Continued Growth Daria Schneider embraces chaos To develop Cornell fencing

After 10 years on the international fencing circuit, Daria Schneider, the five-time US Fencing National Team member knew the pain in her hip was no longer the kind to be training and competing through. She came to learn she had a torn labrum, damaged cartilage, and osteoarthritis. Despite the constant pain and increased damage she was doing with every lunge and change of direction, Schneider was battling through a series of qualifying tournaments for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

As the pain in her hip continued to increase, so too did the voice in her head suggesting that her time as a professional athlete was coming to an end. When the final World Cup of Olympic Qualification was over and reality set in that she had come up just short of making the U.S. Olympic Team, the U.S. National Fencing Champion and Columbia University Hall of Famer started contemplating the future.

(Left): Schneider fencing at the 2010 World Championships in the Grand Palais in Paris; (Right) Winning the sabre team bronze medal at the 2012 World Championship.

“I think there was something in me that knew it was time to compete in a different way," Schneider says. "Like maybe coaching. The more I considered it, I recalled how much I enjoyed the experience of coaching collegiately. I had previously coached at the club and high school levels, but the diversity and complexity of coaching activities while at Columbia was the first time coaching really spoke to me.”

As Schneider began to seriously consider a return to collegiate coaching, she remembered a friend mentioning that Cornell was looking for a new head coach. As a former NCAA Champion at Columbia and head assistant coach for the Lions, Schneider was vaguely familiar with the Big Red program and remembered visiting Ithaca once before, earning first-team All-Ivy honors at the 2005-06 Ivy League Fencing Championships in Newman Arena.

As a member of the Columbia fencing team, Schneider earned first team All-Ivy Honors in Newman Arena during the 2005-06 Ivy League Fencing Championship.

Admittedly, it was not much to go on and Schneider wasn’t sure if Cornell would be a good fit for her. She and her long-time partner, Spencer Lund, were in the process of relocating closer to his family in Minneapolis where they had purchased a house together. The pair had also launched a fencing media outlet, OnPoint Fencing, and was dedicating time and energy to the start-up.

Schneider also knew that in a sport where coaching has been traditionally dominated by older men, many of whom hailed from the former Eastern Bloc, there was a chance the Big Red would overlook a young American woman despite her strong athletic and coaching background.

Schneider applied anyway knowing the interview process would provide her an opportunity to begin focusing on navigating her post-athletic career.

“The phone interview reinforced that I wanted to get back into Division I coaching, but I still wasn’t sure if it was the right time or if Cornell was the right place,” she says. “Everything changed when I arrived on campus for my interview. It was early summer and the campus and surrounding areas were beautiful. The fencing gym was among the nicest in the country, and the people who interviewed me were amazing. There were young coaches, and a lot of female coaches and women in the administration. It was all really appealing.”

A winner on every level of her athletic career, Schneider was also sold on the idea that she could build the Big Red into a successful program.

“[Cornell Athletic Director] Andy Noel won me over with his deep love for athletics and support of Cornell’s teams. From my early conversations with Andy, I grew confident that a coach with the right experience, a strong work ethic and a focused vision for their program would have the support necessary to make the sky the limit for their program.”

The Cornell fencing staff. (Left to Right): Faculty Adviser Alexander Colvin, Volunteer Assistant Coach Zachary Boynton, Assistant Coach Nicole Ross, Head Coach Daria Schneider, Strength Coach Andrew Pacheco, Associate Director of Athletics for Intercollegiate Operations Matt Coats

Schneider officially began at Cornell on June 21, 2016. Hired at the age of 29, she was the second-youngest head coach of an NCAA Division I fencing program, behind only Lafayette College head coach Jarrod Rottau.

The next few months proved to be a whirlwind consisting of moving to Ithaca, hiring a staff and trying to catch up on a recruiting circuit that had already been under way for a year. As Schneider zig-zagged across the country to various fencing tournaments, Lund began the process of relocating the couple more than 1,000 miles east. In the meantime, Schneider was making calls to potential assistant coaches.

In late September, Olympian Nicole Ross joined the staff. Ross and Schneider were teammates at Columbia and on the U.S. National Team together.

“When Daria first approached me about joining her staff, my initial response was to feel extremely flattered and to immediately say ‘no,’” says Ross. “I am a hardcore New York City native and have never had any interest in leaving my home. Then Daria invited me to Ithaca over Labor Day Weekend to help with a clinic. Spending a few days with the team was an eye-opening experience! Everyone I met and worked with at Cornell was so welcoming, open, and eager to learn. That gave me the perspective I needed to make some tough decisions and make a real change for myself. So the following Tuesday, I made the decision to leave my job and move to Ithaca.”

Nicole Ross and Daria Schneider were teammates at Columbia and on the U.S. Fencing National Team.

With the coaching staff in place, Schneider’s next order of business was to begin implementing her vision for the Big Red fencing program.

The sport of fencing is unique because it is individual in nature. Many athletes represent a club instead of a high school program. They compete in tournaments where their focus is on their individual result in an effort to improve their national and international rankings. Many take lessons individually, schedule individual workouts and, while coach-led drilling is fairly common, engage mostly in laissez-faire sparring. For some fencers, the concept of “team” is foreign.

Schneider has set out to change that approach on East Hill.

“Every head coach asks a lot of their athletes,” says Schneider. “And every head coach is demanding in their own way. Our coaching philosophy is very different from the club system, and that’s a hard transition for some athletes who have mostly competed individually. So for me, the greatest challenge this past year was motivating students that I didn’t recruit to embrace my version of how our team should function.”

Schneider’s coaching philosophy is a blend of her coaching influences, personal athletic experience, and an adaptation of the philosophy of a friend, two-time Olympian and World Champion, Soren Thompson, who is currently Ross' personal coach. Coaches Schneider, Ross, and volunteer assistant Zachary Boynton work continuously refining this style that focuses on melding the mental and physical components of fencing.

Fencing is a very technical sport and most coaching styles have strong roots in the European systems, which Schneider compares to “teaching ballet.” The athletes are drilled on the moves over and over until they are second nature.

“Soren describes fencing as an ‘open skill sport’ where pre-planned actions don't always pan out,” explains Schneider. “Our approach introduces into lessons and drills the chaos and mental stress athletes experience in actual fencing. So the body learns to change and adapt in the moment without any decision-making happening in your brain. Soren created an incredible system, specifically for foil and epee, which builds this philosophy into the fundamentals of footwork and blade work.”

This innovative approach has proven successful for Cornell’s fencers during Schneider’s first season with the team. The Big Red posted several record-breaking victories last season, first snapping an 11-bout losing streak to national powerhouse St. John's, beating the Red Storm for the first time since 1992, before ending a 23-bout losing streak to Temple for the program’s first win over the Owls since the 1979-80 season.

As she heads into her second year at the helm, Schneider will introduce even more inspired chaos to the team as she and Lund welcome their first child, due on Nov. 3.

Schneider and Lund are expecting their first child in November.

“I’m going to be challenged in my own life in a way that is very similar to what I’m trying to provide for my athletes at practice,” she says. “Coaching while pregnant is already a physical challenge. I’m tired and my body is constantly changing, but I continue sparring with our coaches and athletes and giving lessons. Going forward will be very chaotic because I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know what to expect. Like athletics and life, there will be things we don’t anticipate and can’t control. So I’m putting myself in a position where my own life on a day-to-day basis is going to feel very much like what I’m trying to expose our student-athletes to every day.”

With the baby due near the start of the 2017-18 fencing season, Schneider will rely heavily on assistant coaches Ross and Boynton to continue implementing her vision for the program and keep the team moving forward. Having Ross in the salle for this important time has proven to be an unexpected benefit to something Schneider sees as a long term goal for the Big Red program.

“I want Ithaca to be a destination for world-class fencers,” says Schneider. “I want to build a hub by creating a fencing program so strong that we attract top national and international athletes to come here and train. Nicole achieved a personal best No. 4 world ranking while training here this year. Her accomplishments and work at Cornell, coupled with improvements by our student-athletes, are early signs that fencers can come to Ithaca and train at an elite level. Eventually, elite success and quality bouting will compound the strength of our program as we build a larger Ithaca fencing community.”

In the short term, Schneider intends to continue working with her athletes by giving lessons until she’s physically unable to do so. Her first step was to convince her doctors that “repeatedly being ‘stabbed’ in the stomach” wasn’t as dangerous as it sounded and eventually her doctors agreed that some extra padding would suffice.

Schneider drilling with Coach Boynton (top) and giving a lesson to a student athlete (bottom) sporting extra padding.

Her next step will be proving to everyone else that she’s capable of continuing with the physical challenges of her job.

“Being a role model by balancing pregnancy and family, along with being there for my athletes, is really important to me,” Schneider says. “This is a really exciting time for female athletes who are pregnant. Serena Williams just won the Australian Open while pregnant. There’s a track athlete who just ran at the [USATF] Outdoor Championships at five months pregnant. My former teammate on the national team, Mariel Zagunis, a four-time Olympic medalist and two-time individual gold medalist, continues her training through pregnancy with plans of returning for another Olympic run at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Strong female athletes, professionals, and leaders are increasingly embraced in society, and I feel so lucky to live in a time where that’s the reality.”

While pregnant athletes have become more widely accepted in society, perhaps Schneider’s toughest test will be challenging the gender norms held by a fencing community where of the 46 NCAA fencing coaches in the country, only eight are female.

“I am blown away when people ask me if I’m quitting my job,” she says. “No one would ask an expectant father that question. I’ve received such incredible support from Cornell’s administration, and I already see this community is ready to help me be successful as a mom and as a coach. I really love coaching at Cornell. Fencing is my passion and I'm just getting started.”

Credits:

Patrick Shanahan, Daria Schneider

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