Corliss Hicks, fencing coach

Corlis Hicks, left, who coaches fencing at Rochester STEM Academy, instructs one of her athletes during a practice. Hicks was recently named the high school fencing National Coach of the Year.

Five years ago if you would have told Corlis Hicks she would someday win a major coaching award, she would have been flabbergasted.

Even now the soon-to-be 50-year-old is stunned by her recent turn of events. Hicks, who coaches fencing at Rochester STEM Academy, was recently named the high school fencing National Coach of the Year.

"This is not something I set out to do," Hicks said. "What I set out to do was make sure the kids had a sport they could enjoy, there was a respect for the culture and let them set the goals. So this was totally unexpected."

What Hicks set out to do was simply start up a program from the ground up. And it turned out to be a pretty good start up.

Five years ago Hicks, a special education teacher at charter high school Rochester STEM Academy, was given a challenge when the school decided to start a couple of sports programs. Boys soccer was added and under Title IX, the school also had to add a sport for girls.

The problem was the student population is mostly Somalians who are observant Muslim families. As a result the girls must be modestly dressed and keep their hair and body covered in public.

Hicks had been involved with fencing off and on since college. It was suggested that fencing be the sport for the girls and Hicks was named the head coach. She had never guided a team before and had learn on the fly about coaching, while also having to teach a sport of which the future athletes had no knowledge.

"I taught the kids everything, how to stand, how to advance, how to retreat," Hicks recalled.

The first couple of years there was a lot of footwork training.

"None of these kids came in knowing anything about the sport, but it was something they could do," Hicks said. "And it was something they could be covered and do.

"Basically I would teach them what I knew, and then when I was having problems I'd go to Albert Lee, who is the coach for Rochester Youth Fencing."

Hicks slowly got students to get intrigued by the sport. Many were interested after hearing about Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American to fence in the Olympics. She helped the U.S. earn a bronze medal in the 2016 Summer Games and was featured in Time Magazine.

Soon her fencers wanted to start competing against other teams and attended a tournament for the first time.

"It was good for the kids and it was good for their families who come to see this," Hicks said. "And it just grew from there. They were like 'When can we go to our next tournament?' "

The athletes began seeking out tournaments to attend such as the Minnesota high school state event, national events and Junior Olympic competitions.

"I let the kids drive the direction of the program," Hicks said.

Her first team consisted of six girls. Boys were added this past year and the 2019 team featured eight girls and four boys. The team took part in this year's Minnesota State High School Fencing League state tournament and recently in a national event.

It was then that Hicks discovered she was receiving a national honor.

"Did they get the right person? Because I haven't been doing this a long time," Hicks said. "I do not have a list of accolades. I have six girls who went from 'Here's how you stand' to competing on the national stage in five years. I look at this and go 'Wow.' And I tell the girls 'You guys spoiled me.' Because they work hard."

But it was building the program from nothing was part of Hicks' appeal to the selection committee.

"Talk about it being overwhelming, but also humbling," Hicks said. "It's one of those things that this isn't me, it's the kids. It's all of the other people, it's the teamwork."

Guy N. Limbeck is a sports writer for the Post Bulletin. His Local Notebook appears each Tuesday. He can be reached at glimbeck@postbulletin.com

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Sports Reporter

Guy covers a wide variety of high school, college and professional sports. He is a native of Rochester and has worked at the Post Bulletin since 1999. Guy resides in Byron with his wife, children and numerous pets.