Alumni Spotlight: Nina Sayles ’17, Women’s Fencing

Alumni Spotlights are Q&A sessions with former Brandeis student-athletes, across a wide variety of disciplines, as they reflect on their experience at Brandeis and how it has shaped their lives today. Read more featured features here.

This summer, in conjunction with Homecoming 2022, we will highlight a number of student-athletes who played for our Hall of Fame coaches and have become successful coaches in their own right.

Name: Nina Sayles ’17

Sport: Fencing

Current Job: Program Assistant, Mindich Program in Committed Scholarships, Harvard University / Member Services and Communications Manager, Boston Fencing Club

Nina Sayles is a native of Mamaroneck, New York, and saber fencer under coach Bill Shipman from 2013-2017. She was selected twice by the All-Northeast Fencing Conference, as a freshman and a senior. before graduating with degrees in Health: Science, Society and Politics and music. She had continued her interdisciplinary studies in graduate school, recently earning her Harvard Master’s in Urban Planning from the Graduate School of Design and in Public Health from the TH Chan School. She has also continued her fencing career, both on the strip and behind the scenes, where she is a referee and director of the Northeast Intercollegiate Fencing Conference.

What drew you to Brandeis in the first place all those years ago?

Obviously the fencing team was a big draw. I was sure I wanted to fencing in college and was torn between the Division III varsity programs and the club programs. The Brandeis team seemed like a place where I could grow in the sport of fencing, as well as pursue my other interests. I knew I wanted to major in music, and I think that was part of the reason I wondered if being on a varsity team would be too much for me. After visiting Brandeis, I became pretty sure I could juggle both. And I double majored in HSSP (Health: Science, Society, and Policy). The unique nature of HSSP, as soon as I read about it, I knew if I ended up at Brandeis, that would be my other major.

What kind of schools were you looking at?

I was looking for a combination of fencing and academics. Where could she have the academic program she wanted along with a very good fencing experience? Knowing Coach Shipman and getting to know the team as he went through the recruiting process, Brandeis stood out for sure.

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What is your favorite memory of fencing at Brandeis?

I must say that was winning the Northeast Fencing Conference title in 2016. We ended up sharing the title with Boston College. In one of the last NFC series games, we were tied at 13 apiece with BC, and you move up to 14. They had already clinched a piece of the title, but if they beat us, they would win it outright; if we won, we would share it with them. I was up in the last fight, and I was down, 0-4, in a five-touch match. But I ended up pulling out the win, 5-4, securing a piece of the title! Having my whole team around, hearing everyone excited to put it out, it was a lot of fun.

Away from the strips, all the trips we did with the team were great. We went to Duke, Air Force and Cal Tech. Those are the three big trips. Duke we went twice. Coach Shipman’s favorite restaurant, growing up in North Carolina, was right there: Bullock’s Barbecue. It had been a team tradition for a long time to go, although there were more and more vegetarians on the team. By the time my generation arrived, we had to send two buses out for dinner, as there was nothing on the menu at Bullock’s for vegetarians. However, the Strictly Hush puppies were to die for!

How about some memories of Bill specifically?

During that BC game, I know they called a timeout when it was 4-4, and he said, “Do something you haven’t done yet. Surprise her. I remember saying, “I have no idea what I’ve already done!” Then the timeout ended, the umpires told the coaches to go away, and I don’t remember what I did, but I got the bunt. He had good advice, but I couldn’t use it the way he wanted.

There’s an iconic photo that we used of you and Coach Shipman, with his arm around you. (see above), which I think perfectly captures the coach-athlete relationship. Do you remember what was happening in that picture?

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I don’t know if I remember exactly what was happening. It was definitely at the Brandeis Invitational, that’s obvious from the background. That was always one of our strongest matches every year, our opponents were stronger there than in many others. So I assume I had won a strong match or honestly maybe I didn’t even win but I was close. But he was explaining to me how the match could have been different, how I handled the big points or how I could have won it. That image definitely made the rounds. Some of my friends who weren’t on the fencing team said if they didn’t know better, they thought he was my dad.

Why have you stayed active in the sport with fencing, officiating, and being a part of the Northeast Intercollegiate Fencing Conference (NEIFC)?

I honestly think there is a very strong culture of Brandeis alumni staying in the sport; I don’t have statistics, but in my experience, Brandeis more than any other school in the country, at least any other Division III school, has the most alumni on the scene in one form or another. Since Coach Shipman was the coach to most of those people, it’s as if there were most of Coach Shipman’s alumni on the scene!

I think he just instilled an attitude of love for the sport. He was always very connected. Brandeis had the opportunity to attend the Absolute Fencing China/Korea Invitational thanks to the people Coach Shipman knows in the fencing world. He was always in it because he loved it…the way he could lead a lot of athletes who didn’t know how successful they could be in college fencing. You know, it’s Division III, he wasn’t very serious about it in high school, he wasn’t on any national point lists, but he gave them a chance to grow.

Between his tutoring in that regard and just being aware of this Brandeis alumni culture in this scene, it seemed like something totally doable and totally fun. So the first thing I knew I wanted to do after graduating was to continue competing. Boston Fencing Club is the closest saber club to Brandeis. There were already some ex-students practicing fencing there, so seeing that this was happening, that it was something that I could do, why not?

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That’s how I got into it. Then the way I got into the NEIFC and combat committee work was, at that point, I decided that if I wanted to keep competing and training, it’s expensive! Most people take up umpiring to finance their fencing. I took the referee exam when I was 16 years old. He was terrifying! He was young, all the parents yelled at me and I decided I would never do that again. But I was looking for some money to have fun with fencing, so I decided to dedicate myself to the administrative part. Taro Yamashita, who was Brandeis’ assistant coach, had been running the NEIFC. When I told him that he was looking for a way to earn some extra money, he saw it as an opportunity to get away from the league, something he had been looking for for a while. But it wasn’t enough, so now I’m refereeing a lot too. I have improved a lot since a scared little 16 year old took my road test.

What achievements are you most proud of since you graduated?

In fencing, because Coach Shipman was able to instill in me such a love for the sport, I have been able to continue to improve. That’s something a lot of people can’t do. College fencing burns out a lot of fencers. But I’ve seen the Brandeis fencers keep getting better after college, and I’ve been able to hold my own against the 16- and 17-year-olds who really run the show these days.

In 2018, I won my first two national medals, something I hadn’t done before or during college. But that was coming out of college, so he owed Coach Shipman a lot. I have now won six medals, three individual and three team, on the national circuit. In terms of fencing, that has been one of the achievements that I am most proud of. And I owe a lot of that to Coach Shipman.