At 16 years old, the sport of fencing has already taken Jessie Skye Laffey all over the country — and world. Yet, it has been her attention to both the physical and mental elements of fencing that continues to take her to new heights in the sport.
Laffey, who was born and raised in Jersey City, began fencing foil when she was 10 years old and now competes as both a cadet (17 and under age group) and as a junior (20 and under). Her recent ascent on the national circuit began with an eighth place finish in the junior women’s foil category at the North American Cup in Portland, Ore., in January. “Something happened in Portland where it just clicked,” Laffey said last week. “I knew how to move and everything.”
She followed that performance with another impressive showing at the Cadet World Cup in Pisa, Italy last month, where Laffey nabbed fifth place. In mid-February, Laffey tied for third place in both juniors and cadets at the Junior Olympic Fencing Championships in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The sport has taken her to international competitions in Hungary and Germany, as well as other national tournaments from Ohio to Texas to Reno, Nev. She is now ranked No. 4 and No. 11 nationally among women cadets and juniors, respectively, by the United States Fencing Association.
A junior at Glen Ridge High School, Laffey trains five or six days a week at the Cobra Fencing Club on Grove Street in Jersey City. She attended St. Dominic Academy as a freshman and sophomore before moving to Glen Ridge prior to this school year.
Laffey first picked up the sport as a 10-year-old when she was convinced by a classmate to join her team. Laffey’s initial interest in fencing caught her mother by surprise. “She came to me and said, ‘Mom, I want to fence,’ Laffey’s mother Kim Snyder said. “You want to do what? You want to fence?”
But Laffey immediately took to the sport, which relies not only on physical abilities but intellect and wits. Since first picking up a foil, Laffey has worked with coach Demetrios Valsamis and has steadily improved her physical skill set, as well as her mental approach to the sport.
“You have to figure out how to trick (your opponent) and have good enough technique to score even after you do something smart,” said Valsamis. “When she was young she always wanted to do things the right way, so she always had good balance and technique. In this last year, she really grew up mentally as a fencer. She became really tricky and tough and smart.”
Added Laffey: “I don’t think (people) realize how mentally tough you have to be and how you have to out-think your opponent.”
Laffey is currently the first alternate on the three-member U.S. National Cadet Women’s Foil Team, which will compete at the Junior and Cadet World Championships in Moscow, Russia starting Saturday. While she won’t make the trip to Russia unless a teammate gets injured, Laffey also eyes the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro visit site.
But first she looks to earn a fencing scholarship to either Barnard or Northwestern, and names engineering as a possible field of study.
“At first I liked fencing and thought it was fun,” Laffey said. “It turned out that I got good kind of quickly … and I began to really love it.”