Being a student-athlete on the Columbia-Barnard fencing team gave me lifelong friends and the opportunity to continue to achieve my academic and athletic goals.
Above: Botvinnik at the 2021 Olympic qualifiers. Photo by Bizzi Team, FIE.
Junior Yana Botvinnik ’23 is competing on the Columbia fencing team, as an épée fencer, for the first time this year, but she’s no stranger to the sport. Botvinnik took a leave of absence in her first year at Barnard to attend the Olympic trials for the Tokyo 2020 Games on the Israeli National Team. Her sophomore season was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before arriving at Barnard, the computer science major led the Israeli National Team to place fourth in the 2017 Junior World Cup and second in the 2016 Junior Maalot World Cup. She entered her collegiate career ranked No. 72 in the world, and she ranked as high as No. 11 in the junior world rankings.
This fall, Botvinnik has eagerly jumped into competing for Columbia as part of the Columbia-Barnard Athletic Consortium, in which Barnard and Columbia undergraduates participate in NCAA Division 1 athletics through a unique partnership established in 1983 that makes Barnard the only women’s college whose students compete in D-I tournaments, via the Ivy League Athletic Conference.
Hear from Botvinnik about her fencing journey in this “Barnard’s Got Game” Q&A.
How did you initially get into your sport, and what do you enjoy about it?
I was born an active child and loved running with friends and playing competitive games. I tried different sports as a child and did track and field for four years. It wasn’t until I was 14 years old that I started fencing. It is pretty late to start a new sport competitively, but I was lucky to have a very dedicated coach who believed I could catch up fast. I think the fact that I started late also motivated me to work harder than anyone else in the club. As a child, I loved all kinds of toy swords and would have game battles with my sister. Who wouldn’t want to feel like a hero in real life?
Fencing, and especially épée — my weapon — isn’t “fair.” Everything can happen. Even the top world fencers struggle with being consistently on the podium. I think that’s the most important lesson I learned from my sport — sometimes you can go above and beyond in your training and still lose. Fencing is a combination of physical preparation, tactics, mental game, and technique. This sport forces you to be creative and to be smart, in addition to being physically and mentally prepared. It’s not always fair, but it’s exciting.
The fencing community is very special, very big, and probably the best gift I could get from the sport is to be a part of it. I never thought I’d live in New York and would go to Barnard College, but fencing gave me the opportunity to do that. We have a great sense of family in our team, and being a student-athlete on the Columbia-Barnard fencing team gave me lifelong friends and the opportunity to continue to achieve my academic and athletic goals. The amount of support I feel every day is truly empowering.
How has being an athlete translated into your classroom experience?
It definitely teaches [me] how to be efficient and organized, as well as how to manage stress. I think I am less stressed about exams and schoolwork because I have fencing. Your body and mind learn how to cope with stress and perform under pressure at competitions, so when you do midterms and finals, it already feels like a routine. It also forces you to switch your focus from school to sport and vice versa. Of course, it is a lot of work to combine both; this fall, I had to take a midterm four hours before my flight to Europe for a World Cup and compete the next day. The fact that all the athletes at Barnard and Columbia have to find this balance between studying, training, and sleeping enough shows that it is possible and you are not alone. It gives you the energy to do your part and to stay positive and focused.
What is your favorite memory of participating in athletics at Barnard?
Because I took a leave of absence for the Olympic trials during my freshman year and my sophomore season was canceled due to COVID, this year is going to be the first collegiate season I am taking part in. I am very excited to fence for the team. Fencing is an individual sport, but in college, you win when your teammates win. It’s the first time you really feel like you are fencing for the team and not only for yourself. We are all excited to be back and looking forward to this year’s Ivy and NCAA championships. Even though I have yet to experience the college competitions themselves, I have many happy memories connected to the athletics at Barnard. Practices, Zoom calls, late nights at libraries, or team picnics in Central Park — all these events make my college experience special.
What led you to your chosen major?
I really liked math as a child and enjoyed problem solving. My parents are the ones who showed me that math, and later computer science, can be fun and creative. For me, computer science represents a way to have the power to solve different problems and invent new programs that can help people. When you write a code, you need to have a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve and what the most efficient and elegant ways to solve this problem are. Technology has become such an essential part of our lives; it’s in medicine, sports, social interactions — basically everywhere. I enjoy critical thinking and would like to understand where technology is taking us and how I can affect it. I am specifically interested in AI and the possibilities it brings, as well as ethical concerns. Barnard is a great place to study computer science, as well as learn about social implications that computers bring into our lives.
What are your plans after graduation?
I want to continue fencing and go for qualification for Paris 2024. After that, I hope I’ll be able to find a balance between my fencing career and a career as an AI engineer or software developer. I feel that a computer science degree from Barnard gives you flexibility and many opportunities to navigate the post-college world and, most importantly, the skills needed to adapt and succeed.
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