Mary Jane O'Neill
Every time the Ivy League awards the women's fencing trophy to the champion, she is right in the middle of it. That's because the likeness of Penn's Mary Jane O'Neill sits atop the trophy.
The Lajos Csiszar women's fencing trophy, awarded to the Ivy League's women's champion team, is modeled on Penn Athletic Hall of Famer and two-time Olympian Mary Jane O'Neill. "The trophy was donated by a Penn alum," O'Neill modestly recalls, "and I was picked as the most notorious Penn fencer."
She was at Harvard Medical School at the time and the sculptor, Timothy Maslin, went to her in Boston. "He did two or three sessions," she says, "and made me stay in a lunge position for 10 minutes at a time, which is as long as I could stand."
Initiated into fencing as a junior at Concord-Carlisle High School in Massachusetts, O'Neill joined an illustrious program. Though she took to the sport right away she fenced in the shadow of younger teammate Caitlin Bilodeau, who won two junior national championships before moving on to Columbia University.
The two met again in college ? with O'Neill winning the NCAA individual title in 1984 while Bilodeau took it in 1985 and 1987. Incredibly, the two fencers followed another Concord-Carlisle grad, Columbia Hall of Famer Lisa Piazza.
Bilodeau and O'Neill were reunited at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, when they fenced on the foil squad. "Our teams did well," remembers O'Neill. "I like team competition even though mine is an individual sport."
The 1992 Games were the first to have NBA players compete, and O'Neill's memories of them endure. "I loved competing for my country," she says. "I especially remember the opening ceremonies, the pro basketball players were mixed in with the amateurs. What an experience."
Fencing only two years in high school, O'Neill did not become a national-level fencer until college. But she knew fencing would be an important part of her college experience. "I first started considering Penn once I became serious about fencing," she says. "It was the Ivy League school best known for fencing."
At Penn her coach was Dave Micahnik, who has called O'Neill the best Penn fencer ever. The feeling is mutual. "Dave Micahnik is largely responsible for all my fencing accomplishments," she says simply. Majoring in chemistry, O'Neill describes Penn as "the perfect school for me. Being in the city really widened my perspective."
Her fencing progressed rapidly. O'Neill made the Junior National Team as a freshman and the National Team each succeeding year, and was a three-time first team All-Ivy and All-American. Penn won the Ivy title all four years she was there, and O'Neill says her most memorable experience was "winning the NCAA team championship my senior year in 1986."
Deciding to attend medical school, O'Neill took a year off after graduation to train with Micahnik for the Olympics. After the 1988 Games she went on to Harvard, fencing only once or twice a week. O'Neill graduated in 1991 and was planning a career in radiology when she decided to try and make the 1992 Olympic team. This time she stayed in Boston and lived with her family, took a research job at Massachusetts General Hospital and focused on her fencing.
After the 1992 Olympics O'Neill retired from fencing to focus on her medical career. She completed her residency at Mass. General in 1997 and stayed on staff there until 2006. Last year she moved to Beverly Hospital, where she found a "less hectic experience, closer to home."
She looks back on her college years as the "best years of my life." O'Neill feels that trying to balance athletics and academics and to use her time effectively are "valuable skills which have served me well later in my medical career."
Though her fencing was extremely important to her, O'Neill always knew that her long term goals were more important. "When push came to shove I would always give on the sports side rather than on the academic side."
— Suzanne Eschenbach