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111 wins, 1 loss, and a big connection with Dad

This year, Mateo Wilkins, 14, qualified for the USA Fencing national championships, which will be held in Columbus, Ohio.

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Mateo Wilkins, 14, left, and Mushaf Hashmi, 11, take part in practice for the Rochester Montessori School fencing team, part of the Southeast Minnesota Youth Enrichment League, Friday at the school in Rochester.
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Mateo Wilkins started fencing mostly because his father was a coach.

He admits it had some primal childhood appeal, too.

"I liked it too because you get to do all the things your parents tell you not to do — play with sharp things and stab your friends," Wilkins said.

Coaches likely prefer the term "making contact with an opponent" to "stab."

When fencing with the correct protective gear, the worst injury Wilkins has sustained is a bruise.

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"You have a lot of protection," he said.

Wilkins’ father, Kamau Wilkins, was recruited by Youth Enrichment League to be a coach. Mateo decided to take up the sport and spend time with his father.

Some early success shifted Mateo’s attitude toward fencing. He won a YEL tournament in his age bracket. A couple years later, Ro Sobalvarro, who guided the U.S. Women’s team to a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics in London, joined the YEL coaching staff.

"I started to get more refined as a coach," Kamau said.

Mateo said he became more dedicated to fencing. He stopped playing football and devoted that practice time to fencing, he said.

This year, Mateo, 14, qualified for the USA Fencing national championships, which will be held in Columbus, Ohio, June 28 through July 7.

Mateo plans to prepare for the event by practicing, lifting weights and seeking out some tough competition. In YEL tournament competition, Mateo has 111 wins against one loss in his age group.

That loss came this year.

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"Those tournaments have gotten a lot more competitive," Mateo said.

He said he hopes to find other fencers around the state to spar against in the next few months.

"I know it’d be good for me to fence the number-one or number-two fencers in the state," Mateo said.

Even if that would mean taking a loss, he added.

There’s more to learn in a loss than a win, Mateo said. That’s a lesson Kamau tries to impart on athletes he works with.

"As a coach, I talk more about losing than winning," Kamau said. "The lesson for kids in loss is an experience they will need well into adulthood."

Not that Mateo ever intends to lose.

"I never purposefully try to lose," he said. "If I lose, in most cases it hurts."

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Even if there’s a lesson in the loss, he added.

Coaching fencing has been a learning experience for Kamau as well. He recalled his first day coaching fencing and feeling the familiar nervousness he felt as an athlete before a game or match.

"To me, that’s one of the best parts of being an athlete," he said. "I always tell my students, it’s your body getting ready to perform."

Fencing is a different kind of sport and competition than other sports Kamau has coached, he said.

"My fencers are not my traditional athletes," he said.

The sport attracts people who might shy away from traditional sports and competitions and teaches those students teamwork and the joy of competition. In most forms of fencing, scoring is determined by touches based on who has right of way. Generally, right of way is determined by who goes first and can change after a touch or after a parry. It rewards competitors who take initiative, but playing defensively well can create an advantage too.

"Really, the beauty of the sport is how creative a competitor can be," Kamau said.

However, refereeing can be a challenge.

"I’ve compared it to calling two strike zones at a baseball game at the very same time," Kamau said.

Kamau said he hopes Mateo’s qualification for national competition sparks spirit among the other fencers in Rochester and drives more interest in the sport.

"I would love nothing more than to see it grow across the sate," Kamau said.

Youth Enrichment League offers open fencing classes Saturdays.

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Mateo Wilkins, 14, looks on during practice for the Rochester Montessori School fencing team, part of the Southeast Minnesota Youth Enrichment League, Friday, April 12, 2019, at the school in Rochester.

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