Brandeis senior Joanne Carminucci of Brewster, New York, has been a four-year standout on the fencing team. She was named the Northeast Fencing Conference Women's Fencer of the Year this year and is expected to do well at this weekend's NCAA Northeast Regional at Vassar College. I sat down with the economics and politics double major to learn more about her fencing career as she aims to qualify for her first NCAA Championship meet.
Adam Levin: Tell me how you got started in fencing.
Joanne Carminucci: I was about 11 in the sixth grade and a club had opened up about five minutes down the road. I'm from a really small town in New York, the owners of the club came to my middle school to do a presentation to get kids interested, so my best friend and I tried it out, and that's all there was to it.
AL: It was something that looked cool, were you into playing with swords as a little kid, or lightsabers? What appealed to you?
JC: No, I did a couple of other sports, but when you see it on TV and think, "Oh, that's cool and interesting and different," but I never even thought I'd have the opportunity to try. Then they came and did the presentation, and I thought, "Hey, that is cool, why don't I try it out now that this club is here."
AL: You've stuck with it for a long time now. How well did you do in the junior ranks before you came to Brandeis?
JC: I maybe peaked when I was 16 (laughs). I started off really strong as a youth and I developed along with my peers. Coach [Bill] Shipman described me when I was coming into Brandeis as being among the top of the middle, if that makes sense. Fencing is a weird sport to explain to people, in that, when you have a senior tournament, everyone with a certain rating is thrown together, from Olympians to people like me, who are competitive, but not quite at that level.
AL: Did you think you going to fence in college from the beginning?
JC: When I was just 11 or 12, when I was just starting out, my original club had some posters and info sheets around the club saying "These colleges have fencing teams!" That was something they promoted. So even at that age, I was thinking that, "Oh yeah, that'll help me get into college, it'll be a really good thing." When I started looking at schools, there were only two schools that I was really interested in fencing for, Brandeis was one of them. I was really happy to have an environment like Brandeis to fence at.
AL: So were you looking at big huge state schools, or other small schools like Brandeis? Was that a factor you were looking at?
JC: Size wasn't really a factor that I was looking at. I don't really remember all the schools I was looking at, because I ended up applying only to Brandeis, early decision.
AL: What ultimately led you to that choice, applying ED?
JC: I liked Brandeis the best as an institution of the schools I was looking at. I thought it had really good academics, I really enjoyed the community here, especially when I visited with the fencing team. It was really getting to know everyone and feel it out. It vibed with me, for lack of a better term.
AL: What other stuff do you do on campus, besides fencing and working in the Gosman Center [as a building manager]?
JC: I work as a research assistant in the politics department. That's fun. Professor Jill Greenlee has been working on a research project about political and gender socialization of kids, so I have worked with her for the past year-and-a-half or so on that.
AL: When you do political science research, what exactly does that entail?
JC: At the beginning of last year, we went into elementary schools and we had these surveys and different survey instruments, and we interviewed the kids. The other research assistants and I took all the data from the surveys and put into a database to do statistical analysis on it.
AL: I'm always interested in what you guys do on the other side of the street, but let's get back to fencing. Let's talk about fencing regionals last year.
In 2018, Brandeis hosted the NCAA Northeast Regional Qualifier. Carminucci reached the final women's foil pool of 12 and finished in eighth place. That seemed to have secured a trip to the NCAA Championships, which would have been a first for a Brandeis fencer since 2014. Her teammates and coaches were congratulating her on the feat.
Unfortunately, when there took a closer look at the numbers, a fencer from outside the finals pool had a higher strength factor for the regular season, surpassing Carminucci for the eighth and final foil berth.
AL: Take me a little bit through what happened that day.
JC: Sure. I would say it's kind of rare for someone to do well in the final pool at regionals and not make it to nationals. Everyone who's in the final pool is a really strong fencer. But it's always been the case that qualification for NCAA not just based on that performance at regionals. It's 60 percent based on your regular season. The woman who got selected ahead of me didn't make the finals, but her strength factor was a little bit higher. After we calculated the scores, she was higher than my by two-tenths of a point.
It was a really small thing. Everyone thought I had made it, even Coach Shipman. So I went to dinner, and I got an e-mail from him that I didn't look at, then a text from that said "Check your e-mail". And the e-mail said, "We were a bit hasty in calculating your finish."
I felt bad for coach Shipman most of all, because he was retiring at the end of the season and we couldn't give him one last trip to nationals.
AL: You've been through the experience of host nationals as a volunteer when you were a freshman. Did that give you any extra motivation to get to the NCAAs as a competitor?
JC: [Hosting nationals and regionals] were kind of separate for me. I didn't really connect those two. What I can say is that a lot of my friends have made NCAAs. The fencing community is pretty small, and I'm friends with a lot of people. And I'm happy for them, but I also know that I'm at about the same level of fencer as them, especially the woman who made it instead of me last year. So it's really cool to see that this is the next step for all of us who grew up together in the sport. Looking at it logically, it's not a really far off goal for me to strive for this year.
AL: Would you say your near-miss gave you any extra motivation at all for this year?
JC: Actually, not really. Looking at my performance last year, in the back of my head, I might think that might not be repeatable, just because some of the people that I beat last year were really strong fencers that I had never beaten before. At the same time, all I can really do is fence the best that I can. Last year I didn't make it, but I had really strong results, and it's enough to be proud of that. And if I don't make it this year, I'm still proud of what I have done.
AL: That's a great attitude. You're a captain this year. How do you see yourself as being a leader on the team? How do you relate your experience from regionals last year to the rest of the team?
JC: I've learned a lot from being the captain this year. It's been a learning experience in how to motivate people but at the same time not lecture them. Some of the goals that I, along with [men's team captain, junior] Ian Quin and coach Jennie [Salmon] have had to impart on people is that, even if you don't get the win, as long as you are working hard and putting the effort in, that's what we prioritize.
I've been proud of my teammates this season. Win or lose, everyone's been very supportive of each other.
AL: How has the transition been from Coach Shipman to Coach Salmon?
JC: It's gone pretty well! Brandeis is a place where people have a wide array of skills. You have people like me who have been fencing for 11 years, then you have people are just starting out in the sport. It can be tough for those who don't have a huge athletic background to jump into this kind of intensity, but people have been doing pretty well on the whole.
AL: Do you think you'll keep fencing after you graduate?
JC: Everyone asks me that! If I do, not seriously. I think 11 years of anything can be enough! It's a tough sport to continue with. I'd like try some other things, like cycling. I used to intern at a bike shop for some family friends, so I want to get back into that.
AL: Do you know what you want to do professionally after you graduate?
JC: We'll see. I'm searching for a job right now, and it's a struggle. I want to get into economic policy research, social science research, things like that. We'll see who takes me! A lot of the positions I'm looking for are designed to last a year or two, so that you can go back to grad school after.