It's amazing the impact a sport can have on your life. Fencing has been a big part of Nikki Franke's life for more than 40 years. The sport has taken Franke, who grew up in Harlem, N.Y., in the 1960s, all over the world as an Olympic athlete.
Fencing provided her an opportunity to receive a good education. The sport has also given her a chance to have a long and distinguished career as the women's fencing coach at Temple. In her 38th season as the Owls' coach, Franke has put together a sensational 601-158-1 overall record.
"It changed my life," Franke said. "I got to travel the world. I've been to places I never even dreamed about. My very first international trip was to Russia. My very last international trip was to China and a lot of places in between. I've been very fortunate to be involved with fencing for a long time as a person who competed for years and as a coach."
Franke has achieved great success as an athlete and a coach. The New York native said she remembers when she was getting started with fencing during her scholastic years.
"I actually didn't start fencing until my senior year in high school," Franke said. "I went to Seward Park High School. I had been involved in other sports right before getting into fencing. I did pretty well. I was told that Brooklyn College had a good fencing coach and program.
"Denise O'Connor was my fencing coach. She was very knowledgeable. That's really where I got into fencing with more depth. My senior year I became an All-American and took third at the [NIWFA] collegiate championship."
Franke had a splendid four years at Brooklyn College. In 1972, she graduated, and O'Connor told her about an opportunity at Temple University in Philadelphia. The career move provided her with a chance to start the Owls' fencing program, receive a master's degree in health education and continue to compete nationally and internationally in fencing.
"There had been a string of Brooklyn College graduates who had come to Temple to do their masters and to teach a fencing class here," Franke said. "The woman that was here was about to graduate, so they needed another instructor. I was a health and physical education major in college. I had planned on teaching in high school. That was my career goal. You had to get your master's degree any way. So, I said to myself, 'I might as well go and get it.' I got a graduate assistantship at Temple, and that's how I got to Philadelphia through fencing."
Franke got her master's degree and became the director of fencing and the women's foil coach. The amazing thing about Franke is she was coaching while preparing for the Olympics.
It changed my life. I got to travel the world. I've been to places I never even dreamed about.
”-- Nikki Franke, Temple fencing coach
"I got my masters and started teaching fencing classes," Franke said. "Also by coming to Temple, I had a chance to work with the Olympics coach. His name was Lajos Csiszar. He was a fabulous coach. He was actually the coach at the University of Pennsylvania and he had a club [in Philadelphia]. Everyone said I needed to train with him. He was very supportive of me. When I came to Philly that's when I started making national teams with Csiszar. That's where I had most of my international success."
Franke was a member of the 1976 and 1980 U.S. Olympic teams. She won the United States Fencing Association's (USFA) National Foil Championship in 1975 and 1980. In 1978, Franke was the runner-up in the national finals. She finished third in 1976, 1977 and 1979. She was also on the U.S. team that finished fifth in the 1973 World University Games in Moscow.
She participated on the American team, which competed in the World University Games in Bulgaria in 1977. She also competed in the 1975 and 1979 Pan American Games, in which she won a sliver medal in 1975 for the individual competition and a bronze in 1979.
"It was a great experience for me," Franke said. "In 1975, I won my first national championship at the Pan Am Games. In 1976, that was my first Olympic team. My college coach Denise O'Connor was on that team. That was kind of unique and different. I was the youngest member of the team and she was the oldest. I think being on the Olympic team with your college coach was pretty unique."
At Temple, It didn't take Franke long to develop an outstanding fencing team. In 1976, the Owls qualified for the NCAA championship. Temple won the championship in 1992, which was huge for the program.
They finished as runners-up in 1987 and 1993, grabbed third place in 1985 and 1991 and earned fourth place in 1983, 1984, 1988 and 1990. Franke garnered the United States Fencing Coaches Association Women's Fencing Coach of the Year honors in 1983, 1987, 1988 and 1991. She is clearly one of the best coaches in the sport. Last year, the Owls posted a 13-8 record, finishing ninth in the NCAA tournament. Temple won its 14th consecutive NIWFA title.
Tina Sloan Green, former Temple lacrosse coach and Hall of Famer, spent 18 years coaching the Owls. She compiled a 207-62-4 record during her career. She also won three national championships. Sloan Green feels what Franke has done with the Owls' fencing program is nothing short of magnificent.
"Nikki has done a tremendous job at Temple," Sloan Green said. "She started the program, and they've had a lot of success. She's a real legend in the sport."
Franke is very modest when it comes to all of her accomplishments in fencing. She was named USFCA Coach of the Year in 1983, 1987, 1988 and 1991. She has been inducted into the International Sports Hall of Fame, United States Fencing Association Hall of Fame and Temple University Athletics Hall of Fame.
She has spent a lot of time sharing her efforts with youngsters. Franke is one of the co-founders of Black Women in Sport Foundation along with Sloan Green, Alpha Alexander and Linda Greene. The non-profit foundation based in Philadelphia encourages black women and girls to participate in all areas of sports, which include coaching and administration.
"The foundation is doing a good job of introducing sports like fencing and others to a lot of young people," said Franke, who is also an associate professor in public health at Temple. "You want to create opportunities for people at a young age. Tina has been working extremely hard with the organization. We used to go to so many women sports conferences and wouldn't see any women of color. We're looking to help out and get more women involved in sports."
Franke's successful journey in fencing should serve as a big inspiration.
Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. His HBCU Notebook on ESPN.com can be found here. Got a story idea for Hunt? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.