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At the Director's call of "Ready, fence!" Caitlin Kelly Bilodeaux, a senior at Columbia, established the point-in-line position at the University of North Carolina's Fetzer Gym. She extended her right arm parallel to the strip and aimed the tip of her foil at the North Carolina State fencer's heart. While her opponent jumped around, trying to find an opening, Bilodeaux coolly advanced. The poor girl never knew what hit her. Before you could say "Douglas Fairbanks Jr.," Bilodeaux, the best woman fencer in the country, had routed her enemy five hits to none.
"This is such a waste," Bilodeaux said later with disgust. "These girls have only been fencing about two years." By the end of the day, Bilodeaux had polished off 12 fencers from three schools ( North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke) by a cumulative score of 60 touches to 8.
"This is just a practice session for Katy," said a teammate. Darlene Pratschler. "She's fast and her blade movements are quick and small. It's hard to attack her without being parried. Long-distance projectiles are the only safe thing to aim at her."
If Bilodeaux had had her druthers, on this particular weekend in January she would have been in Budapest instead of Chapel Hill, competing in a major tournament against the world's best fencers. "I'd been looking forward to going there for a long time." Bilodeaux said. "But I have to fence for my team. My school comes first, and my coach can't have his team losing matches just because I want to go to Europe."
For a fencer, competing in Europe is the key to success. You can't be the best unless you fence against the best. Over the last two years Bilodeaux's collegiate dual-match record has been 114-3. She won the NCAA title in 1985 and was runner-up last year to Molly Sullivan of Notre Dame. Bilodeaux avenged that defeat at the U.S. Fencing Association National Championship later in the year. Most impressive of all, in 1985 Bilodeaux finished sixth at the biennial World University Games in Japan. That was the best showing ever in that competition by a U.S. woman fencer. It also confirmed that Bilodeaux is this country's brightest hope for becoming the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic fencing medal.
Her style is aggressive and physical, the product of her Hungarian-born coach, Aladar Kogler, who coached the Czechoslovakian national team from 1965 until he defected to the U.S. in 1981. He now coaches both the Columbia women's team and the U.S. national team. "Katy's practicing hard, and she's already proven that she can beat the competition," says Kogler. "She's even beaten all the men foil fencers at Columbia in practice. [In college, men compete in foil, �p�e and saber; women only in foil.] But confidence is supremely important."
If Bilodeaux has a weakness, it is her occasional lack of confidence. And she sometimes has lost to a lesser opponent because her concentration flags. Says Notre Dame coach Mike DeCiccio, who offered Bilodeaux the first full scholarship the Irish had ever extended to a female fencer. "Talk about aggressive! If I didn't know there was a girl under that mask, I'd think Katy was Mike Marx, the No. 1 men's foil fencer in the country. She's that strong. She can stand toe-to-toe with the best. Her performances have been cyclical, though. If she can only maintain her confidence. Katy can be world class."
Fencing is such a precise and demanding sport that it's not unusual to see a fencer flee the strip in tears, even during practice. The smallest lapse in concentration can make you look like a hacker and a slasher one day, when the day before you were performing the same exercise perfectly. "It's very frustrating." says George Kolombatovich, the men's coach at Columbia. "But Katy is tireless. She's a menacing, strong competitor. Nobody wants to fence her, and yet everybody likes her."
There is an open, childlike manner about Bilodeaux, and her face has Irish written all over it, which is fitting for someone named Caitlin who was born on St. Patrick's Day. But creamy skin and blue-gray eyes camouflage a carbon-steel competitor who, when she is mentally focused, moves in and scores as fast as she can. Further, she has not allowed several back ailments, which are aggravated by fencing, to deter her. At Chapel Hill, says Kogler, "her back was hurting her, but she won with her head."
At Columbia, where she majors in English, Bilodeaux has a formidable schedule. She takes a 45-minute fencing lesson five days a week, trains for another three hours every night at the Fencers Club on Manhattan's Upper West Side teaches a fencing class at a YWCA one night a week and travels to matches or tournaments practically every weekend. "I always thought," she says, "that the person who works the hardest, apart from natural talent, of course, wins. I feel the person who works the hardest earns the right to win."