Standing at a modest 5 feet, 3 inches, Allison Cheng doesn’t intimidate at first glance. You’ll often find this friendly child studies and human development major conducting research in the Kaplan Lab or working in the music department. However, once equipped with a fencing foil and jacket, you won’t want to mess with this former Junior Olympics participant.
The senior foil captain hails from Palo Alto, Calif. With its proximity to both mountains and sea, the city is a hotbed for athletes of all seasons. Cheng herself participated in swimming, dancing and golf before falling in love with the fencing community at age 10. Like many athletes, she owes her early fencing endeavors to her parents. Concerned by the number of sunburns their daughter was getting while playing outdoor sports in sunny California, Cheng’s parents enrolled her in fencing, where sunburns were never a problem. However, Cheng’s appreciation for her parents doesn’t stop there.
Despite never having fenced themselves, Cheng’s parents have always supported her in meaningful ways — from driving her to practices to flying with her cross-country to major tournaments. In times of duress, they’re also willing to step back when needed, trusting that Cheng has the mental fortitude and skill to come out on top. Her parents’ respect for her boundaries, Cheng emphasized, was integral to the development of her self-confidence.
This confidence is evident when she’s on the strip. It’s thrilling watching Cheng fence — she’s an absolute powerhouse. The momentous “allez!” signaling the start of the bout leads to a frenzy of skillful swipes and parries, all in hopes of ending in a touch. During these exchanges, Cheng displays elements of an aggressive, defensive player — countering her opponent’s every move but never letting them push her too far into her end. Since fencing is such a reactionary sport, fencers strike a balance between adapting to their opponent while maximizing their own strengths. It’s for this reason that many describe the sport as physical chess, though at speeds upwards of 100 mph. The swiftness of each bout contributes to why Cheng describes the sport as so mentally challenging.
“[The score] can really change quickly, so if you lose [four touches] at the beginning, and mentally you’re not there, then you’ve already lost the bout,” Cheng said. “Making sure you stay calm and [remembering to] trust yourself is a huge thing.”
As much as Cheng is hungry to improve on her 24–9 record from the 2019–20 season, it’s evident that she is willing to set aside her individual success for the benefit of the team.
“I joined this team so I could [be a part of] a community and so I could learn how to be a leader,” Cheng said. “[While] there’s always motivation to get better … I think my responsibilities as a captain have definitely changed because I’m looking out more for my teammates … I definitely have to keep the team’s priorities up front.”
What makes Cheng such an impressive leader both on and off the strip is how she wholeheartedly embraces her role. It’s clear how much pride she exudes when speaking about the women’s fencing team, and it’ll be exciting to see the impacts of her leadership at its next conference meet on Feb. 6, 2022.