When Shaina Morris was 8 years old, she went to her parents with an interesting request.
“I want to sword fight,” she said.
Inspired by American Mariel Zagunis’s gold-medal fencing performance at the 2008 Olympics and swashbuckling mice in the “Redwall” children’s book series, Morris decided she wanted a weapon of her own.
That desire turned into a love of fencing and a rise up the national rankings. Now, the recent San Luis Obispo High School graduate will join the Johns Hopkins University varsity fencing team when she enrolls in the prestigious Baltimore university in the fall.
“She just loved it, so she wanted to sword fight,” her mother, Ricky Pai, said. “We tried to look for different clubs, and finally we found Eric.”
Eric McDonald, the head coach of Cal Poly’s fencing team for 11 years, is the founder of the not-for-profit San Luis Highlanders Fencing Club. About 15 to 20 members of the 40-member club meet every Monday and Thursday in the gym on the top floor of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown San Luis Obispo to learn the combat sport. That’s where a 10-year-old Morris first tried her hand at the sport that dates back at least 500 years.
Once she figured out the basics, she was hooked.
“In fencing, if you are on your game, you can really feel it. It just gets me so excited,” Morris said. “The interchange between me and my opponent, it’s really unique, and it’s hard to find another sport like that.”
She seemed to have a natural feel for it and found motivation in being one of the only girls in a male-dominated sport. Morris regularly had bouts against older boys and soon started to rise in the ranks.
“When we got her participating, she started to shine in the league,” MacDonald said. “She started winning, and other coaches started to use her as a role model.”
Her best finish came when she medaled at the USA Fencing National Championships in 2015.
“Once I stared to earn top results there, that’s when I started thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I can fence at the college level,’ ” Morris said.
But Morris didn’t sink all of her energy into fencing during high school.
She kept busy with an exhaustive extracurricular schedule at SLO High that included serving as the Latin Club president, Physics Club adviser, Astronomy Club officer and Harvard Model Congress member. She also competed in track and field all four years of high school and was a standout her senior season. Morris won the PAC 8 title in the long jump, was part of the PAC 8 winning 4x400 relay team and qualified for CIF-Southern Section Prelims in the 400-meter event and the triple jump.
She also graduated with a 4.4 GPA.
“I think (fencing) recruitment helped me get into Johns Hopkins, but I think that I was a strong enough candidate academically that I still would have had a chance at acceptance,” Morris said of her top school choice.
Johns Hopkins doesn’t offer fencing scholarships, but Morris said she was able to secure financial aid for the school that costs just more than $50,000 a year.
Morris won’t be dialing it back when she arrives at Johns Hopkins, a school ranked No. 10 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. She plans to double major in molecular biology and applied math statistics.
“It will be hard, but I think I can pull it off,” she said.
Morris sees herself becoming a medical researcher when she graduates. In the meantime, she will continue to immerse herself in the world of white jackets, clanking swords and buzzing machines during the summer and throughout college.
And what she would really like to see is more little girls pick up a sword and duel.
“It’s hard for girls to start because there are all these older males and older kids,” Morris said. “Hopefully, I can get some other girls to say, ‘Hey I can do that too.’ ”