A Cut Above: Wheatley’s Leccese bound for Jr. Olympics

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Wheatley School junior Gabriella Leccese has only been fencing for the past three years, but she’ll be competing in Portland, Ore. next month for a spot on the U.S. Junior Olympics team.

The 16-year-old Leccese finished in the top four in her specialty of foil fencing at a regional qualifying tournament among other high school students on Nov. 17 at Rocky Point to make it to the Junior Olympics trials on Feb. 14.

Prior to the November competition, she had success at an open tournament run by the H3 Fencing Club where she practices regularly in Half Hollow Hills. 

She also competed with other H3 members in the U.S. Fencing Association’s North American Cup tournament in Milwaukee in the fall as a warm-up for the regional Junior Olympics competition.

“Qualifying for the junior Olympics was very major for me, especially competing at this level with people who’ve been competing for so long,” Leccese said.

Her first experience with the sport was at a Wellesley College summer camp before her freshman year. 

She lost her first competition in camp but she said felt comfortable with it. So she decided to join the Wheatley varsity fencing team.

“I wasn’t playing a winter sport, so I decided to try out. Once I fenced my first bout, I fell in love with it,” Leccese said.

In her freshman year, she said she wasn’t expecting to compete in the team’s first match. 

But another member of the team was sidelined and she suddenly found herself fencing in her first foil bout.

“I was extremely nervous,” she said. “You don’t really think about what you’re doing. I just kept fencing.”

She lost the match, she said, but she wasn’t discouraged.

The turning point for Leccese came under the tutelage of Pierson Taylor, who left Half Hollow Hills to become the Wheatley fencing coach last year. She said he ran practices more intensely and in her second year on the team, she finally felt she was getting the hang of it.

“Honestly, it may have been in the last bout of last season,” she said.

But her performance for the season was good enough to put her into the county individual finals where she won one bout with ease. 

She then lost to the best fencer in the county by a score of 15-3. The score indicates the number of hits one fencer scores against the other.

“It made me a little annoyed that I couldn’t defend against that,” Leccese said. 

It’s likely she’ll be ready for what comes in the individual county competition this time around after compiling a 26-6 record with her foil this season.

Her Wheatley coach impacted her in another way, encouraging her to join the private H3 Fencing Club where she’s been practicing twice weekly since July.

She said she knew she was starting a different regimen at H3 when she nearly collapsed after a two-mile run her first day there.

“Everyone was extremely intense and focused,” Leccese said.

She credits her H3 fencing coach Dennis Daly with much of her improvement. 

In addition to the H3 sessions, Leccese has also been taking private lessons three times weekly with Daly, who formerly coached at Garden City High School. But she’s far from overconfident as she approaches the Junior Olympics trials.

“I still have a lot to improve,” she said.

Apart from the competition itself, she enjoys being part of the team at Wheatley.

“I like being able to bond with my teammates,” Leccese said.

She said she plans to stay with the sport and considers competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympics team an eventual possibility.

“She’s a very driven young lady,” said her mother, Eileen Siciliano. “I did not anticipate this, but I’m not surprised.”

Fencing isn’t Leccese’s only sport. She’s been competing on the Wheatley lacrosse and varsity since seventh grade and has been on the St. Aidan CYO Swim Team since sixth grade.

Apart from sports, she said she also enjoys the Wheatley Model U.N. Club. And in her free time, she said she likes to sleep and hang out with her friends. 

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