Nina Van Loon has heard that Rio de Janeiro is the place to be come summer 2016.
As it stands, she has an excellent chance to make it there as part of a U.S. fencing team that is on the rise.
The former Boulder High student and current sophomore at Harvard has risen through the ranks of the junior women’s epee since she joined the Crimson in 2012, and podium appearances in several international competitions as a member of the 2013 World Cup Junior team have her believing the Olympics aren’t just a pipe dream.
Achieving that goal will not be easy, as there are still more than two years of competition to build up to that Olympic stage. Rankings will shift, surely, and there are not a lot of slots available as an individual in the sport.
Van Loon, however, is a part of a U.S. squad building momentum on the world scene. In 2012 at the London Games, the women’s epee team finished with an unexpected bronze medal. The U.S. women have won eight total medals in the sport between individual and team competition, and all of them have come since 2004.
“Women’s epee was actually the only weapon to medal at the last Olympics, and we were slated to get a lot more medals in the other weapons,” Van Loon said, referring to foil and sabre as the other disciplines. “We were the surprise.
“If they qualify a team in women’s epee, all I would have to do is be ranked in the top three in the country, but if we don’t qualify than I’d have to qualify individually. The goal is for us to qualify as a team; the process just becomes so much simpler.”
The talk of the Olympics is still pretty surreal for a woman that called Northern Colorado Fencing her home club. She learned under the guidance of coach Gary Copeland, someone who is a still a major influence in her life — “In a perfect world, he’d be able to go with me to all my competitions,” she said.
Reality is that she competes worldwide, travelling the globe throughout the year. In April, she finished 31st overall at a World Cup event in Porec, Croatia, and on Nov. 17 she competed in Bratislava, Slovakia. There, she placed seventh out of 187 women in the junior epee discipline — her highest finish at an event she said typically brings the toughest fencers.
Last year, she earned her first top-3 finish with a bronze at the Uhlmann Cup (Lupheim, Germany), and other frequent stops on the Cup tour include Dijon, France and Goteborg, Sweden.
Currently, she is ranked No. 3 among U.S. junior women in epee and No. 21 in the world. She has achieved top rankings throughout her youth, and the travel has been just a bonus doing something she enjoys. Yet, the one thing she relishes most about doors being opened through her abilities, it has been the opportunity to go to an Ivy League school.
“I would say the biggest opportunity it’s given me was getting into Harvard,” Van Loon said. “Once you have an athletic recruiting spot going to an Ivy League school, you are pretty much guaranteed admission unless you really screw up. Fencing being the small sport that it is, the small world that it is, I got a reputation for having a good work ethic and even though I didn’t have the same level of results before I got to Harvard, I was recommended by the Israeli national coach to the Harvard coach.
“I’ve progressed a lot since I’ve gotten to Harvard. The training environment in college is much more intense, and once you are sort of isolated to fencing against those your age … you need to focus more. I’ve definitely seen a solid improvement over the past two years, and it’s made me more optimistic than I would have been before college about making Rio.”
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