At the Director's call of "Ready, fence!" Caitlin Kelly Bilodeaux, a senior at Columbia, established the point-in-line position at the University of North Carolina's Fetzer Gym. She extended her right arm parallel to the strip and aimed the tip of her foil at the North Carolina State fencer's heart. While her opponent jumped around, trying to find an opening, Bilodeaux coolly advanced. The poor girl never knew what hit her. Before you could say "Douglas Fairbanks Jr.," Bilodeaux, the best woman fencer in the country, had routed her enemy five hits to none.
"This is such a waste," Bilodeaux said later with disgust. "These girls have only been fencing about two years." By the end of the day, Bilodeaux had polished off 12 fencers from three schools (North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke) by a cumulative score of 60 touches to 8.
"This is just a practice session for Katy," said a teammate. Darlene Pratschler. "She's fast and her blade movements are quick and small. It's hard to attack her without being parried. Long-distance projectiles are the only safe thing to aim at her."
If Bilodeaux had had her druthers, on this particular weekend in January she would have been in Budapest instead of Chapel Hill, competing in a major tournament against the world's best fencers. "I'd been looking forward to going there for a long time." Bilodeaux said. "But I have to fence for my team. My school comes first, and my coach can't have his team losing matches just because I want to go to Europe."
For a fencer, competing in Europe is the key to success. You can't be the best unless you fence against the best. Over the last two years Bilodeaux's collegiate dual-match record has been 114-3. She won the NCAA title in 1985 and was runner-up last year to Molly Sullivan of Notre Dame. Bilodeaux avenged that defeat at the U.S. Fencing Association National Championship later in the year. Most impressive of all, in 1985 Bilodeaux finished sixth at the biennial World University Games in Japan. That was the best showing ever in that competition by a U.S. woman fencer. It also confirmed that Bilodeaux is this country's brightest hope for becoming the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic fencing medal.
Her style is aggressive and physical, the product of her Hungarian-born coach, Aladar Kogler, who coached the Czechoslovakian national team from 1965 until he defected to the U.S. in 1981. He now coaches both the Columbia women's team and the U.S. national team. "Katy's practicing hard, and she's already proven that she can beat the competition," says Kogler. "She's even beaten all the men foil fencers at Columbia in practice. [In college, men compete in foil, èpèe and saber; women only in foil.] But confidence is supremely important."
If Bilodeaux has a weakness, it is her occasional lack of confidence. And she sometimes has lost to a lesser opponent because her concentration flags. Says Notre Dame coach Mike DeCiccio, who offered Bilodeaux the first full scholarship the Irish had ever extended to a female fencer. "Talk about aggressive! If I didn't know there was a girl under that mask, I'd think Katy was Mike Marx, the No. 1 men's foil fencer in the country. She's that strong. She can stand toe-to-toe with the best. Her performances have been cyclical, though. If she can only maintain her confidence. Katy can be world class."
Fencing is such a precise and demanding sport that it's not unusual to see a fencer flee the strip in tears, even during practice. The smallest lapse in concentration can make you look like a hacker and a slasher one day, when the day before you were performing the same exercise perfectly. "It's very frustrating." says George Kolombatovich, the men's coach at Columbia. "But Katy is tireless. She's a menacing, strong competitor. Nobody wants to fence her, and yet everybody likes her."
There is an open, childlike manner about Bilodeaux, and her face has Irish written all over it, which is fitting for someone named Caitlin who was born on St. Patrick's Day. But creamy skin and blue-gray eyes camouflage a carbon-steel competitor who, when she is mentally focused, moves in and scores as fast as she can. Further, she has not allowed several back ailments, which are aggravated by fencing, to deter her. At Chapel Hill, says Kogler, "her back was hurting her, but she won with her head."
At Columbia, where she majors in English, Bilodeaux has a formidable schedule. She takes a 45-minute fencing lesson five days a week, trains for another three hours every night at the Fencers Club on Manhattan's Upper West Side teaches a fencing class at a YWCA one night a week and travels to matches or tournaments practically every weekend. "I always thought," she says, "that the person who works the hardest, apart from natural talent, of course, wins. I feel the person who works the hardest earns the right to win."
Bilodeaux learned her discipline and competitive drive at home. She is the eighth of nine children raised by Patricia and Ted Bilodeaux on their eight-acre farm in Concord. Mass. "They were worked so hard on the farm," says Patricia, "that athletic training must have seemed easy by comparison." Ted, an engineering-design consultant, was a light heavyweight boxing champion in the Army, and he encouraged his children to compete in sports.
"He gave them the no-pain, no-gain philosophy." says Patricia. "He was tough, demanding and unyielding. I was the other side of the coin. I think the combination of our personalities turned out some terrific kids."
The three boys, Sean, Thomas and Christian, wrestled, and they were either New England champions or All-Americas. Of the six girls. Rebecca and Mary were captains of their fencing teams at Cornell and Temple, respectively, and they, too, were All-Americas. The youngest, 16-year-old Jessamyn, fences for Concord-Carlisle High.
When Katy was 10, her mother, in an attempt to lure her into fencing, gave her a dollar to watch her older sisters compete. "You get so bored sitting there," Katy says. "And before you know it, you're trying to do what they're doing, so you just pick it up." She picked it up with a vengeance. A month after seeing her first match, she finished second at an under-12 tournament.
"I had a competitive spirit immediately." says Bilodeaux. "I thought, 'I can beat that girl.' so I started training and I won the next tournament." Her mother says, "Katy had an unusual amount of discipline. She was more single-minded than my other kids."
Patricia and Ted were divorced two years ago after seven years of separation. But during their 29 years of marriage they built a support system for the budding Bilodeaux athletes. "I played lacrosse in the spring, soccer in the fall, and I fenced in the winter." says Katy of her days at Concord-Carlisle. "Actually I fenced year-round. Team practices ended around six o'clock, so my mother brought my dinner in a casserole dish and then drove me into Boston to my fencing club. She would sit in the car reading for two hours and practice the banjo while I trained."
Katy's lacrosse team won the Eastern Massachusetts championship in 1982, and her soccer team won the state title two years in a row. As much as she liked those sports, she found fencing more appealing because it's an individual sport. "You have to do it all on your own." she says. "You can't blame anybody else when you lose, and it's all you when you win. It's tremendously satisfying."
From 16 to 19, Bilodeaux was No. 1 nationally in the under-20 division and earned a berth on the U.S. junior world team each of those years. By the time she was 19, she also was third-ranked in the senior division (over 20). "Before I knew it. I thought. I can't quit this,' " she says. " 'I'm No. 1 now.' "
After the NCAAs, March 19-21, Bilodeaux will enter international tournaments in the Soviet Union, France and Italy. She will graduate from Columbia in May, after which she will look for a job and sponsorship money. Unlike many leading fencing nations, like East Germany and the U.S.S.R., the U.S. provides only modest financial support for promising competitors. Says Kogler, "For an army, the thing that's necessary to win a battle is money, money and money. It's the same in fencing."
Bilodeaux's wants are few. "I don't need much money to live on," she says. "I need an apartment in New York because I'll keep training with Aladar. And I need food. But as I always say, tomorrow will take care of itself."
Kogler, who produced two world champions and eight world finalists while in Czechoslovakia, thinks the '88 Olympics may be too soon to expect a medal-winning performance from Bilodeaux. "She needs more international experience and more work," he says, adding that she should be ready by the Barcelona Games in 1992. "Katy has the potential for getting gold for the U.S. This statement is based on what she's already done." Given Bilodeaux's devotion to the work ethic. Kogler may not be far off the mark.
The words "aggressive" and "physical" are often used to describe Bilodeaux's style.
At the family farm in Concord, Katy (right) and her mother decide to test their metal.