. Suddenly her coach’s instructions started making sense. She saw her opponents’ lights begin flickering out, signaling touches as her long, lithe arms snaked inside defenses.
Her 6-foot, ballet-trained frame could glide back easily to avoid jabs, then bend slightly to tap an opponent’s arm or side while dancing maddeningly out of reach. She began to win. Fencing had become fun.
”It was really fun and just different to do,” she said. ”They describe it as physical chess. You have to know what your opponent is thinking, predict what your opponent is going to do. Know how they are. It’s like poker, knowing if they’re bluffing.”
Arlene was promoted to elite class eighth months after starting. In 1998, her coach sat down privately with Vivian and hinted that her daughter might be able to contend for the Olympic team.
When it came time to choose a college last year, Arlene picked St. John’s over Penn because of what she called a superior fencing program and its understanding attitude toward athletes. But the shy teenager — who wouldn’t allow her family to watch her fence until recently — lived alone in an apartment, cooked her own meals and met few people outside of fencing.
It was lonely, especially since the final two months were spent traveling by herself to fencing tournaments around the world. She spent only two days a week on campus.
”This is a big regret for me,” she said of her unusual and isolated freshman year. But practicing for three to four hours six days a week and traveling constantly made it difficult to keep in touch with old friends, let alone make new ones.
She would call her mother from hotel rooms, frustrated and unhappy, and the woman she calls ”her stronghold” would calm her down. Vivian also knew the soothing words to say when Arlene called frantically the night before the final Olympic trials in Hungary, sobbing into the phone how scared she was. ”I said: ‘Don’t be, you’re only 19. What are you worrying about? Just do your best,’ ” Vivian said. ”I try to be very open with my kids. Say what it is.”
The next call was a giddy greeting at 4 a.m. Eastern time. She had made the team.
”She’s kind of the leader of the pack,” Iris said. ”She was able to maintain a high G.P.A. and train and go to the world cup and maintain friendships — that’s really difficult for anybody. I tell Arlene all the time, it’s amazing what you’ve done. And she’s done it all herself.”
Photo: Arlene Stevens will be the only U.S. women competing in epee next month in Sydney. (Gary Dunkin for The New York Times)