Lenape’s Renaissance man: a Q&A with Johns Hopkins-commit Jonathan Yao

Yao, an All-American fencer, Future Business Leader of America champ and soon-to-be neuroscience major at Johns Hopkins, has a wide range of interests and accomplishments, too.

Lenape High School senior Jonathan Yao is one of the more accomplished members of the Class of 2021: the All-American fencer was recently admitted to one of the country’s most prestigious colleges, Johns Hopkins University, where he’ll study neuroscience. (Photo provided)

Jonathan Yao is as comfortable playing a classic piano piece as he is settling in for a classic war film, listening to ‘70s rock, or cheering on the Sixers from his couch in Mt. Laurel. 

Last year, the multi-talented Lenape senior was named to USA Fencing’s All-American first team and was awarded first place in advertising at the New Jersey Future Business Leaders of America’s State Leadership Conference as a junior. 

Oh, and Yao, a strong candidate to be Lenape’s valedictorian for the class of 2021, was recently admitted by Johns Hopkins University in its early decision process. He’ll continue his athletic and academic prowess at one of the leading universities in the United States.

“I’m so excited,” Yao said. “And I really think I can take my fencing to the next level. Because for so long now we’ve been doing these hour and two-hour drives to and from practice and now I get to have the opportunity to practice everyday and train every day with my teammates. 

“And also, one thing about fencing: it’s kind of a lonely sport. You only have your club mates. But in college you fence as a team and you accumulate wins together. So that’s exciting, to fence as a team.”

But how exactly does someone manage to accomplish so much and not become overwhelmed? The affable and easy-going Yao answered that and much more in a Q&A with South Jersey Sports Weekly.

SJSW: How has COVID affected your fencing?

Yao: I’ve been to a few competitions (in the last year) but nothing really big. One of the things we had to do was clear out space in the basement to make it easier to train at home. Especially during the initial quarantine period we weren’t allowed to go to the club because of the stay at home orders. So we had to move the sofas, move a few pieces and try to center the punching bag. And I had to work on the carpet, too. It wasn’t the easiest experience but, you know, you (have to have) dedication to the sport.

SJSW: Without as many competitions and that time you’d spend commuting to your club, how were you able to take advantage of that extra time? Watching videos, working on the mental game?

Yao: Our coaches (at Advance Fencing & Fitness Academy in North Jersey) held Zoom practices, so I attended those as often as I could. And also, like you said, I watched a lot more competition videos. The thing about fencing is, it’s a lot bigger in Europe and Asia than it is around here, so you usually have to work around the time zones to catch the big competitions. But fortunately since we were staying home all the time I was able to change my sleep schedule a little to be able to catch some of the bouts … One of them wasn’t too bad, like 11 p.m. But the big one was wondering when they’d broadcast it during the Tokyo Olympics, but that got (postponed).

SJSW: Yeah, hopefully the Summer Games will return this year.

Yao: It’s so important for the sport of fencing that we have the Olympics. Because that’s how a lot of people get into fencing. My first real exposure to fencing was watching the 2008 Olympics. So I think it’s important to have such a global event to promote fencing.

SJSW: How do you think your game has grown the most in the last couple of years?

Yao: I’ve been definitely working on trying to make my fencing more athletic, working on having more explosive lunges, and surprising my opponent with acceleration and agility. … Repetition (helps). And in addition to trying to be fast and trying to be explosive, you also have to be in control of every action because it’s a combat sport. You can’t let anything slip or project your actions to your opponent, so that’s important, too.

SJSW: Johns Hopkins University (according to U.S. News and World Report) is one of the top 10 colleges in the country. What led you there?

Yao: The interesting thing about recruiting for college fencers or college coaches is, for the majority of fencers, they have to reach out to coaches … I met the Johns Hopkins coach by reaching out to him through email and explaining who I am and my interest in the university.

And the interesting thing is that the coaches care more about the results — most of them, at least — then what they see on film. So I presented a list of my achievements, both academically and athletically, and made a case for why I was a good candidate to fence for Johns Hopkins.

SJSW: What about the university drew you there, the academics? What are you looking to study and why? 

Yao: Definitely. Neuroscience. When I joined Johns Hopkins I wanted to see what they were the best at. Because those (majors) will open up the most opportunities. So I looked at No.1 what they taught really well in and No.2 what I was interested in. And when I found a major that would match both of those standards, I thought it was a good idea to take that as my area of study. 

SJSW: I also saw you placed first in the state at the FBLA conference. It seems you’re pretty multidimensional with a lot of interests, is that fair to say?

Yao: Yes it is. Especially at this part of my academic career. It’s more fun to explore what you like and focus on it in college.

SJSW: How gratifying was it to take first place?

Yao: It felt very good. Especially because FBLA kept me moving academically, they wouldn’t let you compete in the same area (each year). So I guess I was always learning something new. [Editor’s note: Yao has competed in the advertising, public health administration, and introduction to business in three years in FBLA conferences).

SJSW: The one thing that jumps out to me for high-achieving high school students is that they’re usually involved in a lot of things, so in addition to academics, they’re often high achievers in another discipline, too. How do you balance all of that? It’s one thing to be successful in music or sports, it’s one thing to be successful academically, but to have all of that success together at the same time … how do you manage it and not shortchange anything?

Yao: I think it’s interesting you phrase it that way, “it’s one thing to be successful in music and one thing being successful in sports.” Because I think the key to being a successful multi-dimensional student, as you said, is to make sure that you don’t segment each part of your life. 

For example, when I played the piano, I used to have a lot of stage fright. Every time I played in front of an audience I’d feel a little nauseous and I didn’t want to perform. I’d do it anyway, but as soon as I got over that stage fright for piano, taking deep breaths, focusing on the moment and what I needed to do, I realized that I was using the same strategy in fencing, too, when I was facing those elimination rounds, and in those high pressure moments.

So the key, I think, is to not compartmentalize things. Don’t think of it as, “I have to do my sport and then I have to do my academics and then I have to do my music.” Think of it as a skill set you have to achieve. And then after you’ve acquired that skill set you’re able to apply it in everything you do.

Yao shows off his fencing gear outside of his Mt. Laurel home in July of 2019. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: Are you still playing piano?

Yao: Sometimes, yeah. I’m no longer auditioning but I play for my enjoyment.

SJSW: What’s your favorite song that you’ve ever played?

Yao: Definitely a Chopin Waltz — Opus 64, No. 2. It’s relaxing to play. I’ve played it so many times it feels automatic.

SJSW: Who would you consider role models in your life?

Yao: My mom (Qiyan Zhao) is a big role model in my life. My parents in general. They came to America in their 20s, came to a new country, had to go through college again and became successful in their own careers. I think those are big achievements. They kind of instilled upon me the kind of determination that you need to succeed in multiple things.  

SJSW: Who has impacted you the most during your four years at Lenape?

Yao: Mrs. (Kathryn) DeSantis. She was my freshman year biology teacher. Her class was super hard [laughs] so that’s the first thing I remember. But she provided so much help that eventually I was able to get through those tough assignments and those tough labs and that helped build my confidence.
And since then she’s also given me so many opportunities to get into the STEM field. So I think that’s what also pushed me to Johns Hopkins. She’s influenced me greatly in a positive way.

SJSW: What do you like most about Lenape?

Yao: The school spirit. You can tell with the faculty and the students, they’re all proud of each other, for their achievements.

SJSW: If you could invite any four people to dinner, any four people in history, meaning they don’t have to be living at the moment, what four people would you invite?

Yao: OK. I guess the first one would be Howie Roseman.

SJSW: Oh wow. You’ve got some questions to ask him I guess. [Laughs]

Yao: Yeah. [Laughs]. I think it’d be cool to talk to Steve Jobs, especially with my business background.

SJSW: Yeah, he’s a great one. When you consider the most influential people in our culture over the last quarter century he’s got to be at the top of the list.

Yao: I’ll bring in a second (general manager): I’d like to talk to Daryl Morey. Not only (his work) with the Sixers but his tweets about China. It’s interesting to see how sports athletes and management have become so outspoken on issues and showing their opinions. 

SJSW: I agree. One more?

Yao: President Obama. 

SJSW: Yeah, that’s a great one. Do you have a favorite TV show or movie that you’ve watched lately?

Yao: A favorite movie that I’ve watched is probably “The Hurt Locker.” I remember it really well. I remember I was bored and just browsing and saw this movie. I think it’s really intense, it makes some interesting points and is overall a really well done film.

SJSW: Any book you’ve read lately that’s jumped out?

Yao: Not lately, but one of my favorite books is “The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury. It’s a collection of short stories. They’re all high quality, I don’t remember skipping any.

SJSW: Do you have a favorite song right now?

Yao: Nothing really, but I’ve been listening to a lot of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac lately. 

SJSW: Do you have a life motto or words to live by?

Yao: Not really, but I remember something from a show I was watching with my friends, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The quote was, “Take life one minute at a time” and I thought that was a great way to think of things, to just break it down.