By Sue Botos
They say good things come in small packages. When talking with Rocky River High School fencing coach Sara Kass, “feisty” can be added to that description.
“What I lack in size, I make up for in personality,” the 5-foot-1-inch Kass said with a laugh during a recent interview. Throughout her 35-year fencing career, Kass has put that personality, as well as her skills, to work. As a student at Hunter College in New York City, she was a three-time city champion and most valuable player. Now, she will represent the U.S. at the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem in July.
“This is a dream come true. Anyone can go to Israel as a tourist, but not everyone can represent the United States,” said Kass of the contest, which is the third largest sporting event in the world after the Olympics and Pan American games.
Sometimes called the “Jewish Olympics,” the Maccabiah Games offer competition in traditional Olympic sports such as track and field, swimming and ice hockey, as well as bowling and bridge. Most sports are divided into age categories, and Kass will be competing in the masters (over 40) fencing division.
Kass began fencing at age 13 partly due to “sibling rivalry” with her older sister, but also so they would have an activity in common. Always encouraged by her parents to never let gender stand in the way of her pursuits, Kass said she was a bit surprised when the anti-discrimination bill, Title IX, was passed by Congress when she was a junior high student.
“It was unreal to me that I needed a law to tell me that I was allowed to play soccer or whatever,” recalled Kass. However, she added, “When that came along I chomped onto that and went with it.”
After college, Kass set her sights on the Olympics, training at the Olympic facility in Colorado. Although she did not make the team, Kass said she did make it to the Olympics as a scorekeeper for the 1984 games in Los Angeles and the 1996 games in Atlanta.
Returning to Cleveland, where her family had moved in 1970, she studied athletic training at Baldwin-Wallace College, but before she knew it, she was coaching fencing.
“I decided I’d rather be a fencing coach than an athletic trainer because it’s more active. You don’t just sit around waiting for people to get injured,” she explained.
Kass began her fencing school, Cyrano’s Place, at the West Park YMCA in 1993, before moving to the Beck Center for the Performing Arts. The school has been at its current location, 15639 Madison Ave. in Lakewood, for five years.
Kass has led the Pirates fencers for seven years, and this year’s girls’ squad earned a state title.
“(Rocky) River is the envy of most programs,” she said, adding that many schools do not have enough fencers for a full team. Kass predicted that the Cleveland State fencing team was definitely looking at some of her athletes, especially freshman Jasiah Scribner. “I see way too much of myself at that age in her,” Kass commented.
Although she started out competing against women, Kass said that to strengthen the field, in recent years, many contests have become coed. “Women can easily beat men,” Kass stated. She noted that size and age have little to do with success in fencing, which she said is more of a cerebral sport. “It’s a team sport, but it isn’t. No one is relying on you. It’s really for those who don’t consider themselves jocks,” Kass said.
“It’s kind of a parable for life. When you get out there on the strip, someone’s out to get you. It’s about how you handle it. It’s about making wise choices,” she said.