The absolutely normal life of Amelia Cuomo

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Amelia Cuomo doesn’t want to hear about your busy schedule.

Well, allow me to rephrase that. It’s not that she doesn’t want to listen to you — she just doesn’t have time to do it. The bright-eyed, eager and curly haired first-year student from Brewster, New York, wouldn’t mind another day in the week.

“I’d put it between Monday and Tuesday,” she said, “because it gives you more time to adjust to the rhythm of the week.”

Cuomo, 19,  actively participates in the UNC athletic bands, which has at least three two-hour rehearsals per week when the football season is in full-swing, not to mention the included game-day obligations.

She’s in the Carolina Choir, a vocal ensemble of 75 singers from the campus community. The choir meets for two hours twice per week.

Her majors? Physics and mathematics. Not math — mathematics, she’ll tell you. And while she speaks about her studies fondly, nothing about either of those fields is particularly easy.

Oh, and not to mention she’s a Division 1 student-athlete. Yes, Cuomo walked onto the UNC fencing team in 2017. Had she fenced a bout in her life? No. But did that stop her?

Absolutely not.

***

In high school, Cuomo ran track and cross-country. Fencing, a sport based around swinging swords, might be more comparable to some sort of high-stakes medieval ballet.

Careful, precise footwork. Oh, and swords.

“I’m very used to getting angry in my sports and being able to express that aggression immediately,” she said. "But in fencing, it’s something you have to think about and be careful with the choices you make — or you will get stabbed.”

Cuomo learned, but her busy, busy schedule often got in the way.

“It does get really stressful at times,” she said, “and it does get really frustrating for some of the people in charge.”

It didn’t take long for the questions to come flying.

Why are you always leaving practice early? Why are you always coming to practice late? You’re falling asleep in choir. What’s the deal? Are you OK? You look really tired today.

There were a few times in choir where she's almost fallen off the risers, she says. She had to shake herself awake and keep singing.

And while she answered most of the questions through her work ethic, she had to miss other things — the fun things, the bonding time. When she attends one thing, she misses the intangibles of the other.

Before band rehearsals, her section goes out to dinner, but she can't go because she has practice. And when she first arrived at practice, her teammates had already been together for a while and build a camaraderie that she didn't yet know.

“It’s the awkward stage at a party where you have to get used to everybody else," Cuomo said.

And though she dealt with her share of annoyed coaches and directors, she pushed through. Her jam packed routine? It became, well, normal.

When she leaves her room each morning, Cuomo packs for a week — or, as she calls it, a day.

“I’m literally going to be leaving the dorm for 12 hours,” she said. “I have to bring my instrument, my equipment, a change of clothes — maybe two changes of clothes— for all the things I have to do in a day.”

All that, on top of everything she needs for her class.

And while "Physics for Scientists and Engineers, a Strategic Approach" and "Calculus, Early Transcendentals, Eighth Edition" rarely make for light reading, she opted for the publishers’ online editions, ever so slightly reducing her daily haul across campus.

***

The trip from Brewster to Chapel Hill isn’t short.

Cuomo’s hometown sits right across the state line from Danbury, Connecticut. After Cuomo and her parents packed up their Black Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, the trio hopped into the vehicle and headed southbound on Interstate 684.

One after the other, the Cuomos passed through 557 miles of well-known, traffic-clogged metropolitans like New York City, Philadelphia, Washington and Richmond before finally fighting their way into Durham through the locally notorious always-under-construction Interstate 85 traffic just north of the Triangle.

“They tried to make it as normal as possible,” Cuomo said, “so we did what we normally like to do on normal car trips.”

(A quick and perhaps obvious disclaimer: normal, to Cuomo, is a bit warped.)

Believe it or not, the fencing, singing and marching double-physics-and-mathematics major has a different benchmark for normal. Not long before the trip down south, Cuomo and her dad took a two-week excursion on the Appalachian Trail to, as she says, "get in that experience of doing things on my own a little bit.”

As Cuomo and her father told her mother about their backpacking adventure, the road trip needed a touch of Cuomic normalcy.

Both parents were biology majors — “big science people,” she explained.

“My dad turned on Radiolab, which is a NPR podcast where they discuss natural science phenomena,” she said. “He always pauses it at different times to interject with his own opinion or experience.”

But something was different.

He’d pause the audio, make his point and then just stare at her before resuming the podcast, as if any slight delay might put off the inevitable goodbye. 

Instead, just the hum of the engine and the highway. And silence.

Big science people, those Cuomos.

***

She wasn’t ready for the North Carolina heat.

It was blisteringly hot outside, she says, the end of the day during her orientation. She was tired, and she was tired of hearing others give her spiels about how great the next four years would be.

Before heading indoors, she attended another fair. It wasn't activities of clubs, she says; it was more like signing up for bank accounts or learning to stay healthy on campus.

And then, she spotted it.

The head of a mannequin, dressed with a black marching band hat with a feathered Carolina Blue plume.

She walked right over to the table, stood near it and looked involved, so as not to attract the attention from other nearby tables. Enter Abby Bergman, a future section-mate of Cuomo and relentless recruiter.

“What do you play?” said Bergman, sitting at the table.

“The saxophone,” Cuomo responded.

“No way, that’s what I play," Bergman said. "You should totally join.” And before Cuomo had the opportunity to respectfully decline, Bergman lured her in.

“We have band camp today. I can take you with me when we go right after this.”

And so the two went.

Later that week, Cuomo found herself at the University’s annual Fall Fest, where clubs and other groups on campus attempted to sway Cuomo and her 4,370 classmates into joining.

She knew she wanted to be a part of a sports team, but the enthusiastic girl from upstate New York couldn’t decide which one. She signed up for rugby, club lacrosse, club swim, the campus marathon team and even the disc golf club.

“I went absolutely nuts,” she said.

Cuomo called her parents to talk over the decision, but that didn’t help either.

“Definitely go do the rugby team,” her dad told her.

“You are absolutely not doing rugby,” her mom quipped back. “Please, do swim team or something.”

She hung up, the question still unresolved. The next day, she picked up her phone and called her parents again.

“I just got an email about trying out for the fencing team,” she told them. “Like the fencing team at Carolina. The varsity fencing team.”

“I mean, why not?” her father asked.

***

Cuomo called and emailed Ron Miller, the head coach of UNC fencing, but he never responded. Eventually, she left a sticky note on his office door in Carmichael Arena.

“I’m interested in trying out,” she wrote. “Can you please send me more information on when tryouts are and what I need to bring to them?”

Ten women tried out. Six made the cut. Cuomo was one of them.

“Amelia had a hard time deciding which weapon to go into,” Miller said at the time. “In fact, at the last minute, I overruled her a little bit.”

Soon enough, she found herself wielding a sabre while carefully tiptoeing down the strip, but, before Cuomo could even join her teammates for practice, she had to learn how to fence.

She remembers the newcomers being separated from the team for the first month, working with an assistant coach in a hallway outside of the fencing room. They learned footwork and how to hold their weapon.

Finally, the coaches unlocked the team armory, presenting her with a sabre.

“We still weren’t allowed to practice with the rest of the team,” she said, “because it’s so difficult for the experienced fencers to try and fence somebody who has no idea what’s going on.”

But Miller had faith. Fifty-one years ago, the coach built the team from students from his gym class. He saw potential in this group, too.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, all the girls we’ve selected will make some sort of contribution this year,” Miller said at the time, “and, obviously, they’ll be expected to do more in the future.”

Unsurprisingly, however, Cuomo struggled. And struggled. And struggled. She failed to win a single bout during her first few tournaments.

You see, fencing isn’t an easy sport to learn. While most sports have a basic set of rules and strategies, no part of fencing is simple.

The results weren’t there, and Cuomo had to fight herself.

“Why should I bother doing this for all four years?” she asked herself. “I’m never going to be as good as these college athletes.”

“Why?”

*** 

Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of falling confetti.

The 2018 ACC Fencing Championships were held at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill. UNC, Duke and Notre Dame’s fencing teams finished even after the initial round, prompting a fence-off. After the tiebreak, UNC prevailed as the conference champion.

See, I want to tell this story and this one alone. Believe me, I do. I want to explain the heroics of the senior fencers, whose years of hard work finally materialized. I’d love to tell you about the fencers’ attitudes headed into next season, when expectations would increase due to the added momentum.

But even if the ACC had prepared confetti to fall on the eventual conference champion, it wouldn’t have fallen for Amelia Cuomo.

Due to conference rules, Cuomo couldn’t even watch the bouts from the floor with her teammates. Teams can only select four fencers per weapon to compete with the team during the conference championships, so she, the fifth saber for UNC, missed the cut and the opportunity to watch history at ground level.

She sat in sea of blue chairs, joining the thousands before her who occupied the historic arena’s bleachers to watch the action on the floor.

After UNC’s last match, Cuomo left Carmichael Arena for Boshamer Stadium, where UNC baseball was playing at the time. Well, she thought it would be the Tar Heels’ final match. Duke, however, still had to fence Notre Dame, the eventual national champions. The Irish seemed poised to sweep through the bouts at Carmichael and collect their hardware. 

As fate would have it, however, Duke upset Notre Dame, prompting a fence-off among the three teams, all of which finished tied after the round robin-style tournament. When word spread to Cuomo, she sprinted back across campus.

Officials allowed for the players watching from the stands to join their teams, but, by the time Cuomo arrived, floor access was once again closed, but she was there.

She watched her teammates deliver their beloved head coach his first ACC championship in his seasoned half-century long career. She found herself caught in the drama, lost in the “anticipation of those final fence-off bouts.” 

Again: she watched, relegated to a mere spectator.

Cuomo didn’t make it onto the floor in time to be in the official conference championship team photo. She had been there for her teammates for the whole season. But she felt like she wasn't there for the most important day of their season.

“It felt weird to be a part of something,” she said, “but not competing in it at the same time.”

But teammate Samantha Galina wouldn’t allow Cuomo to leave herself out.

Galina, a senior who fences epee, spearheaded the required charity events for the fencing team during her four-year career. It didn’t take long for her and Cuomo to form a relationship.

Galina saw a younger version of herself in Cuomo — trying to do everything and being frustrated when she couldn't, beating herself up for not being better than somebody else when she feels she's trained and worked just as hard.

During Cuomo’s first week as a member of the team, Galina couldn’t help but to notice the Brewster native.

“She’s just gung-ho,” Galina said. “She’s ready to get started, to go on runs — like, the kid was smiling ear to ear. I’ve never seen anybody so happy to be in the fencing gym ready to practice in August when it’s like 85 degrees in there.”

Galina encouraged Cuomo and the other walk-ons throughout the season. It’s OK that you’re not at that level yet, she'd tell them, because with practice you’re going to get there.

So when Cuomo felt isolated from her teammates on that championship afternoon, she found a message waiting on her phone. It was from Galina, individual and unprompted.

I want to make sure you know that you were a crucial part of this win, every practice, every meet that you put in brought this whole team closer to victory. I hope after this year you stick with fencing and keep working hard because I know you’ll achieve great things…

She was so appreciative of her teammate — how Galina could be so grateful of the people around her.

The message continued.

...But more importantly keep being a good person. That day we brought the gifts over for our adopt-a-family, your kindness and generosity really shined. I’m so proud to have you as my teammate.

Cuomo felt the tears build in her eyes. The confetti fell for her, too.

***

The future is uncertain for UNC fencing.

Miller recently announced his retirement after 51 years at the helm. Now, for the first time in the history of the program, the athletic department will have to search for a new head fencing coach.

I want this story to have a happy ending. I really do.  I want to tell you all about how Amelia Cuomo, the girl who didn’t pick up a sabre until her first month of college, willed her way to the top of the fencing team, leading UNC to another ACC Championship.

Who knows what the coach’s policy will be? Will the coach bring in new recruits, replacing the six walk-ons with experienced and decorated fencers? After all, wouldn’t that be best for the program?

Even if she stays on the team, her actual ability to compete in tournaments could take a hit. Who's to say how many times she'll be able to travel with the team, Cuomo wonders, especially if they bring in a good recruit?

Despite the uncertainty, Cuomo’s sights are set on next year. She’s ready to improve, to win more bouts than she loses.

You know? Normal preparation.

Maybe someday, that is the story I’ll write.

@brycelessgem

Cover photo courtesy of Amelia Cuomo