Her freshman bio in the Columbia fencing media guide put a lot of pressure on Caitlin Bilodeau. But she apparently never felt it, graduating as one of the most successful athletes in school history.
The 1983-84 Columbia fencing media guide set the bar high for freshman foil fencer Caitlin Bilodeau. "One of the most significant athletes ever to enter Columbia" it announced, which is a fairly encompassing statement when one thinks about it.
After all, Lou Gehrig was a Columbia athlete, as was NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman and longtime NBA star Jim McMillian. Even among fencers there's six-time Olympian (and bronze medalist) Norman Armitage, and John Northrop, a superb fencer who also won the 1946 Nobel Prize in physics, among dozens of Olympians and professional athletes who were also Columbia athletes.
Of course, there were strong indicators of future greatness. Bilodeau, who comes from a family of nine children, started fencing at age 11 when "my two elder sisters were fencers and my mom gave me a dollar to go join them." She quickly blossomed as a fencer, becoming National Junior Champion twice in high school as well as a member of the U.S. team for the World University Games and the Junior World Championships. She was also a high school All-American in lacrosse and all-state player in soccer (and would play soccer her first two years at Columbia as well).
She learned about Columbia from Lisa Piazza, a friend from high school who went to Barnard and a fencing career that would later earn her induction in the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame. Coach George Kolombatovitch "let it be known through other fencers," according to Bilodeau, that "he was interested" in her coming to Columbia.
But she chose to attend Penn, after getting admitted to both schools. Then "about 8-10 days before orientation began" Bilodeau met Aladar Kogler, who had just accepted a coaching position at Columbia. "I thought ?this guy's amazing,'" she remembers, and switched to Columbia.
"Kogler's a phenomenal coach" says Bilodeau. "Great technical knowledge, he makes you want to work harder." She responded by going 51-1 her freshman year, finishing sixth in the NCAA tournament, and making alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. She followed up the next year with a 38-5 record and an NCAA championship. She also finished sixth at the 1985 World University Games in Tokyo, at that time the best finish ever by an American woman in international competition.
Her fencing achievements were making her well known on campus, which helped when she missed class for fencing. "The professors knew my name, and that helped," says Bilodeau. "I never had any problem with any teacher." Her fencing obligation was considerable. "I'd take a lesson from Aladar in the morning before class" recalls Bilodeau, "then class, and practice at school at four. A quick dinner, then I would go to Fencers Club from six-to-nine. After nine, I'd be studying."
Fencers Club is a venerable New York institution with an extensive relationship to Columbia fencing. Founded in 1883, it has long drawn outstanding fencers to its strips. "You need top partners to fence with, and it has a big group of ranked fencers," explains Bilodeau, who took private lessons at both Columbia and Fencers Club.
An early Fencers Club master, Armand Jacoby, gave "lessons in fencing three times a week during the week at Columbia College," according to an 1893 New York Times article. The Ivy League's first fencing Olympian, James Margolis, also made the trek from Morningside Heights to 25th Street in the 1950s to take lessons from Michele Aloux, the 1952 World Epee Champion. Current Columbia fencing team member and 2004 Olympian Emily Jacobson says even today "a large percentage of starters go to Fencers Club." When Bilodeau made the trip she sometimes "had open foils on the subway" drawing funny looks from fellow passengers and transit cops, according to a 1986 Newsday article.
Bilodeau followed up her NCAA championship with a 56-0 dual meet mark junior year and an appearance in the 1986 World Championships in Bulgaria, then won another NCAA championship her senior year, becoming the first women fencer to win multiple NCAA titles. In her Columbia career Bilodeau was named All-American and first-team All-Ivy all four years, and in addition was a four-time national champion. She was also a four-time Eastern Collegiate champion and a two-time medalist in the Pan American Games, including a gold medal in 1987.
She would establish herself in 1985 as the top-ranked women's foil fencer in the United States, a position she held until 1992. And she would fence twice in the Olympics, in 1988 and 1992. "Walking into the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, there's no words to describe it," remembers Bilodeau. "The whole world is watching. I realized I made it, after all the years of hard work."
Her accomplishments were gaining recognition as well. She was the first recipient of Columbia's Distinguished Achievement Award in Athletics in 1987, followed the next year by Columbia College's John Jay Award for Distinguished Achievement.
Columbia also named her Columbia University Athlete of the Decade for Fencing in 1991, and Athlete of the Twentieth Century for Fencing and to the Ivy League Silver Anniversary team, both in 1999.
After retiring from fencing Bilodeau started a career at IKEA, eventually becoming human resources manager for Canada. Married to Canadian Olympian and current Olympic team coach Jean-Marie Banos, she has two children -- Justin, 13, and Sebastian, 11. "They don't fence," notes Bilodeau, laughing. "Justin swims and Sebastian likes hockey."
In 2002 Bilodeau was inducted into the United States Fencing Association Hall of Fame, and in 2006 she made the inaugural class of the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame -- joining Gehrig and Luckman, as well as NFL star Marcellus Wiley and Olympic gold medal swimmer Cristina Teuscher. "I thought ?they are so accomplished,'" she says. "How am I in this group of people?"
The 1983-84 Guide author got it right, after all.
— Stephen Eschenbach