Internationally-competitive Yale fencers balance school and sport
The News spoke to three Yale fencers who compete domestically as well as internationally.
Courtesy of Tony Whelan
Tony Whelan ’26, Helen Tan ’25 and Jack Pan ’26 live a double life. The athletes — who compete in fencing as Bulldogs and on the international stage — have learned to balance their passions with their academic pursuits and life on campus.
Internationally-competing athletes such as Whelan, Tan and Pan have to manage constant long hours of travel in tandem with academic deadlines and collegiate-level practices. The fencing team at Yale has competed at two events so far this semester — the Penn State Invitational and Philadelphia Invitational — with the Yale Invitational on the horizon next weekend.
“I still compete internationally because I am proud to represent my country, and I have goals that reach beyond fencing in college,” Whelan said. “I have a shot at the Olympics down the road, and I am continuing to explore that option.”
Whelan competes on the national circuit at the North American Cup and on the world circuit in the 20-and-under category. Simultaneously, he is pursuing his education at Yale and preparing to represent the Bulldogs in NCAA fencing competition.
Although a lot of hard work goes into preparing for the NCAAs, Whelan finds himself putting in extra hours of training to “stay sharp” for the international competitions as well. Balancing his time at an Ivy League university has not been easy.
As an architecture major, Whelan told the News that he finds himself with “very little free time.”
“Last semester, I was at a World Cup in Greece during finals and had to ABX them,” he recalled.
Because the collegiate fencing season is ramping up, Whelan is unsure if he will be able to make it to the two fencing World Cups in February. In November 2022, he helped lead Team USA to a gold medal at the World Cup in Riga, Latvia. Whelan had a prominent influence on the gold medal win over Estonia because he had the highest point differential on the team. This was the first time the Junior Men’s Epee Team had won a World Cup since 2019.
Nevertheless, Whelan loves the support from his collegiate team because “everyone is focused on having a positive impact and helping each other improve,” he said.
On the women’s side, Tan, a Texas native, has competed in many national competitions and World Cups in the past couple of years. This year, however, she is focusing her time on collegiate fencing.
“Being an international fencer, athlete for Yale and student is a lot to juggle at the same time, but just as rewarding,” she said. “I was able to travel to so many cities, so I was really having fun while I was competing.”
Tan attributes time management and organization as the skills that keep her going as an internationally competitive student-athlete.
Last year, when she competed internationally, she had trouble with the sheer amount of travel needed for these meets. Most of her events took place in Europe, so the jet lag disrupted her daily schedule upon returning to Yale, she explained.
Tan was a 2019 USA Cadet World Team alternate and a USA Designated Cadet and Junior International Foil team member. In addition, she took the silver medal in the Junior event at the 2021 May North American Cup and at the 2020 Junior Olympics. On top of this, she was a gold medalist for the Junior team at the 2019 Pan American Championships.
“Last year I competed internationally because I wanted to continue to fence on the national and international circuit, something that I’ve been doing ever since middle school,” she said.
Jack Pan ’26 has also flown abroad multiple times to represent the Canadian national team. He has competed at the North American Champions, the Junior World Cup in Dormagen, Germany, and the Senior World Cup in Madrid.
“For me, traveling and competing has become a core part of my lifestyle,” Pan said. “Ever since picking up the sport of fencing, I’ve always looked forward to the next destination where I would challenge myself and others.”
He still competes internationally because it has become an “essential” part of his life, he said. “I want to compare my skill set to competitors that are at the top of their country. Not just other schools domestically.”
Both Whelan and Tan will be competing for Yale at the Yale Invitational this weekend and later at the Ivy League Round Robin event in Ithaca.