Post-college: Juggling Working and Sporting Careers

Aliya Itzkowitz, Fencing (Sabre), Harvard University

5:15am. My alarm goes off. I leave my New York apartment. In the semi-darkness I glance up at a framed photo on my wall. 12 women sit in neat rows smiling down at me. I’m sitting in the middle. “Harvard University. Ivy League Champions, 2015-16,” the caption reads. It feels like a distant memory at this point. By 6:30am I’m in my seat at my Wall Street Office, amassing Equity Research from the night before. The majority of my day is filled with answering phone calls and attending investor meetings. My job is to give instant and accurate responses to our clients as they try to make smart decisions. By 6pm the trading floor begins to empty out – but by my day isn’t nearly over. As soon as I wrap up my last email it’s off to Manhattan Fencing club where I am training with members of the US Team. I change out of my dress and heels and put on my mask. By the time I get home it’s around 9pm. I barely have time to eat and shower if I want to get some sleep before waking up and doing it all again.

I just got back from the World Championships in Germany where I came 53rd. I’m currently ranked 1st in the UK and my aim is to qualify for the Olympics in 2020. Only the top 16 fencers in the world will go. A lot of people have asked me how it’s possible to be competing at this level while working full-time – particularly in a field as intense as Finance. In the beginning, I wasn’t really sure it would work. I was afraid of compromising on everything and succeeding at nothing. Instead, I have actually found that my fencing has helped me have a successful first year at work - and vice versa. There’s a unique kind of discipline and work ethic that comes from excelling in multiple areas. Nothing prepared me for that better than being an NCAA athlete. Being a student-athlete involves compromise, but being a working athlete is ten times harder. By the time I’m fencing I've already had a 12-hour work day so sometimes it's hard to push through. Had I not been balancing fencing and academics my whole life, I wouldn’t have even considered this possible.   

Fencing is not a sport that you can make a career out of. I hope that changes someday, but for me it meant that I always had to be realistic. I knew I couldn’t throw everything at my fencing, even if I had wanted to. This dilemma has led some of the most talented fencers I grew up with to quit. In the UK, we are often forced to choose. At university in America, you are encouraged to have it all – excelling at your sport while paving the right kind of future for yourself. I met Sarah [Abrams] in 2012. We have been friends ever since. We are both British athletes who benefited from the US system. When she told me about RightTrack I was really excited. I want more British talent to follow in our footsteps – keep competing at the highest level, while also getting an education that will serve you for the rest of your life.  

I recognise that fencing is a unique, niche sport and that the double life I currently lead wouldn’t necessarily translate to success in other sports. Additionally, the best fencers in the world are often in their late twenties – it's an older sport - so a post-college career was always a real possibility. Nevertheless, I hope that my example can prove to athletes in all sports that your dream doesn’t have to end when you apply to university. As I'm finding, your dream doesn’t even have to end when you graduate university! To say I’m still fencing because ‘I love it” would be true, but also far too simplistic. I am still able to compete with the best in the world because I never quit. Going to University in America enabled me to do the one thing champions always do: keep fighting.