Wilton’s Sanders earns elusive NCAA fencing medal in senior year

WILTON — Ian Sanders stepped off the piste, or fencing strip, at the NCAA Championships late last month with possibly the greatest achievement of his athletic career — a collegiate bronze medal.

The Wilton native was signed up to train in the sport as a young child by his mother. Days later, he wasn’t so sure he’d stick with it. Years later, he’s not sure where he’d be without it.

Sanders has now competed in countless cities across the United States, and has placed in fencing competitons in countries such as France, Latvia, Greece and Germany, but Sanders finally captured that elusive NCAA medal in his senior year at New York University.

“Along with my teammate, Liam Carpenter, I represented NYU at the NCAA Fencing Championships and I was fencing an incredible amount of strong fencers there. People who also had amazing internationa; and national results coming from schools like Notre Dame, Harvard and Columbia,” Sanders said, adding that Division III programs can also qualify to compete against Division I schools in the championship meet. He finished the meet in third after multiple close 5-4 victories.

While he qualified for the championship tournament one other time in his college career, the highest he placed was 18th.

But the plan was not always this. Riding trains, planes and buses to high-level fencing tournaments wasn’t his idea.

“My mom signed me up for a fencing camp when I was a kid kind of without my permission,” Sanders said. “Then, a fencing club opened in Wilton when I was pretty young called Wilton Fencing Center.”

At the time, Sanders said, he was focused on soccer and didn’t quite know what to make of the new endeavor. “I wasn’t sure I liked it,” he added.

Then, after he started to gain some success and was noticed for his growing abilities, Sanders’ family began looking elsewhere for more rigorous training.

Enter Ukranian national fencer and coach Andrey Chushko out of Stamford Fencing Club, who Sanders credits with taking his fencing to the next level.

“I’m definitely proud of what he has accomplished,” Chushko said. The longtime coach said that Sanders first showed up, he was a bit older than most who start in the sport and he didn’t immediately foresee the heights that Sanders would reach. Chushko then lauded Sanders for not only his physical acumen during trianing, but committing himself physically and emotionally to the sport as well.

While training under Chushko and as he progressed into his early high school years, Sanders began traveling to national competitions that he would begin placing in.

During his junior and senior years of high school, Sanders began placing among the top at national competitions and also competed internationally, having success there as well.

“I am lucky to have had a chance to coach him for the last 10 years,” Chushko said.

When it came down to recruiting, the Wilton native said that many of the powerhouse Division I programs recruited athletes who had early successes in high school. Sanders, who found most of his successes later in high school, opted to commit to a Division III program at NYU, choosing it for not only its strong fencing program and academics, but its prime location.

While Sanders still trains frequently at his home club in Stamford, Sanders said he has also been training at, in his mind, one of the premiere fencing clubs in the world at the Manhattan Fencing Center.

“I think that the experience that the coaches and the other fencers at that club have really helped me grow in this sport,” he said. “I came in and I began kind of competing internationally on a larger stage and, very soon after I got there, I got my very first big result on an international stage when I finished top eight out of 250 people at a competition in Latvia.”

He credits the sport with teaching him life lessons as well — including patience and the ability to accept defeat but be resilient in coming back from it.

Sanders likened the sport to boxing and tennis, noting that its a one-on-one sport where he feeds off the energy and body language of his opponent. He acknowledged that it is slightly different, though, as the protective gear that must be worn during the match precludes him from seeing their frustration or exhaustion during competition. He does pick up on some cues such as when they talk to their coaches during the match or how they saunter back to the starting position.

Reflecting back on his journey to an NCAA bronze medal, he said he is so thankful for his mother signing him up for that initial camp and supporting him through his early fencing career. “I am absolutely so thankful,” he said. “To both my parents, for helping me stick to my sport.”