A fencing club with an Olympic-sized pedigree has opened in the Windsor Industrial Park in Robbinsville.
The Wanglei International Fencing Club opened last month in a 12,000-square-foot space, and its owners are vying to establish a training ground for competitive fencers.
The club’s namesake is Lei Wang, a Chinese national and Olympic silver medalist who moved to The Villages in Plainsboro last year. Business partner Jinjun Shen lives a block away with his wife Elizabeth To. The enterprising fencers are originally from Shanghai, but have chosen central New Jersey as their base to develop an elite club for local fencers and young fencers from China.
Wang has already established three fencing clubs in Shanghai, and this will be his first club in the United States. So far, more than 20 students have enrolled, and the goal is to have more than 100 members among the three fencing categories: foil, épée and sabre.
“We’re looking for competitive fencers, beyond recreational,” Shen says.
Shen knew Wang when they were both young athletes training in China’s state-administered sports system. They reconnected in the last few years, and Shen helped Wang settle in Plainsboro. Shen himself arrived in the U.S. in 2008.
Several years earlier, Shen had met Elizabeth To at a mutual friend’s dinner party in Shanghai. After graduating from Wharton, To had relocated to Shanghai to study Chinese and work for IBM. The two married and moved to Philadelphia, where To grew up.
To’s parents are Chinese-Vietnamese refugees who escaped to America after the Vietnam War thanks to the generosity of a Christian family in Indiana. To and Shen have a son, Kendrew, who goes to Millstone Elementary.
When Shen first arrived in the U.S., he worked in a Chinatown pastry shop for a time. Interested in joining the Philadelphia fencing scene, Shen met the owner of Absolute Fencing when shopping for fencing gear. He got a job with the Bridgewater-based fencing equipment company and also began teaching group and private lessons at fencing clubs in Bucks County and Morristown.
Shen spent a year in Louisville to coach at Eastern Kentucky University and tried to set up a fencing club. However, he says there was “no market” there. They moved to Plainsboro a couple years ago to be closer to Shen’s fencing students.
Since 2014, Shen has been the head coach of the successful boys’ fencing team at Ridge High School, in Bernards Township. In the most recent season, Wang came aboard as an assistant coach.
In contrast to Kentucky, Shen says, the East Coast has a high number of fencers. Numerous New Jersey public schools feature fencing as an interscholastic sport—including teams at both West Windsor-Plainsboro School District high schools.
Amateur fencers in the U.S. typically pay their own way and train at local clubs, but Shen and Wang cut their teeth as kids in Shanghai’s sports schools. These local schools funnel youths into a nationwide state system designed to train and produce athletes for international competition.
Shen’s father was a taxi driver and his mother stayed at home. He began learning fencing at age 9, entering a local sports school where he attended classes during the day and trained after class. As a teenager, he transferred to a full-time sports boarding school and eventually earned a spot as a foil fencer on the Shanghai regional team, where he trained and competed nationally.
Wang specializes in épée. As a member of the Shanghai regional team, he then earned a spot on the Chinese national team. His international competition culminated in a silver medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and a gold medal at the 2006 World Fencing Championships.
‘In the U.S., fencers train based on passion… In China, athletes train full time, but that itself does not guarantee quality.’
Wang’s father was a factory worker and his mother was a bus ticket collector. He says his parents did not know anything about fencing, a western sport dominated by Europeans. They decided to send him to sports school because athletics provided an opportunity to earn a living and represent Shanghai and China.
Both Shen and Wang were born after 1980. That year, China rejoined the International Olympic games, and the government subsequently began developing its sports program.
Wang says coaches then were not necessarily distinguished competitors. His first coach was an expert at the Chinese broadsword, but a rigorous training regimen made up for the relative lack of technical expertise.
Wang joined a local sports school when he was 11 and a fencing coach selected him to train in the sport.
“Fencing chose me. Coaches pick the athletics,” said Wang, speaking in Mandarin Chinese. After three years at a local sports school, he was selected for the Shanghai fencing team and sent to a regional boarding school for sports, where youths trained all day and only took academic classes at night after dinner.
“As soon as I wake up and open my eyes, I’m training,” Wang said.
At times he questioned why he was soldiering through relentless hours of practice. Yet around the time he was promoted to the Shanghai team, his mother died, which motivated Wang to continue fencing.
He was a rising star in the sports program by the time he was elevated, at the age of 17, to the national team in 1998. That year he competed in his first international match at the 1998 Asian games in Bangkok, Thailand.
He placed third in the individual épée competition, behind two other Chinese teammates. It was China’s best ever fencing performance in the Asian games, an indication that the country’s athletic program was producing results.
It was Wang’s first time travelling outside of China, but he was only focused on winning and cementing his spot on the national team. Aside from practice and the actual competition, he did not leave the hotel.
“Back in the 1990s, very few people could travel abroad,” says Wang, who now laughs at the thought of Thailand as an exotic foreign country.
By 2000, Wang was eyeing the Summer Olympics in Sydney. He says he was sufficiently ranked to automatically qualify for the games, but because of a visa snafu, he could not travel to Colombia for a mandatory qualifying match. Chinese athletes representing the national team travel with diplomatic passports, not personal ones, and after placing third in the épée competition at the 2000 Fencing World Cup in France, Wang could not secure a visa in time at the Colombian consulate in France.
Four years later in Athens, Wang won a silver medal in the men’s individual épée category. China placed seventh in the team épée competition, which Wang notes was just ahead of the USA team.
For China, the 2004 Olympic games were to be a springboard for the 2008 summer games in Beijing. Leaders desired a strong athletic showing in 2008, and having garnered a silver medal in 2004 Wang was considered a prime prospect. In the wake of his medal performance in Athens, Wang says he was provisioned with his own personal team, which included a personal trainer, a masseuse, a video analytics specialist, as well as a psychologist he spoke with before bedtime. Chinese athletes deemed promising in other sports were given similar accommodations.
Wang was the world’s top épée fencer after winning gold in the 2006 World Fencing Championships, which features a broader pool of fencers than the Olympic Games. However, at the 2008 Olympics, Wang’s individual performance was marred by two red cards. The épée finished fourth after the referee gave Wang, the anchor competitor, the team’s second yellow card. Like in soccer, two yellows equate to a red, and the team lost out on a bronze medal.
Wang’s international career wound down afterwards. After stints as the head coach of the Shanghai men’s épée team and as China’s National Men’s épée team, last year Wang arrived in the U.S. under an EB-1 “extraordinary ability” visa.
His wife manages the three Wanglei fencing clubs in Shanghai and he has an elementary school-age daughter that he plans to bring over in the next few years.
A generation ago, a Chinese athlete of Wang’s stature may have spent the rest of his career as a coach or in a cushy government job. However, Wang is unsure about the future status of the state-administered sports model that he navigated as a young athlete.
Under the state system, education is effectively separated from athletics. Aspiring athletes are solely dedicated to training. Of course, competitive sports have high rates of attrition, so for parents, a more attractive compromise could be sending their child to a club to play a sport while also attending school during the day.
Wang says this is now possible because of the “market impact” within China. Families enjoying rising income levels can now elect to send their child to a private athletic club, which in turn organizes club-sponsored competitions separate from the state apparatus.
Wang and Shen are athletes-turned-entrepreneurs capitalizing on this trend, and they envision their new U.S. club to function as a bridge for college-aged fencers from China seeking to study abroad in the U.S. The club website also notes how fencing can help a student in the college admissions process, and there are plans to offer on-site ESL, Chinese, and SAT programming.
It was previously necessary to establish a state system in order for China to catch up on the world athletic stage, Wang says, but he is transitioning to a club model mirroring how fencers train in the West.
“There is a big difference,” Wang says. “In the U.S., fencers train based on passion. They are spending their own money and resources, while also going to school or working a job. In China, athletes train full time, but that itself does not guarantee quality.”