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Harvard, Oxford, and now possibly the Olympics'20: In Conversation with British Fencer Aliya Itzkowitz

  • An interview with British Olympic Fencer Aliya Itzkowitz
Modified 23 Feb 2020, 08:02 IST

Aliya Itzkowitz is an inspirational female leader. She has a multi-folded personality being an international fencer, meritorious student with a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a currently-undergoing MBA from Oxford University. Her achievements have also been in the finance and media sectors, having interned and worked at companies like Bloomberg, Deutsche Bank, CNN, and NDTV. With her current goal of qualifying for the British Olympic Team for Tokyo 2020, I didn't want to miss the chance of chatting up with this talented lady, who is also trying to achieve greater equality through sports and bringing a diversity of voices to the table with her work. So, onto the Q&A now!

British National Fencer! Credits- Flickr
British National Fencer! Credits- Flickr

Let’s start by going back in time to your early career. Can you talk about where you grew up, what brought you into the sport of fencing, and how did you learn the basics?

I started fencing when I was nine years old. My Dad had been posted to the U.S. for work. A girl, who I was friends with at school, started fencing. Due to our frequent play-dates, I started going with her. I took to it instantly, and when we moved back to London, a year later, I continued at a local club in Camden. 

Real Humans of Oxford. Credits- Clear Admit
Real Humans of Oxford. Credits- Clear Admit

What were some of the earliest memories of competing in tournaments and events?

The first international competition I ever went to was in France when I was 13. I stood third ,and I remember going to Disneyland afterwards with the British team. It was the best weekend of my first teen year. 

The Winning Mentality. Credits- Camden New Journal
The Winning Mentality. Credits- Camden New Journal

How did fencing affect your education? Did you get adequate time to go to school? How did you balance both school and fencing?

I was lucky to have supportive parents who used to drive me to competitions around the U.K. At that time, most of the World Cups were based in Europe. This was an advantage for me because, often, I could leave school around lunchtime on a Friday - only missing one or two classes. I’d be in a remote part of Poland by the evening and was competing the next morning.

Fencing has helped my education tremendously. Through my successes in fencing, I have received the opportunity to study at two of the best Universities in the world.


British Fencing. Credits- British Fencing
British Fencing. Credits- British Fencing

You received a scholarship to study at Harvard University for your undergraduate education. Can you talk about the process of how you applied and what motivated you to pursue this path?

I was recruited to go to University in the U.S. and was contacted by several coaches. Any athlete near the top of their sport will face the decision of whether they want to go all-in in sports or sacrifice their sporting ambition for academics. The American system lets you have both and I found that really appealing. I took the SATs (standardised tests for gaining admission to a US college/university) alongside my A-levels and applied towards the end of my penultimate school year. 

At Harvard, you were both a meritorious student as well as an NCAA champion. Describe your daily routines, what you studied, and some of your best memories at Harvard.

Correction - I was an NCAA silver-medalist, but thank you for giving me a promotion, haha! I actually fenced against a good friend and Crimson (Harvard Athletics Fan Word) teammate in the final. It was a historic event for Harvard because you can only enter two fencers, and we stood first and second in the country.

The routine at Harvard was really nicely balanced. I used to wake up and have my first class at around 9 am. I studied mainly history and languages, so I was often in smaller seminar-type discussions, and sometimes, larger lecture classes. I’d usually be done with class at around 4 pm. After that, I’d head to the Athletic Centre where I’d have fencing practice till 7 pm. Then, we would go eat dinner as a team. Those practices and dinners were some of my favourite moments in college. The team was like my family. 

Upon graduation, you worked in finance and media. You also did some internships in your college years. What has been your experience like in these pursuits? How did your fencing come into play along with your professional career?

Fencing has helped me deal with pressure. After so many early mornings, waking up before important competitions, I’ve become better at handling my nerves and emotions. This comes in handy when you have to present to a bunch of head traders on Wall Street, or when you need to live-produce in Television. It’s hard to add value as an intern, but I think internships are a really great chance to work out what you like in a job and the sorts of environments you find stimulating. 

You are now at Oxford as an MBA student. You have also won scholarships at the institution. Can you talk about what led you to pursue your MBA at this stage, how did the application process work for you, what led you to the scholarships, and your experience in the program so far?

I wanted the chance to think more deeply about my career, while also becoming more qualified in some key areas. So far, the program is delivering on those fronts. I’m learning new skills and broadening my perspective through conversations with peers. When you go straight from University to your first job, it’s the rare student who makes that decision really deliberately. I realised after three years of being in the working world that I wanted to rethink my approach. That’s why I went back to learning.

The scholarship was a cherry on top, and it was the result of a positive interview process and support from the admissions department, here. Oxford Said is passionate about having a class that reflects the diversity in broader society and that really resonated with me. They give out several scholarships to further that goal. 

On your profile, you state that you intend to be competing in the Tokyo Olympics this year as a part of the British squad. Can you elaborate on your goals for the same? How are your preparations going so far for the competition?

To be blunt, it is an outside shot, but I’m not one to give up, and I’m going to give it everything I have for the last few months of qualifications.

My route to qualification would be as an individual through a zonal spot, so I have to outperform my compatriots in the next few world cups as well as other individuals in Europe at a zonal qualifier competition in April. It’s a very tough path, but most things worth doing are difficult.

I train in London with my teammates on Fridays and with the Oxford Varisty team during the week. 

It’s certainly quite evident that you’re a multi-tasking inspirational achiever. If one can ask you, who has been your role model in life?

I have many role models. Particularly, the strong women in my family and close friends' circle.

My grandmother, who lives in India, is one of my biggest inspirations. She is a force of nature and encourages me in whatever I do. She doesn’t believe in setting limits.

In terms of famous role models, I love female athletes who possess a combination of talent and grit and are unapologetic about it. Serena Williams is a favourite.  

What are your future goals for the next five years? (We know that the Olympics is definitely on your radar! Do you intend to even compete in Paris 2024?)

If I can find a way to continue balancing fencing and my career in a way that feels sustainable and holistic, then I want to do that. So, for Paris, we’ll see. It’s not out of the question. My sport is one you can continue till your thirties. So, if I want to, I could feasibly continue. I’d like to build my career over the next five years. There are a lot of factors at play for a female athlete. I’d like to have a family as well. 

Fencing has not been considered like a fully-fledged professional career for women. What can you say to other young girls out there who want to take up the sport? Many give up competing in sports due to their fears regarding menstruation as well. Your fencing kit requires you to be in an all-white attire and be extremely quick and agile. What can you say about this?

It’s a great point and one that isn’t talked about enough. I can remember getting my period suddenly at competitions and panicking because I’m wearing all white! Pro tip, always keep a tampon in your fencing bag.

On the period issue - I think it’s something that should be discussed more by women in sport as it definitely affects your energy levels and can impact your performance.

My best advice is to know you body and know what you need. For example, I sometimes find I have to eat better and refuel more on those days.

As far as being a profession is concerned, I hope that can change in the years to come. I think it will start with bigger sports. The U.S. women’ soccer team, for example, is making big strides towards wage equality in women’s football. 

Finally, what advice would you like to give to our readers?

Do what you love. Good things come to those who pursue their passions and work hard. Even if you do something that no one else cares about, they will care for your story. The things you stand for, may speak to people. Nothing is a waste of time, if it’s bringing joy to you and others. 

Rapid Fire Questions-

  1. Favourite Tournament- Junior World Championships in Croatia, 2013. One of my best individual performances and a really fun event to be at with my friends from all over the world.
  2. Best Book- 'Becoming' by Michelle Obama. This book came right at a time when I needed it. Her story is really inspiring for young women starting out in their careers. 
  3. Favourite film- Casino Royale/ James Bond films in general. 
  4. Favourite player- Usain Bolt. I met him once in an airport, and he is really as relaxed and funny as he seems before all his races. 
  5. Diet trends or not?- No. I try to be healthy during the week and tend to have more ‘cheat days’ on the weekends. I think it’s important to enjoy food every once in a while otherwise you go crazy. 
  6. Best workout routine- I like circuits when I do them with other people. Doing different things stops you from getting bored and working out with others helps you stay honest and motivated.
  7. Favourite destination- Colorado. I’ve been skiing there before, and being up in the mountains is breathtaking. 

Dreams, Dreams, Dreams. Credits- Harvard Crimson
Dreams, Dreams, Dreams. Credits- Harvard Crimson
Published 23 Feb 2020, 08:02 IST
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