Gaby Chau didn’t let an injury prevent her from finishing her career with the Boston College women’s fencing team.
Chau decided to stop competing as a junior at Boston College, but she stayed on as a team manager. She’s now the head coach of the women’s fencing program at Wagner’s College, taking over as the program’s third head coach in its fifth year. As a spring 2020 graduate, she’s one of the youngest coaches to ever lead a Division I team.
GoodSport caught up with Gaby to discuss her fencing background, coaching and recruiting during the pandemic, and her advice to other athletes.
Before becoming Wagner College’s head fencing coach, you had a successful saber fencing career. What was that like?
I started fencing when I was in middle school. I’d go to practice once a week and do basic footwork. It was just something that my parents thought would get me involved with sports, it wasn’t anything serious. But then, my club got a new coach and all of a sudden there were a few more people there. A little while later, there was another coaching change and the newest coach, Dennis Kolakowski, said, “We’re competing. We’re going to have a program.” He built up our program and that was during my sophomore year of high school. I started going to the club more often and going to tournaments. When I graduated, I headed off to Boston College and I fenced for the BC team for three years. I’d say my junior year was probably my most successful. I did pretty well at the ACC’s (tournament) and came in 13th out of 36 at NCAA Regionals. But at the end of my junior season, I got an injury in my lower back. That moment for me was when I realized I couldn’t fence anymore. You have one back, and I wasn’t going to pull it out before I was 22. But since I had invested so much into the team, I wanted to stay with them and our coach offered me a manager position. I could still travel with them and still go to meets and be involved in the process without actually having to put any strain on my back physically.
What aspects of being a leader on the Boston College team prepared you for being a coach?
During my junior year at BC, I was captain. I had to set up captain’s practices and make sure that everybody was getting along well, because we were a big team. There were 36 of us. I had to find out why people didn’t show up to practice. Normally, it was just people having issues with schoolwork and being stressed. So the captains would be the ones to pull that together.
When I was manager, my job focused much more on organization. Being captain helped me with the personal aspect of the team, whereas being manager, now I know how to set up a schedule and how to organize meets and attendance.
I wasn’t really prepared for the recruitment process as a coach. I think the strangest thing is that I was there myself just five years ago looking at schools. The process is still familiar, but at the same time, it’s changed so much in the past few years, especially now with COVID. There are waivers for certain tests — some people don’t have SAT scores for their applications, which is totally fine. But at the same time, that means their financial aid is only being determined off their grades. So that’s another level of stress for the prospective athletes coming through. And then you also can’t visit campus right now, unless you are in a non hotspot state and you make an appointment. It’s not the safest idea. These aren’t challenges unique to Wagner, but it has just been a very strange year to recruit.
What has it been like recruiting this year?
Being so close in age to the recruits, I like to think that it gives me a little bit more understanding and empathy towards the kids. I call them kids. They’re still kids to me, even though they’re 18. This is really the first huge decision they are making and I hope it lasts for four years, but I don’t want to pressure them into making a choice, especially not this year in 2020. I just try to help them find what they’re looking for. And if that’s not Wagner, it’s not Wagner. If it is Wagner, that’s amazing. I don’t want to pressure someone to make a decision that might not be best for them because after college there’s no professional fencing. If you want to go into the workforce or if you want to go into academia, whatever you want to do, that’s what you need to do. That’s what you’re here for. You’re really here for an education and you’ve fenced because you love it.
Well, you did manage to make a career out of fencing. How did this opportunity at Wagner College happen? What led you to stay in the fencing world?
I was getting a chemistry degree and about halfway through, I realized I didn’t want to go into academia, which is generally what happens for chemistry. You can go and do research for a few years, but at a certain point, you need a PhD if you want to advance. I came to realize I didn’t want to get a PhD in chemistry. I enjoy learning about it and I think it’s fun. But then I thought about it and knew I could not do this for the rest of my life.
I began looking into different industries and hobbies that I enjoyed. And I’ve always really liked sports, especially at BC my love for sports grew. So I asked our sports administrator if he could just talk to me about what he does. He made time for me which was nice of him because he is so busy. After meeting with him, he said we could also meet the head of marketing for BC Athletics, who ended up offering me a volunteer position for the semester. I continued that for two years, from 2018 in the Fall until they sent us home for COVID in the Spring of 2020. During that time, I went from volunteer to an actual intern. I did so many different things there and that’s when I realized I wanted to work in sports. I absolutely loved the atmosphere and I liked working with the athletes and creating relationships between the sport itself and spectators.
I began applying for sports jobs at the end of my senior year, which was a little difficult because I did have a degree in chemistry. But, I did have some success and was in the fourth round of interviews at one company and then the pandemic virtually shut down all sports. They canceled their program because they didn’t think they were going to have a season.
It was March or April, and I thought, “I’m a senior, I don’t have a job lined up. I need to look for something.” During my exit interview with my coach, he asked me what I was doing after school and I said, “Well, I thought I had a job, but it was canceled.” In the meantime, I thought I might try to find a part-time job as a fencing coach to make some money at night if I had a different day job. He told me he would let me know if anything ever opened up. A few weeks later, he forwarded me an email for the position at Wagner. They were looking for a graduate assistant coach for fencing, so it was designed for people who just graduated college, maybe two years out of college. The “graduate assistant” part of the title referred to the coach earning an MBA or Master’s degree. In return, you’re the coach. This was perfect for me because it gave the job market and the sports industry some time to recover, and I would come out with an MBA which would round out the chemistry. Also, it would give me a few more years experience in sports before I try to apply for an actual job in the field that I would like to be in.
I was first interviewed by our sports administrator, Brendan Fahey. He really respects fencing as a sport and he wants the program to grow. The second round interview was with the team itself. Since it’s such a young program, it had only been around for four years at the time, they wanted to make sure their coach was someone who had goals that aligned with their own for the future of the program. And, well, here I am.
What is it like being a coach at your age and as a new graduate?
It’s kind of strange because I’m at most a year older than my oldest ones. It’s a very fine line between “friends” and “friendly with.” You can run the risk of losing that inherent respect for the position, especially given that in a year, they’ll be my age. I definitely have to work hard to maintain that. I do want them, if they’re having an issue in school, to be able to feel like they can come and talk to me about it. But at the same time, I don’t want to be too close because there’s that little distinction you need to have. It is nice that it’s an all girls team. I feel like that’s just easier than trying to be the coach of two teams together. Our team at BC was 36 strong. 10 is much more manageable.
I have a great support system from the athletic staff and the other coaches, and even the girls on my team, they were so welcoming even if they weren’t on campus. I guess it’s early to say if I’m successful or not, but if I am, it would definitely be because of them. My coaches, Dennis Kolakowaki, Syd Fader, and Brendan Doris-Pierce, were great people and they definitely helped me get to where I am today. They’re still great! They still help me.
What have you been doing this year, and how do you hope your time as coach impacts the team?
Because of COVID, Wagner decided that you can opt to be entirely remote. Seven fencers from my team decided they were going to stay home for term. I support that; their health and safety comes first. I only have three girls on campus right now, luckily they all fence the same weapon, so that works out really well for them. They’re able to do drills and fence within the restrictions in place for COVID. We all have to wear masks and be six feet apart when possible. Since my team is not able to compete, we need to practice and continue to maintain a competitive edge.
One of my main focuses is recruiting for next year, which is hard because we can’t travel. Everything happens online. The NCAA extended the dead period until December 31st. So even if recruits were able to visit, I couldn’t speak with them. It is a little stressful, but I also understand why. Now that I’m a coach, I realized there is a lot more reasoning behind NCAA decisions. When I was an athlete, I didn’t quite understand what was happening.
How are you preparing your athletes who are at home?
I emailed them at the beginning of the semester to cover general housekeeping items. I told them, I know clubs are opening back up. If you feel it’s safe to go to your club practice, do that. If not, keep working at home. Do footwork, try to tape your footwork to look at video. Video is so helpful for fencing. YouTube has so many tournaments like Olympic trials, Pan-Ams, world cups. I told my fencers to look at those videos and analyze the tactics they see.
Our strength coach Gianna Solomon, she’s been great. She made an in-depth calendar and workout program for the girls at home all based on body weight, because she didn’t know whether or not they had access to a gym. That way they’re able to keep up with the girls here.
Since you are a saber fencer, how are you learning to coach foil and epee?
At the beginning of my job in August, I realized I wasn’t a certified referee in all three weapons. But I’m happy to report that I’m now certified in epee, foil, and saber. It’s important since I am now a three-weapon coach.
Because the three fencers who are here on campus fence foil, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos to learn all the different parries and how they move. I also talked to a lot of my former teammates. I reached out to some of my friends I started with when I was in high school, and some of my teammates from BC. One of my friends — Thomas Ferrante, he’s now our volunteer assistant coach — is an epee fencer which is great because that’s the weapon I feel like I have the least handle on because it’s so different from saber. At least saber and foil both have right of way, they have similar rules. My best understanding of epee is that the point is to draw out mistakes from the other person. So I know enough about epee. I lead footwork and bouting drills, but I don’t want to give them private lessons when I don’t feel like I’m super strong in that area. I feel that would be more of a handicap than help to them. So I brought in Thomas, who was very nice to volunteer. Foil is going pretty well. I think I need to adjust my understanding of how they move because saber is just much faster and more aggressive, whereas I feel foil has more slowly thought out second intention. I definitely want to take some foil and epee lessons from a local club just so I can make sure that I really understand what’s happening and I want to try it myself.
What advice would you give to your former self, or to rising female athletes or coaches? What would you say to them about becoming a coach or coming on a college team?
I would absolutely tell former Gaby that you need to stretch more and you need to be more active in recovery. My injury was definitely due to overuse and not taking proper care of it because I would always just push through and thought it would be fine. It wasn’t fine. I should have taken better care of it.
To future college fencers, I would say your attitude is actually more important than your skill. In college, you go through your bouts so quickly since they’re always only five touches, rather than 15 like (United States Fencing Association) tournaments. If you let one touch ruin your entire day, it’s kind of game over, whereas if you have the ability to bounce back, you are far more likely to be successful. That took me a long time to figure out. I personally felt a noticeable difference in my fencing once I didn’t get hung up on bouts or hung up on touches that should have been mine. I was able to move on from that and just fence each new bout as a new bout and each touch as a new touch. It became easier for me to adapt to my opponent and to move forward. This is such an important skill, especially when you fence so many bouts in one day.
This can apply to life, too. I used to be hung up on everything I did wrong and it makes it hard to see what you’re doing and what’s going well. If you have a bad grade on one assignment in class, you can’t think you’re going to fail because if you do, you’re likely to get so focused on that rather than on what you can do to be better. It’s definitely one of the things that I really value from my time fencing and I hope that if I leave my team with anything, that would be what I want them to take away.
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