A few years after Emily Principe’s parents refused to buy her a horse, she became the youngest épée fencer to win the senior Australian national competition at 17.
Principe’s passion for fencing started with the modern pentathlon, which seemed like a natural direction because it combined her swimming, running, and horseback-riding abilities, while not requiring her to own a horse.
“Modern pentathlon,” she explains, “is one of the oldest Olympic sports and consists of five events: running, shooting, swimming, horse-riding (show jumping) and fencing. Part of the challenge is that competitors are randomly assigned unfamiliar horses to compete on rather than having to bring their own.”
Easier still, the fencing club was only 15 minutes away from her house.
Principe started at a small club called Rozelle Fencers in her native New South Wales, Australia. She describesthe club with fondness and respect. “It was an awesome little community club that was run by a fierce woman, Frances Stone, who was already in her nineties when I met her… The community vibe was a supportive place to start fencing and had many older fencers who were full of wisdom.”
The club’s size, however, meant that it strictly offered foil fencing, and by 2013, Principe was consistently beating all her older club mates. In search of a new challenge, she turned to épée, and Stone encouraged the switch on the condition that Principe would be coached by Simon Jin, who was the head coach at the much bigger University of Technology Sydney fencing club.
Principe’s subsequent successes in épée did not stop her from revisiting Rozelle until the small club closed in 2017.
The importance of support throughout Principe’s career is clear when she recalls her fondest memories of fencing. When asked about the highlights of her career, she responds with, “Winning a senior Australian national competition at the age of 17, making me the youngest épée fencer to ever do so. I was fortunate to have my mother, coach, and teammates at that competition supporting me.”
“The day before had been the Under-23 national event and I had done poorly. Being able to shift my mindset and turn around my fencing to post such a strong performance the following day was very gratifying.” She adds that succeeding with many of the people who supported and contributed to her accomplishments in the stands was a great feeling.
As for what’s kept her there? “While I don’t consider myself to be at all violent, stabbing someone with a weapon is quite satisfying.”
What distinguishes Principe from many other high-level athletes is that she excels at not one, but two sports. Her motivation to start rowing, unrelated to her parents’ unwillingness to buy a horse, was pursued as a way to make friends after she moved to a new school at the start of seventh grade. Principe recalls, “I was the only new student from my primary school that moved to my new school. I also had not grown up in the area and so did not know anyone in my grade. In order to make friends, and fast, I figured that I would join a sports team or two.” Like many other rowers, her height gave her an advantage, and the team environment kept her there.
While her fondest memories of fencing link back to hard-earned victories, her rowing experience is more about people than it is about trophies. Specifically, Principe highlights Barbara Ramjan and Anne Craig, her two old rowing coaches who also coached the para-rowing squad at her club during high school.
“Given the amount of time that Barbara and Anne had put into me, I wanted to give back some of my time to them and so volunteered to help with their para-rowers.” She mentioned that during her volunteering, she rowed with a visually-impaired rower named Sam, who up until then primarily rowed alone, and so was nervous about partnering.
Principe says, “Throughout our session I could see Sam relax and we even managed to strike up a conversation in between pieces. Once we were off the water, Sam thanked me for my time and said that it had been the best on-water experience that he had ever had.’” That experience has been impactful, since she was able to give back to her rowing community.
It may seem odd that her fondest memory of rowing, a sport frequently associated with a degree of mechanic monotony, is shaped so strongly by the connection between people. Principe enjoys the objectivity of rowing, but she also notes that the best indoor rowing times and wins “tend to blend together into being good seasons or fast crews.”
In fact, the importance of the people who surround her is the most consistent theme raised. Regarding her successes in individual épée, she explains that “given fencing is an open-skill sport, much of my training is done directly against other athletes. Accordingly, I feel that my teammates contribute significantly to my individual success.”
What led her to successes like the Ontario University Athletics gold medal for individual épée, a silver in the épée team event, and the consistent strong performances in rowing?
“I have been lucky to have some particularly knowledgeable and supportive coaches that have been instrumental in helping me to better myself both as an athlete but also as a person. My teammates not only help me to train but also are a source of motivation, accountability and support.”
Her parents, her teammates, Stone and Jin, Ramjan and Craig, Sam: these are only a few of the people she singles out when she discusses her performances in two sports that are more individual than they are team-based. The importance of these people lies beyond her athletic achievements — they did not just shape her as an athlete, but as a person.
Her hard work is clear in her preparations for competitions, both rowing and fencing. As a rower, she reviews her race plan meticulously “to know exactly where I am going to be pushing and what sort of pace I am looking to maintain.” For fencing, she keeps a notebook in which she writes down all of her competitors’ names, their go-to offensive and defensive manoeuvres, and what she can do to combat these moves. She exhibits a studious ruthlessness that can only truly be associated with competition.
Although competing in two varsity sports can be taxing both mentally and physically, Principe does not struggle with identifying both as a rower and a fencer. Instead, the differences in the two sports appear to complement each other to provide both excitement and a team environment.
On the differences, Principe explains, “I really love the team aspect of rowing and the objectivity of it. Ultimately, if you’re willing to put in the work then the results will come. As well, the feeling when a crew is perfectly in sync and the boat starts to hum is wild! It feels like what I imagine flying to be like. Fencing, on the other hand, is more enjoyable to train for, as the training tends to change session to session.”
As Principe’s season draws to a close, she is already looking toward next season’s goals. One source of her inspiration: “I think that my parents always taught me not to stop until I am satisfied, or I simply cannot go further.” Based on her relentless athleticism, hard work, and dedication, it seems Principe has not yet reached this point.