By Jay Cook |
TINTON FALLS – One of the most technical sports across the globe, fencing creates a one-on-one combat-esque experience almost like no other.
In such a serious sport that is extremely competitive around the globe, one young Colts Neck teenager is flying up the rankings, all with a smile on her face.
“I thought that fencers looked like aliens, so I really just wanted to try it,” said Ariana Mangano with a smirk. “I slowly fell in love with the sport, that fight on the strip and being out there.”
Mangano, a 15-year-old Ranney School sophomore, has almost spent half of her life behind the mask, wrapped up in protective gear.
As a seven-year-old, Mangano waltzed into her first professional fencing lesson at the Atlantic Fencing Academy (AFA) in Tinton Falls. Owned and operated by Agota Balot, Mangano would learn the ins and outs of the sport all while growing up.
Through the years of hard work, which now comes to include practicing five nights a week (three at AFA and two more at the New York Athletic Club) and balancing the ever-difficult life of a high school teenager, Mangano has made her presence known on the strip.
Excelling in the epee style of the sport, she has grown into one of the most successful young fencers in the country, with help from her AFA personal coach Jim Carpenter, a 1996 Olympian and head coach of the men’s fencing team at the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Mangano participates in both Cadet (17-and-under) and Junior (20-and-under) competitions, and can now add another achievement to her already long list: member of the U.S. World Team for the Cadet and Junior World Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, beginning on April 1.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity – I mean, hopefully it’s not – but I want to go and be able to say that I fenced really well,” said Mangano. “My goal is to try to make the 16, through the first four rounds. I think I’m capable, but with the big lights and big stage, it’ll be tough.”
Throughout the past few months, the 15-year-old has been on a tear. Despite a tough start to her year in October, which saw her place an uncharacteristic 44th place at the North American Cup, a switch turned, and she began a competitive tear through the New Year.
She won Women’s Epee gold in the Cadet Team, Cadet Individual, Junior Individual in November; a silver medal in the Division I in December; a bronze in the Junior Individual in January; a fifth-place finish in the Division I.
That run really put her on the national fencing map, and the numbers show. According to USFencing.org, Mangano is currently ranked nationally as the women’s No. 2 Cadet, No. 4 Junior and the No. 7 Senior.
According to Balot, her skill set is one-of-a-kind.
“Ariana has enormous heart,” she said. “For a touch, she can bring everything. In Hungary, I’d call that ‘fencing from the guts’.
“She is physically very strong, tall and smart,” Balot continued. “She has very good technique for the level that she is on.”
While much of Mangano’s competition has been in the limelight of late, there’s still the contact out on the floor that worries her mother beyond belief.
“Truly, it’s very hard to watch,” said Joy Mangano. “She’s very poised on the strip, but everything on videotape is shaking because I’m just so nervous.”
Helping out on the constant plane rides – which have recently included international trips to Lisbon, Spain and Havana, Cuba – Joy is there prior to every bout, making sure Ariana has everything she needs to succeed. That even includes her secret pre-event drink.
“After I warm up, right before the start of the first round, I always drink Mountain Dew,” Mangano said laughing, yet certainly not joking. “It’s so bad for you, I know. It’s not the whole thing, but a quick energy shot, and then I know it’s time to compete.”
Despite a few sips before locking her headgear into place, she never drinks soda. It just so happened to wake her up before an event years ago, and has since turned into an important tradition.
There is much for Mangano to be excited about going forward in her still remarkably young fencing career. The tournament in Bulgaria, which will take place from April 1 to April 10, could cement her as one of the country’s next bright stars in the sport, and would most likely continue her ascension through the international leaderboards.
It’s important to keep in mind that while very successful, she’s still 15. While attending future proms and going to college are surely circled on future calendars, the epee fencer has her sights set on one single goal by the time the next decade rolls around: the 2020 Summer Olympics.
“If I could, I would like to push for the Olympics in 2020,” she said. “That’s if everything works out the way I’d want it to, I can still train the way I am and school isn’t an issue.”
Though with that a few years away, right now, the focus is on dominating the brackets in Bulgaria, and bringing home some hard-earned medals not only for herself, but the entire team that supports her.
“It’s our achievement and our victory, and I hope that I make everyone proud in Bulgaria.”
This article was first published in the March 23-30, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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