Tucked away on a quiet side street in Sterling, children of all ages bounce out of their parents’ cars each morning for another day of summer camp. Only this isn’t a normal summer camp. Instead of sunscreen, kids are plied with fencing helmets and weapons each day.
This is a beginners-level camp at Ilya Lobanenkov’s Cardinal Fencing Academy, and the joy beaming from each child is as genuine as any other camp.
Lobanenkov, Cardinal Fencing Academy’s owner and head coach, is a fencing lifer determined to bring the sport out of the shadows and into the lives of anyone willing to take the plunge, from kids to adults alike. Previous fencing experience isn’t required, Lobanenkov stressed, and the academy’s biggest success story is living proof.
Michaela Joyce, winner of a silver medal at the 2019 Junior Olympics, started working with Lobanenkov when she was just 12, having never fenced a day in her life. She participated in a free clinic conducted by Lobanenkov at her school and that’s all it took.
“I just fell in love with the sport,” Joyce said. “When I got home [after the clinic], I was looking up YouTube videos and I just couldn’t stop talking about it.”
“My mom signed me up for a camp with Coach Ilya and I just loved it! I begged her to let me continue fencing and I’ve just continued and continued ever since.”
Four years have gone by since the teenager from Sterling first caught the fencing bug and the progress Joyce has made is remarkable. Not only did she learn the ins and outs of a sport foreign to most people but she’s one of the top-ranked fencers in the nation for her division (17-under).
Joyce made the decision to immerse herself in the sport years ago, an approach that brings her to Cardinal Fencing Academy four times a week for training, and to Greg Petrosyan, CFA’s strength and conditioning coach, for a weekly fencing-specific workout regimen.
On weekends, Joyce, her parents, Michael and Johnnetta, and coaches travel the world competing, from Austria to Germany and numerous others in between.
“The international travel might sound glamorous,” Joyce's father, Michael emphasized, “but a lot of times she’s working on the airplane because it’s during the school year.”
“You don’t necessarily get the chance to be a tourist,” Michaela Joyce quipped. “If we have that extra day, I’ll be in my room studying trying to keep up.”
All the long hours and commitment have paid off, though, and for more reasons than just her high stature on the national fencing scene.
“Fencing has helped me build so many friendships,” Joyce said, dressed in her USA Fencing jacket. “These girls at competitions are doing the same things as me so we can bond over things like that. They know all the sacrifices.”
Moving forward, Joyce wants to go as far as she can in competitive fencing. “The ultimate goal is the 2024 Olympics,” she said confidently. “There’s a lot of sacrifices involved but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make because I know where I want to be.”
Hanging around Cardinal Fencing Academy, you get the feeling that everyone is on board with Joyce's grand plan. Conversely, Joyce is a huge proponent of the grand plan for Cardinal Fencing Academy, which opened its first location in Sterling last summer.
When Joyce is not learning and training with Coach Ilya, she assists him with coaching youths as a way to pass the bug she caught to a new generation of potential fencers.
“We’re building a program here,” Lobanenkov said. “It’s a healthy, nurturing environment and it’s all systematic. Parents help other parents, and kids help other kids.”
The system has certainly worked for Joyce and if things continue going as planned, there could be more world-class fencers coming from the program Lobanenkov has constructed.