Three years had passed since Julieta Toledo considered attending Ohio State.
Since that time, the sabre fencer from Tijuana, Mexico, had competed at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics and earned a bronze medal at the 2017 World Junior Fencing Championships with the Mexican National Team.
Then her situation became, in her words, “complicated.” Mexico’s fencing program entered a state of disarray, the college of her choice in the country didn’t offer any degrees for which she held a passion, and soon it became clear she’d have to choose between the two.
“It was either go to university in Mexico and quit fencing or find another option,” Toledo said. “I tried to stay in Spain, but it was really hard to apply to a university there.”
Toledo was preparing to compete at the 2018 World Fencing Championships in Wuxi, China, where she knew Donald Anthony Jr., USA Fencing president and International Fencing Federation vice president, would be in attendance.
Anthony is also Ohio State fencing’s head coach. Toledo approached him and said she was interested in attending Ohio State, so she could pursue both fencing and her education.
“In some ways, I did not recruit her. She recruited me because she had already been recruited,” Anthony said. “It was a little bit different than that normal path.”
Turmoil took the Olympian and 2019 Mexican national champion from her planned path to Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics to a stop in Columbus, Ohio. Now that she’s at Ohio State, Toledo and her teammates are teeming with excitement about the future.
“As soon as they said, ‘Julieta is coming,’ I was like, ‘Ahhh! Finally,’” senior sabre fencer Sarah Merza said. “We were never super, super close, but I knew who she was, and I knew she was a strong fencer, so I was like, ‘Yes, finally. I’m gonna make her love Ohio State. I’m gonna make her so comfortable.’”
Former Ohio State head coach Vladimir Nazlymov began recruiting Toledo while she attended high school in Mexico.
Toledo told her coach she wanted to seize the opportunity with the Buckeyes. He informed her that if she did, her chances of staying on the squad would be slim due to the collegiate schedule.
“I was young, and it was not my first interest to go to university just yet,” Toledo said.
Toledo declined the Ohio State offer and focused on Olympic training.
Two results could keep Toledo’s Mexican National Sabre Team from Rio at the final qualifying event, the 2016 Sint Niklaas World Cup: South Korea winning the competition or China finishing higher than fifth.
“We were like, ‘OK, that’s not gonna happen,’” Toledo said. “Then we saw Korea was going the best way to get into the final, and then we fenced China, so it was a stressful day.”
Mexico defeated China 45-44 during the round of 16 to end one threat, and South Korea fenced Japan during the same stage.
Japan had never beaten South Korea, but that day it broke through for a 45-44 victory of its own, Toledo said.
“In that moment, we were like, ‘OK, this is real? Is this actually real?’ And I remember everyone hugging each other, and we started crying, but not like tearing — we were trying to control our emotions because it was super exciting,” Toledo said.
Toledo competed on a team of three fencers in Rio. The trio finished No. 7 in the team women’s sabre event, and Toledo finished No. 34 individually.
Another gap year followed before Toledo started college in Mexico. Then the choice between her degree and fencing became more apparent as the Mexican Fencing Federation came into further conflict.
Anthony described the country’s program as being “in turmoil” under the leadership of President Jorge Castro Rea.
“There are many people inside the federation, both on his board and other provinces, that have a serious problem with his leadership,” Anthony said. “Because of that, they are in confrontation, and there’s a lot of wrangling, internal legal suits, etc., etc., etc.”
When Toledo and Anthony interacted in Wuxi, they were already familiar with each other. Toledo said she heard positive feedback about the Ohio State team from Mexican teammate and sabre fencer Hector Florencia.
Anthony’s roles on the international scene allowed him to witness Toledo’s talent firsthand.
“I’ve had the good fortune, or sometimes the bad fortune, of seeing her compete against the U.S. when the Mexican team was extremely strong,” Anthony said. “They came out on top a lot of times, so I know the level of competitor that she is.”
Toledo said that apart from adjusting to class lectures delivered in English, her transition into the fencing program was smooth because her teammates welcomed her with open arms. She said she’s also been friends with Ohio State senior foil fencer Gabriela Cecchini for five years.
The two met at the World Fencing Junior Championships in 2014 and would eat meals together or hang out in their hotel during competitions, Cecchini said.
“She’s very extroverted, and I’m very introverted,” Cecchini said. “Because we are very different, we are able to sum our strengths, and we work together very well.”
Cecchini, who is from Brazil, helped Toledo apply to Ohio State from a foreign country.
“It’s very stressful, especially for an international student. You don’t know how the system here works,” Cecchini said. “Because I was in her shoes a couple years ago, I tried to give her some advice.”
Cecchini added that she’s impressed with Toledo’s adaptability and how well she’s transitioned to Ohio State.
Anthony said that as a 22-year-old freshman, Toledo brings experience to the team. Merza added that she helps keep her teammates level-headed.
Toledo’s experience started at age 11 in Tijuana, training for sports such as swimming, basketball and soccer.
Her father, Juan Carlos Toledo, was a tae kwon do instructor. Toledo came home from a summer camp and told him she wanted to fence.
“He was super mad at me because I was about to be a black belt, and I decided to go to fencing,” Toledo said. “I went to this summer camp with many sports, and that’s when they invited me to go to fencing. I liked fencing more, but my dad was like, ‘OK, but if you stay in fencing, you’re not gonna quit.’”
It appears Toledo made the right choice. Anthony said she’s exceptionally talented.
“She has good control of the weapon, which means she can actually execute things that she thinks about doing,” Anthony said. “Sabre requires that you’re extremely mobile, because it’s the fastest of the three weapons, and she’s got extremely strong, powerful, well-trained legs.”
Merza said Toledo is helping her fine-tune the details of her fencing, improving little things that will help the captain excel in future competitions.
“When I fence her, I learn the little things that I’m doing wrong,” Merza said. “I know she’s very smart — there’s a lot of people that I’m gonna fence in the future that are gonna be able to catch the same things that she does.”
Mexico’s program will not try to qualify a women’s sabre team for the 2020 Olympics. The national team is attempting to qualify a single individual at-large, and Toledo is battling to be that individual.
For now, Toledo said she’s grateful that Anthony heard her dilemma in Wuxi.
“I’m really thankful that he listened to me and he helped me to get in [at Ohio State],” Toledo said.