Alumni Spotlight: Nina Sayles '17, Women's Fencing

Left: Nina Sayles '17 as a first-year fencer with coach Bill Shipman. Right: Nina, along with current assistant coach Matt Zich and Maggie Shealy '23, medaled at the US National team event for the Boston Fencing Club.

Alumni Spotlights are Q&A's with former Brandeis student-athletes, across a myriad of disciplines, as they reflect on their Brandeis experience and how it has shaped their lives today. Read more spotlight features here

This summer, in conjunction with Homecoming 2022, we will be spotlighting a series of student-athletes who played for our Hall of Fame coaches and have gone on to be successful coaches in their own right.  

Name: Nina Sayles ‘17

Sport: Fencing

Current job: Program Assistant, Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship, Harvard University / Manager of Member Services and Communications, Boston Fencing Club

Nina Sayles is a Mamaroneck, New York, native who fenced sabre under coach Bill Shipman from 2013-17. She was a two-time All-Northeast Fencing Conference selection, as a first-year and as a senior before graduating with degrees in Health: Science, Society and Policy and music. She had continued her interdisciplinary studies in graduate school, recently earning her Masters from Harvard in Urban Planning from the Graduate School of Design and in Public Health from the T.H. Chan School. She has also continued her fencing career, both on the strip and behind the scenes, where she is both a referee and the director of the Northeast Intercollegiate Fencing Conference. 

What drew you to Brandeis in the first place all those years ago?

Obviously, the fencing team was a big draw. I was sure that I wanted to fence in college, and I was debating between Division III varsity programs and club programs. Brandeis’s team seemed like a place where I could grow in the sport fo fencing, as well as pursue my other interests. I knew that I wanted to be a music major, and I think that was part of the reason that I wondered if being part of a varsity team would be too much for me. I became fairly confident after visiting Brandeis that I could juggle both. And I was a dual major with HSSP (Health: Science, Society and Policy). The unique nature of the HSSP, as soon as I read about that, I knew that if I ended up at Brandeis, that was what my other major was going to be.   

What kinds of schools were you looking at? 

I was looking for a combination of fencing and academics. Where could I have the academic program that I wanted along with a really good fencing experience? Getting to know coach Shipman and getting to know the team as I got further along in the recruiting process, Brandeis stood out for sure. 

What’s your favorite memory of fencing at Brandeis?

I would have to say it was winning the Northeast Fencing Conference title in 2016. We ended up sharing the title with Boston College. In one of the last matches of the NFC series, we were tied at 13-apiece with BC, and you go to 14. They had already secured a share of the title, but if they beat us, they would win it outright; if we won, we would share it with them. I was up in the very last bout, and I was down, 0-4, in a bout to five touches. But I ended up pulling out the win, 5-4, securing a share of the title! Having my whole team around, hearing them all excited to pull it out, was really fun. 

Away from the strips, all of the trips we did with the team were great. We went to Duke, Air Force and Cal Tech. Those are the big three trips. Duke we went to twice. Coach Shipman’s favorite restaurant, since he grew up in North Carolina, was right around there - Bullock’s Barbecue. It had been a team tradition for a really long time to go, although more and more there were vegetarians on the team. By the time my generation came around, we had to send two buses out to dinner, since there was nothing on the menu at Bullock's for the vegetarians. The hush puppies were to die for, though!

How about some memories of Bill specifically?

During that BC match, I know that they had called a timeout when it was 4-4, and he said, “Do something you haven’t done yet. Surprise her.” I remember saying, “I have no idea what I’ve done already!” Then the timeout was over, the referees told the coaches to go away, and I don’t remember what I did, but I got the touch. He had good advice, but I couldn’t quite use it the way he wanted. 

There’s an iconic photo that we use of you and coach Shipman, with his arm around you (see above), that I think captures the coach-athlete relationship perfectly. Do remember what was happening in that photo? 

I don’t know if I remember exactly what was going on. It was definitely at the Brandeis Invitational - that’s obvious because of the background. That was always one of our strongest meets every year, our opponents were stronger there than at many others. So I assume that I had won a strong match - or, honestly, maybe I didn’t even win, but had come close. But he was talking me through how the match could have gone differently, how I handled the big points, or how I could have won it. That picture definitely made the rounds. Some of my friends who weren’t on the fencing team said that if they didn’t know better, they thought that he was my dad. 

Why have you stayed active in the sport with fencing, refereeing and being part of the Northeast Intercollegiate Fencing Conference (NEIFC)? 

I honestly believe there is a very strong culture of Brandeis alumni staying in the sport - I don’t have statistics, but from my experience, Brandeis more so than any other school in the country, at least any other Division III school, has the most alumni on the scene in one way or another. Since coach Shipman was the coach for most of those people, it’s kind of like there are the most Coach Shipman alumni on the scene!

I think that he just instilled an attitude of loving the sport. He was very connected always. The experience with the Absolute Fencing China/Korea Invitational, Brandeis had a chance to go to that because of the people that Coach Shipman knows in the fencing world. He was always in it because he loved it… the way that he was able to take a lot of athletes who didn’t know how successful they could be in college fencing. You know, it’s Division III - I wasn’t very serious about it in high school, I wasn’t on any national points list - but he gave them an opportunity to grow. 

Between his mentorship in that sense, and just being privy to this culture of Brandeis alumni in this scene, it seemed like something that was totally doable and totally fun. So the first thing I knew that I wanted to do after graduating was to continue to compete. Boston Fencing Club is the nearest sabre club to Brandeis. There were already a few alumni fencing there, so seeing that that was happening, that it was a thing that I could do, why not?

That’s how I got into that. Then the way I got into the NEIFC and bout committee work was that, at that point, I decided that if I wanted to continue competing and training, it’s expensive! Most people go into refereeing to fund their fencing. I had taken the refereeing exam when I was 16. It was scary! I was young, all the parents were yelling at me, and I decided I was never going to do that again. But I was looking for some money to fun my fencing, so I decided to get into the administrative side. Taro Yamashita, who was a former Brandeis assistant coach, had been running the NEIFC. When I told him I was looking for a way to make some extra money, he saw that as an opportunity to step away from the league, which he had been looking to do for a while. But it wasn’t quite enough, so now I’m refereeing a fair amount too. I’ve gotten much better since a scared little 16-year-old taking my practical exam. 

What accomplishments are you most proud of since graduating?

In fencing, because coach Shipman was able to instill such a love for the sport, I’ve been able to continue improving. That’s something that so many people aren’t able to do. College fencing burns out a lot of fencers. But I’ve seen Brandeis fencers continue to improve after college, and I’ve been able to hold my own against the 16- and 17-year-olds who really run the show these days. 

In 2018, I won my first two national medals, which I hadn’t done before or during college. But that was coming right out of college, so I owed a lot to coach Shipman. Now I’ve won six medals - three individual and three with a team - on the national circuit. In terms of fencing, that’s been one of my proudest accomplishments. And I owe a lot of that to coach Shipman.