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From Russia to Penn State, there was no foiling Olga Kalinovskaya’s plan

Olga Kalinovskaya (right) beat Notre Dame’s Maria Panyi in the 1995 finals. NCAA PHOTOS ARCHIVE

The fall of the Soviet Union opened opportunities unheard of under communism. And for a young woman from St. Petersburg, Russia, it created a chance she would seize to build a storied NCAA athletic career and gain an education that would have been unimaginable behind the Iron Curtain.

Olga Kalinovskaya began fencing at a young age, and as she continued to improve and compete domestically and internationally, she caught the eye of Penn State fencing coach Emmanuil Kaidanov, the architect of a leading program in NCAA fencing.

With a Russian-speaking head coach and fellow Russians in 1991 NCAA sabre champion Vitali Nazlymov and 1992 NCAA foil champion Olga Chernyak on the roster, Kalinovskaya had a support system in place when she arrived in State College.

“It was quite a change,” Kalinovskaya recalls. “I could write and read pretty well, but as far as conversational English, I had an extremely difficult time understanding people. It took awhile to get comfortable with it.”

Kalinovskaya felt at home when she pulled her mask down and picked up the foil. She earned her first NCAA individual national championship in 1993 and repeated as national champion three more times through 1996. In 1995, Penn State began a run of six consecutive national team titles.

Clearly, Kalinovskaya left an imprint on the program.

“She was tall, a good athlete and very, very smart,” says current Penn State fencing coach Wes Glon, who joined the Penn State coaching staff as an assistant in 1985 and is in his sixth year as head coach. “She came up with incredible strategy and was so creative.”

Kalinovskaya’s proficiency in the cerebral side of fencing was apparent not only in her tactics, but also in her approach.

“Many times, you struggle with the athletes who get so emotional and will make the same mistake,” Glon says. “She was the one who would never get really emotional.”

That approach was rooted in the reason Kalinovskaya enrolled at Penn State.

“(My fencing) foundation was pretty strong coming from the Soviet Union, but also I was there to study,” she says. “The pressure of fencing, it wasn’t the end of the world if you win or if you don’t win. Fencing was kind of on the side.

“Looking back to my experience as a child, sometimes you’re like, ‘How could I lose this bout?’ You think about it and you lose the bout because you’re afraid to lose the bout. Fencing at university, there was no pressure like that whatsoever.”

Entering her senior season, Kalinovskaya was on a 90-match winning streak and poised to become the first fencer, male or female, to win four national championships. But academic obligations and the collegiate competition schedule were starting to catch up with her.

“It became more challenging my junior and senior year as the volume of work increased,” Kalinov­skaya says. “I used to practice twice a day as a child, and in the collegiate system you only practice for six months a year.”

She lost to Notre Dame freshman Sara Walsh during the regular season and again in the preliminary rounds of the NCAA championships at Yale before a third meeting in the final.

“Walsh was a very talented girl, but Olga didn’t give her a chance once they were in the bout for the gold,” Glon recalls.

Kalinovskaya romped to a 15-4 victory to end her career with a .973 winning percentage (180-5) and an unprecedented fourth national title, a mark that stood unanswered for more than 20 years until Fighting Irish fencer Lee Kiefer matched the feat in 2017, also in women’s foil.

She remained in State College as a volunteer assistant, completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering before working for an engineering firm in the Washington, D.C., area.

“Without fencing, none of it would have been possible,” says Kalinovskaya, who continues to work in engineering while remaining involved in her sport by coaching at the La Jolla Fencing Academy near her home in Carlsbad, California.  “If I had to pay myself, there was no way I would’ve gone to school here. Fencing gave me an opportunity to get the scholarship for an education in the U.S. If it wasn’t for that, I would’ve probably stayed in Russia, and who knows what would’ve happened?”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.