Fencing state title 'surreal' for JM's Wilkins
John Marshall junior Mateo Wilkins won the Minnesota High School Fencing Championships one week ago in Victoria.
It got to the point where Mateo Wilkins’ father and coach, Kamau Wilkins, just shut his mouth.
He also asked anybody else inclined to give Mateo pointers to do the same.
A Rochester John Marshall junior, the 17-year-old Mateo was competing on Saturday, Feb. 26, in the Minnesota High School Fencing Championships at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria.
Mateo was rolling. Kamau couldn’t miss it.
“That day, he was in the ‘zone,’ and I’d seen him in it before,” Kamau said. “He needed to stay in it. So I didn’t want to give him anything more to think about. That becomes an important piece of coaching, to know (when to be quiet). It was a cool moment for me to recognize that.”
It was also a winning piece for Mateo, who’s been fencing since the fourth grade. He took up the sport after his father’s introduction to it, Kamau later becoming a volunteer coach through the Youth Enrichment League (YEL).
Mateo has been under his father’s direction ever since, with a couple of more “expert” instructors who Kamau has been introduced to mixed in. They include Ro Sobalvarro, the U.S. women’s fencing team coach in 2012 when it won an Olympic bronze medal.
Sobalvarro, also now a YEL coach in Minnesota, has taught Kamau and Mateo the finer points of a sport whose origins date back to 18th-century Italy.
Last weekend wasn’t Mateo’s introduction to the Minnesota High School Fencing Championships, but it had been a while. The tournament had been on a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mateo landed in the top 15 of the event as an eighth-grader.
He’s come a long way since then, both in skill and athleticism. Equal amounts of both are required.
“There has been a lot of improvement for me,” said the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Mateo, also a basketball player and track-and-field athlete at John Marshall. “A lot of practice has gone into it. And physically, I am a lot better. I haven’t grown much since the eighth grade. But I’ve gotten stronger and faster, and a lot more technical with my sword abilities.
“But athleticism in fencing matters a lot more than people think. Strength and speed allow me to advance and retreat faster, to get in and out (like a boxer). I want to touch them (with his sword) before they can touch me.”
Mateo doesn’t lose much, but he did recently drop a bout to Twin Cities Fencing Club member Christian Watkins. That happened in a state-tournament qualifier at St. Paul Academy School.
Mateo was given his shot at revenge last Saturday, the JM junior meeting Watkins in the Minnesota High School Fencing Club Championships quarterfinals. Mateo had already strung together eight straight wins without a loss in the tournament before getting this new opportunity against Watkins.
He didn’t waste it. The first person to score 15 points in a fencing bout is the winner. Mateo beat Watkins 15-7.
“I figured out what he was doing,” Mateo said. “I knew when I needed to attack. I also knew I needed to hit his foil (sword) before I attacked.”
From there, Mateo also knew what he had to do the rest of the way. It was to just keep doing what he had been doing, to stay in that “zone” for two more bouts. His father also knew his own job — to get out the way of his thriving son.
It all worked. After winning his semifinal bout, Mateo made quick work of Minnetonka Fencing Club member Nolan Chez in the championship, winning 15-4.
Mateo, with lots of family and friends looking on, had his state title.
“I came in pretty confident,” he said. “But it’s pretty surreal winning a state title.”