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‘The best they could possibly be’: How the 1987 women’s fencing team broke through

In 1976, tennis became the first varsity women’s team recognized by the University of Notre Dame. The day it became official then associate athletic director Colonel Stevens declared: “the dames have truly arrived.”

Two years before women’s tennis broke that barrier, the university was already moving to include women in a different sport: fencing. 

Notre Dame’s fencing program has won 12 national titles in its storied history including the 1987 women’s title, which was the first national title by a varsity women’s team at Notre Dame. Legendary Irish fencing coach Mike DeCicco spoke about the milestone to the Observer in 1987.

“It started in ’74 when Father [Edmund] Joyce came up and asked me if we were ready for a varsity women’s program,” DeCicco said. “He elevated women to varsity status on this campus long before Title IX ever came into vogue. He did it because we had enrolled women and he saw their role carrying over to the athletic field as well.”

Coach DeCicco is, by all measures, the most successful coach of any athletic program in Notre Dame’s history. Over his 34 years at the helm of Irish fencing, his teams compiled a 680-45 record (.938 winning percentage) and five national titles. He was also instrumental in forming Notre Dame’s women’s fencing program.  Molly Sullivan, a two-time Olympian and two-time NCAA foil individual champion, was one of the first female fencers to have sustained success under Coach DeCicco, who recruited her out of Boston. 

“The men’s team had won a number of national championships and what he wanted to do was create a women’s team on the same level. And so, he met with me and we kind of made an agreement that he would get me an education — an amazing education — and that he wanted me to win the first national championships for [women’s] fencing,” Sullivan said.

The 1987 title marked the culmination of Coach DeCicco’s efforts to create a championship-winning women’s team at Notre Dame. The team was led by Sullivan and made up of three other fencers, Janice Hynes and Anne Barreda. Hynes and Barred grew up and fenced at the same club in Massachusetts as Sullivan. The final member of that squad was Kristin Kralicek who hailed from Portland, Ore. and joined Sullivan in individual competition that year. Yves Auriol took the reins of the women’s program when he arrived in South Bend, after he coached Team USA’s foil squad.

“The team was pretty incredible and Coach DeCicco put it together,” Sullivan said. “Three of the four girls came from the Tanner City Fencers Club. So myself, Janice and Anne, we grew up together, […] and Kristin Kralicek I had known since I was 14 years old.”

Sullivan emphasized how that familiarity and comfort created an environment where everyone was able to develop into the best athletes and the best people they could be.

“We competed with each other, the men and the women. Everyone picked each other up and tried to make them the best they could possibly be. Not only the best fencer, but the best people they could possibly be. And that was a very special environment to be training under,” Sullivan said.

Even at the time, Sullivan realized the significance of Notre Dame’s championship triumph.

“I knew how important it was. Fencing has more national championships than any other sport and the history of Notre Dame sports is amazing. And I knew it was really important for the women’s team to become an integral part of that. So, I was very aware at the time that it was groundbreaking,” Sullivan said.

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