Sister oversees only high school fencing program in archdiocese

By Joe Kerr | Contributor
Sunday, January 16, 2011

She may not be as dashing as Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” her hair is certainly not as black, but at 60 inches tall, if she were an 18th century pirate, her sword might stand taller than her.

Fortunately for the fencers at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Dominican Sister Dorothy Marie Solak has not called on them to retrieve any heisted gold or reverse any curse. She wants to teach her boys and girls how to salute, retreat and then attack.

But not for stolen treasure.

“A fencer is not going to knock down another fencer,” said Solak. “It really is a physical chess game.”

As you wander the hallways at Marian Catholic, you witness first hand what the 59-year-old nun and fencing coach is talking about. Boys and girls, freshman through seniors, all wear white uniforms from neck to knee. Headgear resembles that of a black medieval knight. Underneath the whites are significant layers of protection.

As the fencers engage, the sounds of the blades striking each other are brief and fleeting as points are awarded, stopping the action. To score, contact must be made between opponents. The blade tips, though, are dotted and not sharp.

Walking down the corridor during a recent practice and clutching a 3-foot pistol-gripped foil, was the zen-like mentor helping calm their frayed nerves.

“Although that was a lopsided score, you did a good job being patient and waiting to come in,” said Solak to one fencer, in a tone both calming and authoritative.

When she speaks, it comes from a place of expertise, both of a sport she first picked up 40 years ago as a University of Michigan undergrad, and of an educator, who has devoted most of her adult life to God and child development.

“She’s very supportive. It’s not always about cracking skulls and being mean to people,” said Alex Block, a former Marian Catholic fencer. “But she can give us a little kick in the pants if we need it.”

“She walks around the tournaments and people are like, ‘Is that a sister walking around?’” said senior captain Veamber Miller. “We think it’s normal.” Solak signed on as a fencing coach for the then-new program in 2004.

“It’s another avenue that God wanted me to be involved with the kids,” said Solak.

She started with about a dozen fencers in 2004. Today, almost 40 students participate and a community has formed.

From scratch, she and her team of saber-wielding faithful have built the only high school fencing program in the archdiocese. But even more significant, they have created an opportunity for young men and women to participate in athletics.

“There are a lot of kids who would not make another team,” said Bob Skurka, whose daughter Melen is a sophomore fencer. “Some can excel not knowing much about the sport and by the time they are a sophomore or junior can be pretty good.”

“When you do whatever you do you need to be sure you are a part of something outside of yourself,” said Sister Marie. “It is to be a service to others, to be a good role model.”