Penn State’s top performer at last weekend’s NCAA championships also suffered the team’s most agonizing defeat.
Teodora Kakhiani, a senior sabreur, was the only Nittany Lion to qualify to the final four in any weapon at the tournament in Fishers, Indiana. In her third career appearance in the semifinal round of nationals, Kakhiani won and advanced to the final bout for the first time.
“[Kakhiani] fenced phenomenally,” coach Wes Glon said. “She was great. The quality, the heart, everything you need to win a major competition was there.”
Kakhiani, a native of the Republic of Georgia, was hoping to become the first Nittany Lion to ever win the individual women’s sabre title. Although she was pitted against the No. 1 seeded Francesca Russo (Notre Dame), Glon was confident Kakhiani could perform under stress.
“The more pressure, the more calm [Kakhiani] becomes,” Glon said. “This is another great quality — besides hard work and being a dedicated fencer — she also has the quality of being at her best when there is the biggest pressure.”
In the first-to-15 final bout, neither fencer gained more than a two-touch lead at any point. After seizing a 14-13 advantage, Kakhiani was just one touch away from being crowned champion.
But, with her back against the wall, Russo won the next two points and secured the title.
“The only thing I can say is that it was painful,” Kakhiani said. “It hurt my soul to lose like that. The whole world froze for me when I lost the bout. It was a very even fight.”
Kakhiani’s teammates, who watched and cheered from the stands, shared her anguish.
“I’m bummed out for the team mostly, and for Teo,” Jessie Radanovich said. “It broke my heart watching that bout. It doesn’t even matter how I did, that just crushed me.”
In sabre, which is the fastest-paced of the three weapons, officials sometimes tend not to overturn questionable calls. While Glon said the loss can’t be attributed to the refereeing, he thinks Kakhiani was unlucky not to get more decisions.
“I don’t like to complain about refereeing, and this competition was pretty good in general,” Glon said. “But there were two touches at crucial moments, which, after checking with different people, I was confident were [Kakhiani’s]. It’s unfortunate, but I cannot blame [the officials]. But it was unfortunate because it changed the momentum.”
Although Kakhiani is disappointed in the outcome of the final bout, her second-place finish was Penn State’s biggest bright spot at the tournament. The squad finished seventh in the team competition, and Andrew Mackiewicz (7th place in sabre) was the only other Nittany Lion to break the top eight.
With her collegiate career now concluded, Kakhiani is still digesting the loss.
“I put my heart and soul into preparing for the whole competition,” Kakhiani said. “It was extremely difficult to lose like that. The more preparation you put in, the more you believe you can achieve something, and then when you lose it hurts even more.”