Medora McCarthy is not your typical teenager. The Los Altos Hills resident competes internationally in an obscure sport and does not attend a conventional high school.
McCarthy, 17, is a high-level fencer who recently transitioned to an independent learning school because she travels frequently to compete.
Many of the competitions are in Great Britain, where McCarthy was born. At 2 years old, she and her family moved to California.
After trying “everything from horseback riding to soccer to basketball,” McCarthy said she took up fencing at age 13.
“One of my close family friends tried fencing, and I hadn’t found a sport that clicked, so I tried it and fell in love with it,” she said.
McCarthy described fencing as “physical chess” because it’s mentally and physically challenging.
Fencers compete against one another in bouts to five or 15 points. The objective is to hit the opponent with a sword – a foil, epee or sabre – without being struck. Points are awarded for on-target strikes.
Fencers compete on a piste – a strip approximately 14 feet long and 6 feet wide – using moves known as advances (to move forward) and retreats (to step back).
“(I like it) because there’s always something you can make better about yourself as a fencer,” McCarthy said. “(There’s) always something new to learn.”
One thing she learned early on: McCarthy wasn’t eligible for a spot on the U.S. fencing team because she was here on a green card.
“The U.S. selects citizens for their team, and I wasn’t a citizen,” said McCarthy, who gained citizenship a year ago.
That didn’t foil her plans, however. She contacted Great Britain’s team, was accepted and has represented her native country ever since.
Earlier this month, McCarthy won the Great Britain Qualifier – a competition comprising 54 fencers – marking her best finish in a year filled with major events.
In April she placed 34th in the 2014 Cadet and Junior World Fencing Championships in Bulgaria. McCarthy said making it to the competition was her greatest accomplishment – most qualifiers have 10-15 years of experience.
In June she placed 30th in the Division I Women’s Epee category at the USA Fencing National Championships, which featured three Olympians. Although she did not compete against them, McCarthy said, “It was inspiring to fence next to a celebrity in the fencing world.”
McCarthy’s coach, Valeriy Naulo, has worked with top-notch fencers from around the world. McCarthy has trained with him for three years at Stanford University’s Cardinal Fencing Center.
“I really like to work with her,” said Naulo, an assistant coach at Stanford. “With each practice, I can see how she understands fencing.”
When McCarthy isn’t training with Naulo, she works with coaches in Great Britain. The dual citizen has found friends in many of her teammates there.
“It took a while to get to know them – at first I was just the American,” she said. “But now I’ve made some good friends.”
Due to her world travel and frequent competitions, McCarthy has chosen an alternate path when it comes to education. With two to four competitions per month and three to five training sessions each week, she recently transitioned from Mountain View High to the School for Independent Learners (SIL) in Los Altos.
McCarthy described the transition as “very easy.” She didn’t expect it to be so smooth.
“It was upsetting to leave the friends I’ve made and especially the teachers, but (SIL was) super instrumental in letting me travel,” she said. “I was expecting it to be much worse.”
The incoming senior aspires to fence in college – and beyond.
“Eventually, down the line, I’d do anything to go to the Olympics, but that’s definitely a long-term goal,” McCarthy said.