Duke fencer Dylan Nollner, left, defeats Italy’s Andrea Santarelli at the 2012 Junior World Championships.
Duke fencer Dylan Nollner, left, defeats Italy’s Andrea Santarelli at the 2012 Junior World Championships.

Three weeks ago, Duke fencer Dylan Nollner placed third out of 264 entries in Division I men’s epee at the North American Cup. The junior now returns to Duke this year as the Blue Devils’ top epee after securing a silver medal in the U-20 Junior Olympics last year. He also qualified for the U.S. Junior World Team, was the top finisher for the Americans at the Junior World Fencing Championships and advanced to the NCAA Championships for his second straight year.

Although he has yet to decide what his next step may be, working towards representing the United States in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is not out of the question.

But fencing has not always been Nollner’s sport of choice. After playing tennis throughout elementary school where he grew up in Ogden, Utah, Nollner decided he wanted to switch over to another individual sport.

“I was just curious about fencing, I had seen it in movies and things like that,” Nollner said. “So I just looked it up online and found a local club and have stuck with it ever since. I love all the strategy behind it, and being a smart kid, it’s the perfect application of the physicality of sports with the big mental aspects. So it was the perfect sport for me.”

The rules for each of the weapons in fencing differ and in epee, the person may only hit the target with the point of the blade to score. The whole body is the target area. Compared to both sabre and foil, epee is considered a slower game in which there is a lot more strategy involved because it is easy to make a mistake and be hit due to the large target area.

“I don’t know why it appealed to me the most,” Nollner said. “I started off doing foil at the club that I started with and then I ended up having better success earlier with epee. There was also a little bit stronger epee in the area where I am from.”

Coming into college, Nollner had the option to attend a university with a stronger fencing program than Duke’s lower-profile one. Notre Dame—a powerhouse in college fencing that has won National Championships and sent people to the 2012 London Olympics—was on the top of his list before visiting Duke.

“I wanted to make sure that none of my decisions were based off of one factor of a school. When I came and visited here, my first night I went to a party on the fratio and saw Kyle Singler with all the other people. Everyone was more welcoming to me. I thought it was the best mix of academics, athletics and a good social environment that will help me grow. It was an easy choice,” Nollner said.

This is the end of the national season for fencing before the official NCAA season kicks off in January. During this time, fencers rack up points in order to qualify for world stage events like the Pan-American Games, Junior Worlds and potentially the Olympics.

“This is apart from Duke, but I am still representing them,” Nollner said.

In the North American Cup, Nollner felt that he was moving well and his entire game seemed to be clicking aside from a minor leg cramp. Now, he is engrossed in bettering his game, with both his coach from home and his coach here discussing steps for improvement. Every week, Nollner participates in individual workouts: lifting, plyometrics, yoga, pilates, group drilling and footwork. And when not in official practice, he spends time perfecting his blade-work and tip control.

Although Nollner does not yet know what he is going to do after college, he is going to squeeze in as much training as he can while he is still at Duke. He may try and make the 2016 Olympic team, if it is realistic, but will not step out of school to pursue that goal.

His employment after college has importance to his long-term fencing goals , depending on whether or not ithis future job will be able to support his training and travel schedule along with the necessary finances.

An alternate plan could be potentially living in the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs after graduation. Everything is paid for there, and depending on his Olympic chances at that time, he said he may choose to live there full time for one or two years.

For Nollner, everything is still up in the air, but he will decide before he graduates from Duke.

“If you are taking fencing seriously in college, there is no pro-fencing league, so at this high of a level and to still be getting some of the finishes that I have, I guess [the Olympics] is always in the back of your mind,” Nollner said. “It is for sure a great goal, but I am trying to be realistic about it and take it one step at a time, one season at a time. If in the next couple of years I can qualify first for a Pan-American team that would be great. I went to Junior World Championships last year, and I thought that was a great first step, so hopefully the good results can continue.”