Since middle school, Jonathan Yao has been chauffeured by his father, Liang, on a 132-mile, round-trip commute from the family’s home in Mt. Laurel to the Advance Fencing & Fitness Academy in North Jersey two to three times each week.
The now 16-year-old Yao is as dedicated to his sport as he is his studies. A straight-A, rising junior at Lenape Regional High School, Yao was one of 51 youth athletes recently named to the 2018-19 USA Fencing/Absolute Fencing Gear first-team All-Academic team.
As with any high-achieving teenager, Yao is always aiming for the next bar. A few years ago, as he went through his routine at AFFA in Garfield, Jonathan Yao noticed the club had a big board on display that included all of the names of fencers who had earned national medals.
“I’m going to put my name on there,” Yao told himself.
As he reaches for his next goal, a dream of competing at the Division-I level at a top university, Yao can let himself smile each time he walks by that board at AFFA.
Three weeks ago, Yao placed seventh in the Division-IA Men’s Saber at the USA Fencing National Championships & July Challenge in Columbus, Ohio. Only the top eight in each division receive national medals.
The accomplishment was even more rewarding for Yao because just a year earlier, at the same event in St. Louis, he finished just two points away from placing in the top eight.
“It’s been a six-year-long process,” said Yao, who proudly showed off his national medal and Academic All-American certificate at his home. “It finally happened. Of course, from there, you can see where else you can go.”
In the pivotal match earlier this month, Yao was deadlocked at 13 with his opponent before collecting the last two points with a flunge – “a lunge, but you jump and go airborne for a bit” – and then by reading his opponent’s hesitation and striking to win the match.
“My heart is pumping really fast,” his father, Liang Yao, said of the drama unfolding as he shot video of the match with his phone. “His opponent was bigger than him, a kid from the Midwest, big, physical. When it was 13-13 my heart was racing, but he managed to get the last two points.”
Yao’s next goal: to be among the top 20 cadets in his category in order to be named to the national team next summer. It’d probably be unwise to bet against a kid with the smarts, skills, and intestinal fortitude to achieve what he sets out to accomplish.
Congratulations to Jonathan Yao for his Top8 Div1A result! It’s Jonathan first National Medal?. We are really proud of his strong finish and his new B19 rating. Bravo!! @ Greater Columbus Convention Center
“What I like about Jon is that he fights to the very end,” said former U.S. National champion and Notre Dame University assistant coach Aleksander Ochoki, one of Yao’s coaches. “He’s not afraid of who the opponent is and just goes out and does his best. … If he keeps progressing like this and working hard, he could be a starter at a major Division-I university and even qualify to represent the U.S. in some upcoming international tournaments.”
As with any gifted athlete, Yao wasn’t born into an elite fencer overnight. For one, he wasn’t always as confident.
“I stopped getting intimidated, or not stopped getting intimidated, but I got over my fears,” he said of his biggest area of growth in the last few years. “Sometimes you see somebody with a really high seeding or you know they’ve done well in previous tournaments, you have to get past that. You have to focus on what’s going on right now. And what you can do is win the next point; that’s all you can control.”
Fencing is a physical sport. For proof, look at the worn inner sole of his neon green match sneakers or the six-inch laceration on his left shin.
But fencing is also often referred to as “physical chess” because the very best at the sport are the ones who can master the fundamentals and strategic elements as well as survive the mental grind against their opponent.
“That’s one of the things I like about it,” Yao said. “(But) that’s not to say we hold back. … There are a lot of bruises in fencing. It is a very athletic sport. The explosiveness of the actions, especially with the legs and lunges, and the reflexes. It’s really amazing to watch, especially at the top level.”
Yao is well on his way.