Chinese American foil fencers Emme Zhou ’23 and Helen Tan ’25 reflect on their time at Yale
Zhou and Tan spoke to the News about their identity and love for the sport.
Emme Zhou ’23 and Helen Tan ’25 have proved themselves to be role models on the Yale fencing team, earning many accolades and promoting inclusion.
“Ever since my freshman year, the atmosphere of the fencing team has always been so inclusive,” Tan said. “We have fencers who come from all different backgrounds, and we strive to converse about our differences. As a very small and tight-knit team, we do a great job at making sure everyone is comfortable around teammates whether it’s during practice, at tournaments, or even outside of athletics.”
Tan, a Texas native, first discovered the sport when she saw a fencing flyer at her local library.
As a high school fencer, she was a 2019 USA Cadet World Team Alternate, member of USA Designated Cadet and Junior International Foil Team, silver medalist in the Junior event at the 2021 May North American Cup and silver medalist in the junior event at 2020 Junior Olympics, among many other accolades.
“I fell in love with the sport and decided that I wanted to fence in college to further my fencing career.” Tan said. “There were a lot of fencers who were older than me who told me how being on a fencing team in college was one of the best decisions they made, so I was very enthusiastic about fencing in college from the start.”
Because her parents immigrated from China to America before she was born, Tan wanted to be the person that pushed herself in school and in fencing, she said. Tan emphasized that her parents never pushed her to do this, but she just felt that she wanted to on her own.
“Seeing how my parents worked so hard for our family, it definitely motivated me to work just as hard as them,” she said.
At Yale, Tan has continued earning honors as she recently qualified for the NCAA championships this year, helping the Bulldogs finish in 10th place overall. Additionally, she was selected for the United States Fencing Coaches Association All-Northeast Region team, alongside five other teammates.
That group includes Zhou, another foilist who has attributed some degree of her success to her Chinese roots back home. Zhou’s career began in a Chinese after-school fencing program in Boston when she was nine, and she has continued with the sport for the last 12 years.
Zhou’s coach in Boston is also Chinese and was able to provide her with the opportunity to train with the national teams in China — both in Shanghai and Jiangsu — during her high school summers.
“Although these training camps were tough and had long hours, I learned how to be disciplined and hardworking,” Zhou said. “I think that’s one of the most important parts of being a student athlete.”
This training allowed her to earn Team Gold in the 2018 Junior World Cup, eighth place individually in the 2018 Junior World Cup, eighth in the 2017 International Cadet Designated Circuit and a Team Gold in the 2016 Cadet World Cup.
Zhou qualified to the NCAA Championships this year, placing twelfth overall in the foil event and also being named to the United States Fencing Coaches Association All-Northeast Region team.
Zhou’s success does not stop on the piste, as she might be more well-known for her presence on TikTok. Zhou has amassed 736.7K followers and 46.0M likes on her TikTok account @emmezhou. The page mostly features “What I Eat in a Day at Yale” videos, where she reviews dining halls and shows the world what meals are like at an Ivy League university.
Just recently, she began sharing the fencing side of her life to her large audience.
“I love making videos about fencing because so many people do not know what it is, and have many misconceptions about it,” she said. “I think fencing is something that most of my followers did not know I do at Yale, so I enjoy sharing this new part of my life with them.”
Comments such as, “more fencing videos please!” and “I want to go to Yale through fencing too,” show just how much influence her videos have over her mostly younger audience.
Zhou’s TikToks provide a window into the team for many. One key dynamic that both Zhou and Tan highlighted was the overall welcoming vibe and inclusivity of the fencing team, making it very easy for them to embrace their Pan-Asian identities on the team.
“Fencing is a very inclusive sport, so as a pan-Asian fencer, I’ve felt very at home” said Tan. “Over the past few years, there have been a lot of Pan-Asian Americans involved with fencing, so over the next few years, I believe that fencing will be a sport that will be very big within the Asian community.”
Although Zhou is graduating, Tan hopes to help the fencing team finish among the top three at Ivies next year – a goal that was unattainable this year due to a variety of injuries.
Emme Zhou ’23 was named an All-American in women’s foil in March 2022.