Penn State Alumna And Olympian Continues Winding Career On Road To Tokyo 2020

Professional fencer Monica Aksamit won a bronze medal in the team division at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janerio and a gold medal in the team division at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. She’s been a member of Team USA five times, and an NCAA team champion twice. Currently, she’s training for next Summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

She is also a Penn State alumna and a product of the university’s storied fencing program. But her rise to that level was far from a given.

Aksamit was born in New York City in 1990, but a year-and-a-half later, she was sent to Poland to live with her grandparents, so her parents could earn money and move out of their tiny apartment.

She returned to America and grew up in New Jersey. But her sights weren’t always saber-focused. As a young child, her heart was set on gymnastics.

“I was drawn to gymnastics as a kid. I kept growing like a weed, I’m 6’0 nowadays, so my mom was like, ‘No there’s no way. Gymnastics is for the smaller kids and that’s not going to be you,'” Aksamit said. “So I had to give up that dream, and no other sport really spoke to me.”

Of course, that is until she found fencing.

Aksamit’s mother worked at a bank, and one of her clients was a fencing coach. He encouraged her to try fencing. After getting involved in the new sport when she was about eight, Aksamit was hooked.

Photo: Adrian Lopez Photography

“My mom would punish me by not letting me go to practice,” Aksamit said. “I had to have straight A’s and my room had to be clean. I would be crying cleaning my room and shoving everything underneath my bed so I could go.”

In 2004, Aksamit was sitting on her grandparents’ couch in Poland and watching Mariel Zagunis, who ended up being her teammate in Rio, win a gold medal in the first-ever women’s saber event.

“That was when I decided that I also wanted to be an Olympian. I told my grandparents that was my whole goal,” Aksamit said. “Of course, they looked at me as a 14-year-old girl and they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sounds good. You’ll totally be there. Totally a realistic dream.'”

Despite doubts, Aksamit made her national team debut in 2007 at the age of 17. She earned a scholarship to Penn State, where she went on to become a three-time NCAA All-American.

Aksamit received one of the few fencing scholarships awarded each year. Once she got here, she found a job bartending at the old State College pub Kildare’s, but relied on her scholarship to help put her through school.

“I don’t even really have words to describe that as I said,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to university had it not been for that scholarship and the coaches all believing in me.”

Today, Aksamit represents the Manhattan Fencing Center. She has worked with the same coach, Yury Gelman since she was 15 years old.

“[Gelman]’s amazing,” Aksamit said. “My parents are divorced. and my dad has been out of the picture, so I would say Yury is a father figure or I think of him as my father. I see him more than I see my own family, and he’s believed in me from the beginning.”

Aksamit is running a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money so she can travel and qualify for Tokyo 2020. Unfortunately, she is still trying to pay off the debt incurred by her efforts to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. She has spent more than $20,000 on commuting, traveling (both domestically and internationally), acquiring visas, and paying registration fees on competitions. When they aren’t representing the national team, athletes need to pay out of pocket for these costs.

“I kid you not, last week I had $150 in my bank account,” she said. “I just had a meltdown because it sucks. My stipend from the United States Olympic Committee is $300 a month. How do you expect, without even considering training costs, someone to survive off that? That’s nothing.”

Aksamit explained that she had tried to reach out to a sponsor following the Rio Olympics, but was shut down. For her, the combination of being a bronze medalist, and a fencer at that, limited her chances for any kind of sponsorship.

“Most sponsors are only interested in the NBA, football, soccer, or swimming. No one cares about fencing. I understand it’s a difficult task to understand, but it’s not being taught in school,” Aksamit said. “You’re being taught all of these other sports and people watch it because they were taught it.”

Image Credit: Neil Gavin Photography

Aksamit hopes her GoFundMe and her stance as a professional athlete will not only help her find success in her career but also to inspire young girls to find success as well.

“I’m so happy to be inspiring female athletes and inspiring other girls because it’s difficult out there. I feel like a lot of girls grow up just feeling that way thinking they’re supposed to be these dainty little girls and not strong, powerful female athletes,” Aksamit said.

“I really hope that I’m able to drive girls and help them be inspired to do what they want to be doing.”

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a senior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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