Love Squad Athlete Series: Aliya Itzkowitz

Our next Athlete Series contributor is Aliya Itzkowitz (@itz_aliya), a multi-tasker who balances a full-time job in the finance world while competing professionally as a fencer at International World Cups and Grand Prix. Born in Los Angeles but raised in London, Aliya has fenced since she was 9 years old, and realized after college that she wasn't quite ready to walk away from the sport -  even if it meant sacrificing her already sparse free time. Despite mornings that typically start at 5:15am and don't end till after 9pm, Aliya embraces her hectic life with open arms.  

Aliya was interviewed by Love Squad writer Marissa Brock in August. 

You chose a pretty niche sport, and one that not a lot of young kids would pick for themselves. What made you want to want to choose fencing?

I've always been a sporty kid. I liked anything that was fast. In school used to run the 100 and 200m. I also played lacrosse, danced and skied.  I had heard about fencing because my Grandfather used to fence, but that wasn't really how I got into it. It was more of a happy coincidence when I tried it at an after-school club and took to it. I liked it because with fencing you never feel like you are done learning the sport. Maybe that's why I've been doing it for so long. You're always going to be as fast a runner as your body allows you to be, but you can always be a better fencer. Each opponent teaches you something new.

Fencing requires a lot of technical skill, balance, and focus. How have these skills translated into your life outside of sports?

It sounds cliche but competing in your sport at the highest level gives you the ability to handle any other kind of pressure in life. I stopped getting nervous about things a long time ago. Maybe that's not always a good thing because a little bit of nerves are good - but if I have to take a big exam or have a job interview I barely get butterflies in my stomach anymore. Taking a test or presenting at work are way less scary than saber fencing where we yell in each other's faces for every point. Nothing really scares me anymore.

What was it like competing as a fencer at the college level? Did you find it challenging balancing sports and academics at an Ivy league school?

Being a college athlete is the best. You get an automatic family on campus. I have friends from the team at Harvard that will always be my friends. When you sing in the shower next to people every day - that's a special kind of close haha. Balancing academics and fencing was sort of a habit by the time I got to Harvard. I'd been doing it since I was in 7th Grade so it wasn't particularly harder. I think what is hard is feeling like you miss out on some of the social stuff. I remember my freshman year I had to miss the Harvard-Yale Game for a competition. That was annoying - a lot of FOMO. But honestly, being a student athlete made my experience so much richer. I have no regrets. Plus now that I am trying to balance everything in the real world I realize how good I had it...

How do you currently enter matches as a non-college athlete? Walk us through the path you took to continue competing.

While I was an undergrad at Harvard, I was competing in World Cups alongside my college season. My freshman year, I came 15th at Junior World Championships. The competitions I did while in college were largely at the Under-20 level. Now I'm competing with all age-groups and with Olympic champions. I'm currently ranked 1st in the UK so I get selected by my federation to go to all the World Cups during the season. This year I competed in Greece, Tunisia and  Russia. There was also a World Cup in New York which was fun because some of my friends came to watch. Depending on my work schedule and my budget, I accept the invitations to as many World Cups as possible. I'm working full-time in finance, an industry where taking days off is not the norm, but my bosses have been incredibly accommodating.

Many of us who competed at an elite level have had a love/hate relationship with our sport. Did you ever want to walk away from fencing? What has motivated you to want to continue competing?

Absolutely, I have thought about quitting. After I graduated I wasn't sure I was going to continue. I took like six months off which was the longest break of my life. In fencing, the margin for error is miniscule. We fence up to 15 points and I've lost 15-14 so many times. I've also won 15-14 many times but it's funny - you remember the losses way more. One time, at Junior World Championships I lost 15-14 to the World Number One. It was heart breaking. It would have been the biggest upset of my career. I cried a lot. I think at this point, I am still doing it because I realized that I like it. I feel a special kind of alive when I do it. I lost sight of that at points during school and college - you can feel like you're doing it because you have to or because you don't know any other way. But when I came back to the sport this January - it was an active choice. Part of it is also, I feel like I owe it to myself. I've been doing this for so long - I've spent so much blood, sweat and tears. I want something to show for it. Qualifying for the Olympics is the biggest box left unchecked.

You currently have a full-time job as an analyst at Deutsche Bank. How have you managed to continue competing as a fencer while balancing a very time-consuming job?

With difficulty!! It's hard when you feel like you're compromising on everything and you worry that you'll succeed at nothing. Instead, I have actually found that my fencing has helped me have a successful first year at work - and vice versa. I feel like i didn't really know the meaning of hard work before this year. The people around me at work push me and themselves so hard every day. It kind of reminds me of practice in college with the team where we were all pushing each other to become better. That's what my environment at work is like too and I try to bring that attitude to my fencing. It's hard physically and emotionally. By the time I get to practice at 6pm I've already been up and working for 12 hours so it's hard to then have the energy to keep going - but once I'm fencing it kinda all falls away and I'm having fun again. As always, my social life suffers. Believe me, sometimes I feel like getting drinks after work, or having a night out with friends, but there's definitely less of that these days. I just don't have the time.

Any advice for former college athletes who want to continue competing professionally after graduating?

Don't be afraid to try it. I recognize that my sport is incredibly niche, and what I do would simply not be possible were I trying to be a part-time Olympic-level athlete in a sport like swimming, where you have to put in the hours. We put in the hours too - but training for fencing is more about being smart and strategic - with less emphasis on putting in tons of time. My best advice is to do what I did - take a break after graduation and test how much it really means to you. If you love it, you'll want to come back.

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