“I was nervous and frustrated,” Khaw said. “I knew I could beat them, but I was being stupid for the first three points.”
Her coach, Yakov Danilenko, knew his pupil was losing herself. He talked her through the frustration, and Khaw rallied for a few straight points. Down by one point, Khaw remembers her coach repeating, “parry four, parry six, then flèche.”
Not the fastest or most experienced fencer in Dallas this summer, Khaw was working her game of “mouse and cat,” baiting opponents into exposing themselves.
Khaw followed the coach’s call, blocking from up and inside to outside, then lunging onto her front foot and extending her arm fully to attack. The mouse caught the cat.
When she finally finished the tournament as champion, Khaw joined each division’s finalists for a medal presentation that included their personal information—name, age, home town, years of experience.
Danilenko looked at the numbers on the screen—8, 12, 15 years of experience. With no age limit on the major divisions, medalists were anywhere between their mid-20s and early 40s. The numbers backed Danilenko’s belief that the best fencers are mature, experienced and patient.
Then came up Danilenko’s personal outlier: West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North’s Khaw, 16-year-old national champion of Division II Women’s Epee. Not yet old enough to drive a car and having only taken up fencing three years ago, the high school junior topped the other 129 women in her division to take home the gold at the event.
By Danilenko’s count, Khaw became approximately the 18th champion to train with him in the past 20 years. The Bridgewater-based Medeo Fencing Club churned out a dozen medalists—anyone who finishes in the top eight of their division receives a medal, Danilenko said—including Khaw—at the championships.
What they have in Khaw, who is also a member of High School North’s Future Problem Solving Club, is a fast-twitch fencer who takes milliseconds to analyze a situation, Danilenko said. Both Khaw and her coach liken fencing to chess.
“You don’t actually have to be the strongest or fastest,” Khaw said. “You just have to strategize and figure out what the other person is going to do.”
When Khaw’s “mouse and cat” strategy works, she’s the Jerry to her opponent’s Tom. When it doesn’t work, Khaw has to address her weakness.
“Sometimes if I start out behind, I get too aggressive, stressed out,” Khaw said. “I start attacking too much.”
Danilenko said it’s an emotional reaction to a deficit, something that comes with her age.
“It’s like life experiences—you need to learn from your mistakes,” Danilenko said. “She thinks that her weakness is getting excited too easily. It kind of plays a bad role for her. Then she started to understand this, and she got stronger mentally.”
For Khaw, falling into a deficit is especially difficult when considering her weapon. She competes with the epee, which requires precise hits for points.
The epee is a thrusting weapon that is the heaviest of the three implements used in fencing. The foil is also a thrusting weapon, but lighter than the epee. Scoring with both the epee and foil occurs with the tip of the blade.
The third weapon, the sabre, is a faster cutting and thrusting weapon, and scoring is allowed using the edge of the blade. “In epee, it’s all about point control,” Danilenko said. “She found it more interesting. It fits more to her personality—she likes to use strategy.”
Khaw’s older sister, Katie, is a former member of Medeo. She is currently on the University of Pennsylvania’s Division I team while she studies biological engineering. Though Khaw’s tendency to copy her sister is what her led her to fencing in the first place, their personalities drew differences. The outgoing Katie uses a sabre and favors quickness and skill over epee’s stratagem.
Katie said she’s not as patient as her laid-back little sister, and lacks the precision to compete at epee. The sisters have faced off for fun before, and Katie said she believes her sister is better at sabre than she is at epee.
The sisters also differentiate in other interests that Kristina first picked up from her sister. At six, she watched Katie play their living room piano and liked how it sounded, so she also took up the instrument. A decade later, Katie no longer plays—and Kristina is working through her exams for The Royal Conservatory of Music in Kingston, Ontario.
Khaw finished level eight of her exams last year, and was given the chance to perform at Carnegie Hall. She has another year to go before possibly graduating from her exams, and more time goes into piano practice than it does fencing. Aside from fencing camp, Khaw practices with her epee four hours per week. She plays the piano for anywhere between a half hour and three hours every day.
“They both really help me relax,” Khaw said. “Once I get into the groove of fencing practice, it’s really relaxing. Same with piano practice. I can be on the piano for five hours sometimes.”
Both of the interests have a foundation of rules, Khaw said, but also allow for quick thinkers like herself to “make it your own.”
Katie said she is happy to watch her sister grow from her shadow at a young age, to a branched-out girl with her own interests today. It’s hard for her to speculate what her sister will be doing in the near future, if only because she’ll have her share of options to choose from.
The sisters spend time together playing Pokemon Go, video games, watching their favorite shows and practicing other hobbies, like playing the oboe. Even when Katie is away at school or their busy schedules keep them apart, they keep their “team” together any way they can. While Kristina competed in Dallas, Katie was doing code at home, texting their parents for updates on her matches.
Before the finals began, Katie called her sister directly and told her to keep calm and have fun. She knows her sister can get frustrated in a match, but everyone has bad habits when pressure arises. The difference is that the sisters know how to manage it.
“We’re very team-based,” Katie said. “We help each other and have a nice support system at home. She knows what happens when you get under too much pressure because of me.”
When her sister won, Katie FaceTimed with her—like she will at least every other night while at college—and congratulated her. The older sister was ecstatic, comparing herself to a reaction .gif that would be on Facebook. It was the proudest she’s ever been of her sister in a single moment.
But what always makes her proud of her little sister is her work ethic. Kristina wants to study something in one of the STEM fields after high school and is keeping an open mind for college. Their parents, Kenneth and Ellen, are both physicians. They have family on her father’s side in California, but Kristina is also considering schools in the northeast.
The 2016 Summer Olympics are the first Khaw watched during her time as a fencer. She had planned before a Saturday practice to watch the first day of competition between breaks at Medeo, but Danilenko said afterwards the club ended up watching matches anyway.
Danilenko thinks the best fencers are older than 21, due in part to them gaining experience over the years. Khaw will be 20 in time for the 2020 Olympics—but the national champion doesn’t see the games as a reasonable chance for herself. She pointed out that she didn’t even compete in the toughest division in Dallas.
“There’s a lot of great fencers out there and I would really need experience to get up there,” Khaw said. “I would have to take time off of college to go to competitions.”
Khaw sees herself fencing through college, maybe on a club team, before keeping it as a hobby following graduation. In just three years—half of that spent working with Danilenko—she proved she could make what she wants of it. To hear her coach summarize her progression is everything her fencing career has been: short, sweet and to the point.
“She was concentrating on high school,” Danilenko said. “She started getting better at the national level. Then she became a champion.”