A court settlement has thrust a Kenmore woman into the Empire State Games' previously all-male epee fencing competition.
Martina Sourada, 20, captain of the Cornell University women's fencing squad, will compete in the men's event at the Games, to be held Aug. 1-5 in Syracuse.
This will mark the first time a woman will be permitted to cross over into a previously male-only category at the 13-year-old Games, according to spokesman Fred Smith.
Officials in the state's Central Region urged her to try to qualify, and she finished third in regional competition in May, attorneys said. But when she approached state Games officials, they turned thumbs down on the idea.
"I know my rights," Ms. Sourada said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she is training through the weekend at the
West Side Fencing Club.
Ms. Sourada said she launched legal proceedings because she found it "ridiculous" to be told, several weeks after qualifying for the regional squad, that she couldn't compete because of the lack of a women's epee category.
Ms. Sourada, who finished first last month in women's epee at the U.S. Fencing Association's North Atlantic sectionals in New Haven, Conn., said she pushed the issue for women's rights and because of her love of fencing.
She said she sees a "definite interest" statewide in women's epee and hopes her legal fight will prompt Games officials to create a women's category.
Bruce A. Goldstein, Ms. Sourada's attorney, said a number of fencers encouraged her to compete against the state's best fencers in her speciality.
"She just wants to be judged on her merit as a fencer, not on her sex," Goldstein said.
Ms. Sourada, a graduate of Mount St. Mary's Academy in the Town of Tonawanda, where she began fencing as a sophomore, said she trains for the sport year-round, using Kenmore's Mang Park for physical conditioning and the Fencing Club facility on the University at Buffalo North Campus in Amherst for fencing.
Ms. Sourada, who just completed her sophomore year as an environmental sciences major, is an alternate on the women's fencing squad for the Olympic Fest next month in Minneapolis, the tune-up event for the next Olympics.
To qualify for the Empire State Games, she had to defeat all but two of her 20 male opponents in round-robin matches last month at Cornell. In fencing, men are "a little bit more" aggressive than women, and training with them should be advantageous in competition against women, she said.
Her mother, Vera, said Ms. Sourada was motivated to sue because a number of other fencers supported her efforts to break through the sex barrier in the sport.
Ms. Sourada's father, Vaclav, a civilian employee of the U.S. Air Force, is on assignment in Europe.
Goldstein and Assistant Attorney General Andrew Lipkind told State Supreme Court Justice Norman E. Joslin the state has agreed to let Ms. Sourada enter the epee event because she had been allowed into the regional competition at Cornell.
Smith, public relations director for the Albany-based Games, said Brendan McCann, executive director of the Games, is sending Ms. Sourada a letter formally granting her permission to compete in what had been planned as the male-only epee competition.
Smith said Games officials made the "concession" because of Ms. Sourada's persistence.
After this year's competition, Games executives will review the fencing competition "and see what needs to be opened up" for future Games, Smith said.
Although the Games will include separate competition for men and women in foil fencing, women had not shown much interest in the epee event, so no women's competition was scheduled for the Games, Smith said.
Years ago, a woman weight lifter petitioned to compete in the then-male-only weightlifting competition but waited to compete until a separate women's event was created, Smith said.
Fencing, as a sport, involves a foil, saber or epee. Epee also differs from foil in that points are scored by thrusts anywhere on the opponent's body, not merely the torso.
Goldstein said he pressed for a quick resolution of the lawsuit because Ms. Sourada had told him she needed at least 1 1/2 months to prepare for competition.
Lipkind said the willingness of the Games directors to let Ms. Sourada compete in against men is based on "recognition" of her status in the sport.