BY ASHLEY COOPER | PHOTO BY JENNIFFER MERIDA
Throughout history, Rochester has been justified in boasting of fostering the talents of many notables. Our city’s finest achievers have prevailed in a wide range of contexts, from predominating as high-powered executives to gracing the red carpet in the Academy Awards. The realm of athletics is no exception; it goes without saying that the Flower City has been well-represented. Joining Rochester’s crop of champions are Olympian fencers Felicia and Iris Zimmermann.
The sisters, hailing originally from Rush, New York, became involved in fencing at the prompting of their father. Bashful and bookish, Felicia began training at the tender age of eight when her father decided that fencing would heighten his oldest daughter’s sense of confidence. “He carted me along and made me go and I did everything I could not to go,” recalls Zimmermann, “I kept saying, ‘This is a dumb idea. Why would I want to play with swords?’ He really forced my hand and made me go, and I loved it! It’s just clicked.” Although Zimmermann remains fairly introverted, fencing granted her a fierce assertiveness in matches that surpassed many of her opponents’ brevity.
Zimmermann attended lessons at Rochester Fencing Club which the sisters co-own today.
Six years Felicia’s junior, Iris toddled to and from her sister’s first practices. She marveled at the sport. Noticing her interest, Felicia’s coach crafted young Iris a foil to use at her leisure on the sidelines. By the time she reached the age of six, Iris followed in her elder sister’s footsteps and began training on the floor. As the sisters progressed, what was first perhaps a “knack” for fencing quickly evolved to a remarkable finesse. It wasn’t long before the sisters showed promise as potential professional competitors. Felicia’s style was more strategic, while Iris’s more aggressive—reflective of their personality differences off the floor.
Felicia not only became a two-time Olympian (summers of 1996 and 2000), but holds the title as the first and only woman to win the NCAA championships for both epee and fencing. Felicia also was the first fencer from the United States to gain the World Cup overall championship in the “Under 20” category. Iris joined her sister on the Olympic team in 2000 and in 1995 was the first (and youngest) fencer from the United States to win a world championship medal. Both sisters were carefully coached by world-renown trainer Buckie Leach.
The Zimmermanns have doubtlessly pioneered an inviting path of opportunity for women in fencing not only because fencing was once considered a “man’s sport,” but because it was often recognized as being a strictly “European sport.” Dubbed “physical chess,” fencing is now considered a sport that can be especially beneficial for women to participate in.
“I think sports in general, not just fencing, give women a sense of self-confidence and also a sense of loving your body,” says Iris, “When you go to a sport, and even in fencing, you use your body a certain way; you rely on your body. You realize how precious your instrument is. You take care of it. No one can deny you your success in sports. You train hard, you treat your body well—no one can deny you that success. It’s clear to you that you’re more than just the sum of your parts.”
While much of her time is devoted to the Rochester Fencing Club that she purchased with her sister in 2009, Felicia serves as Business Transformation Executive at Xerox. She is to be inducted into the fencing hall of fame this summer. Iris is poised to not only graduate with her M.B.A. from the University of Rochester, but to become a first-time mother. She is expecting a daughter this month with husband Kevin Nowack, American strongman. Iris is also directing her attention toward the fencing club, as “En Garde Beginning Day Camp” launches July 16th. See www.rocfencing.com for more details.