Back in September, Maggie Shealy M’25 didn’t even know if she would choose to fence this year. Fast forward to March 19, 2024, Shealy arrived at a Sheraton Hotel in Columbus, Ohio without any running water for her last competition of the year. Three days later, she was a National Collegiate Athletic Association Champion in women’s saber fencing.

A first-year graduate student at the end of her final year of NCAA eligibility, Shealy finishes her career with an impressive string of accolades: the first woman in school history to win a National Championship in a Division I field, the school’s first individual champion in any sport since 2019, the highest placing fencer in school history and the second woman in NCAA history to win a fencing championship for a Division III school – the first in 20 years. 

“I try to come from a place of gratefulness,” Shealy explained. It is a quality that has endeared her to many. She’s described as always wanting to help others, checking in on them and putting the team first. Her head coach, Elif Soyer Sachs, put it simply in an interview with The Justice: “Every single person in this building loves her.”

Now, one week later, it’s back to normal for Shealy, trying to power through the mountain of homework that accumulates before finals. Even still, she is effortlessly able to travel back in time to those final matches she needed to win to capture the championship.

One year ago, Shealy was convinced her fencing career was over. It was the final day of the 2023 NCAA Championships and her senior year at Brandeis.

“I had just placed third, and felt it was a storybook ending to a chapter of my life,” she recalled. “At the time, it felt like enough for me.”

The fencer has dreams of getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor. Her mind was torn between continuing her academic career or entering the workforce. The obvious choice for her was to forgo her final year of eligibility, granted from COVID-19, and move on. 

No one in the Brandeis Athletics department would begrudge her if she chose to walk away, but privately, Coach Soyer Sachs was preparing to do whatever she needed to get Shealy back for a final season.

“I said, let’s wait until the schedule comes out. You can look and say, ‘I want to do this, I don’t want to do this. I want to fence this many bouts at this competition.’ You’re not going to be squad leader, we’ll take care of that.” 

But when one member of the women’s fencing team went down with injury and another took a semester abroad in Australia, no one wanted Shealy to feel obligated to step up. Coach Soyer Sachs and the rest of the staff assured her that was not an expectation of theirs.

“We all told her, ‘You don’t have to compete,’ she just said, ‘Yes I do.’”

Privately, Shealy knew she had more to do, and that she was not satisfied with her placement last year. 

“My friends and other people in my life all told me, ‘You know how you feel when the job is finished.’ Something deep down in me said the job wasn’t done.”

She was electric closing the season, going 11-1 at the Brandeis Invitational, 16-2 at the Eric Sollee Invitational and 9-3 at the Duke Invitational, finishing 59-11 overall. She placed third at the NCAA Regionals to clinch her fourth nationals’ berth. 

The NCAA championships start with two rounds of pool play before the top four fencers move on to a tournament called direct elimination to decide the national champion. At the end of pool play, Shealy was ranked in second place. 

The intensity and level of competition skyrockets in these final rounds. “You’re competing against the best of the very best,” Shealy commented. It sounds played out, perhaps, but it’s true. In collegiate fencing, many opponents play for or are on the cusp of international and Olympic teams.

Her first direct elimination matchup was against a very familiar opponent: Vera Kong from Columbia University. Shealy had been fencing against Vera since they were both kids.

“I knew what she would do like the back of my hand, the real important thing was not letting Vera do Vera things.” Her preparation and approach paid off as she won, 15-9. 

She had surpassed where she fell short one year ago. Now all that stood between her and history was Julia Cieslar of St. John’s University. A fencer on the national circuit for Poland, Julia and Vera were near opposites in terms of style. 

“I needed to be the one who took the initiative,” Shealy explained with an analytical intensity her teammates and coaches all point to as her hallmark. “She moves really well, with a power and energy that comes from international play. She’s a really physical fencer. It was going to be a game of mixing things up.”

Coach Soyer Sachs could instantly recall the tension in the air as they faced off. “It wasn’t easy, she was down 2-0, 3-1.” But Shealy stormed back to take the lead, 4-3. After Cieslar tied the score at four apiece, Shealy won four of five to make the score 8-5. She never trailed again and, with a 15-10 score, Maggie Shealy was a National Champion. 

“Everyone loves Maggie,” Coach Soyer Sachs said, referring, not just to her coaches and teammates, but to opposing fencers. “You notice a pattern: when a Harvard fencer wins, the Harvard section cheers, and so on. Whenever Maggie wins, everyone cheers.”

Shealy, for her part, is grateful. For her friends, teammates and everyone else in her life. For Coach Soyer Sachs, Saber Coach Matt Zich and Kaitlin Carlson, the head Brandeis Strength and Conditioning Coach. 

Now she sits at her kitchen table, one week removed from winning it all. Much of that competitive intensity is replaced by a marked contentedness as she recalls where she was at the beginning of the year.

“If you told me I would be a champion, or even a fifth-year, I would have laughed at you.”

There is no doubt now, though, that she’s happy she made her choice to return for a final year and take care of what she left unfinished.

“There wasn’t a wrong choice, just a better choice, and I took the better choice,” she says. “I had a lot of moments filled with frustration, but I saw it to the end, and here we are. Champions.”