How niche sports offer a pathway to the Ivy League and other elite schools.
At the Manhattan Fencing Center, the athletes don’t look much like the swashbuckling heroes in the movies. There are no daring leaps or flips, no slashing or gallivanting around the room. Instead, young fencers methodically attack and parry along a long, narrow strip of floor. A hit — the touch of an opponent’s garb — can be missed by the naked eye.
But for families who invest in this expensive sport, the main target is quite clear — just look up. Hanging from the ceiling are flags from Duke, Harvard, N.Y.U., Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame, Princeton and Columbia, representing the clique of colleges and universities with N.C.A.A. fencing teams.
A way with a sword can help students stand out in the college admissions game, according to Yury Gelman, founder of the Manhattan Fencing Center.
“Parents,” he said, “realize that fencing is one of the best sports to put your child in a good university, because each good school, especially Ivy League schools, have fencing.”
Partly because of the expense, fencing remains small compared with many other youth sports, but it has grown, especially as college admissions has become more selective. USA Fencing, the sport’s official national governing body, says that it had only 50 members under the age of 15 in the 1980s. Today there are more than 15,000, and the number of fencing clubs exceeds 700.
Colleges have defended fencing and other athletic programs as adding to campus life, building character and cementing alumni bonds.
“Athletics at Harvard builds community through the engagement of students, faculty, staff and alumni,” said Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokeswoman. “Harvard athletes are admitted through the same process, receive the same academic support, and are held to the same standards as every other Harvard student.”
The sport gained a toehold in the United States as early as the 1750s, when a fencing school was operating near Wall Street. Harvard started fencing as a club sport in 1889 and, soon after, began competitive bouts with other Ivy League schools.
But fencing never achieved mass appeal. More than a century later, only 44 out of 1,100 N.C.A.A. schools have teams. Sixteen of them are fielded by highly selective colleges with admissions rates of 16 percent or lower, according to an analysis by the website fencingparents.org, a guide for parents seeking college admission through fencing.
The schools are heavily concentrated in the eastern United States, with a few exceptions like Stanford and the University of California, San Diego.
For child fencers aspiring to attend highly selective colleges, the journey frequently begins at one of about 30 clubs that regularly turn out college-bound athletes. The Manhattan Fencing Center, located in an expansive space on the second floor of an office building in Midtown, is one of the most successful.
This year, the center lists 11 college freshmen it claims as success stories.
A star is Matthew Linsky, who won a gold medal in January in a competition in Bucharest, Romania, placing him near the very top of international saber fencing.
Mr. Linsky is ranked 13th among young saber fencers, leading to his recruitment by Harvard, Yale, Penn and Duke, according to his mother. He arrived on Harvard’s campus this fall, one of 1,646 new freshmen from more than 60,000 applicants.
A graduate of the High School for Math, Science and Engineering, a competitive public school in Manhattan, Mr. Linsky says he enjoys the mental side of the sport as well as the whirlwind of international competition. He says fencing also builds agility, speed and coordination.
His mother, Irene Linsky, who works in information technology for a major bank, recounts a less glamorous side, working remotely from hotel rooms in cities around the world.
To help pay for his training, Matthew received financial assistance from a small charitable foundation Mr. Gelman sponsors. Ms. Linsky, a single mother, said she has been grateful for the help, adding, “It’s still expensive. Don’t get me wrong.”
Another Manhattan Fencing star, Elizabeth Tartakovsky, a senior at Harvard who holds the N.C.A.A. title in women’s saber fencing, said she is grateful for the sacrifice by her parents, executives in the pharmaceutical and banking industries.
Eileen Ye, who attended the private Brearley School and trained at Manhattan Fencing Center, is attending Harvard this fall, without being a recruited athlete.
Even so, she said, “I definitely think fencing added to my application.”
Ms. Ye was good enough to make the women’s team, one of 15 students on the roster, just as fencing and other elite sports are under a microscope.
Then again, the tradition of athletic preferences could be hard to extinguish.
Two years ago, faced with financial strains from the pandemic, Stanford decided to eliminate fencing and 10 other sports — men’s rowing, sailing, squash and synchronized swimming —because of their high costs.
Following a backlash from alumni, they were reinstated.