Karen Lieu always knew she had a competitive streak, but as a girl, she never found an outlet for it. The sports she tried didn't work for her.
"I tried to see if I could do gymnastics and did a handstand against the wall. Well, I ended up breaking a few lamps," she said. "My parents were furious, so that stopped. Tennis wasn't for me. I'd hit the ball out of the court."
During the summer of 1992, after graduating from high school, she found her sport. She was watching the Barcelona Olympics when the telecast turned to fencing. She'd seen swordplay in movies but had never seen the sport, with its masked athletes, fierce attacks and electronic scoring systems. She thought it was fascinating.
That fall, when she enrolled at Pasadena City College, she found fencing in the class schedule. She signed up, and in the midst of her first class, she was smitten. Soon she was taking two classes at school as well as outside lessons. Within a year, she qualified for and competed in the AAU Junior Olympics.
Lieu, 42, competed through college and now takes part in national adult tournaments. She also coaches children and adults, works clinics, organizes tournaments and serves as an official. Lieu, who works for the county of Los Angeles as an operations assistant auditing budgets for the use of Sheriff's officers at county courts, says fencing has been a force in her life since those '92 Games.
At 5-foot-4, she can stand tall with a foil in her hand.
"With any other sport, you had to be a certain size or had to have a certain physical [characteristic]," said Lieu, who lives in Rosemead, a suburb east of downtown Los Angeles. "For a gymnast, you had to be really flexible and maybe petite in proportion. Volleyball or basketball, you had to be really tall. But in fencing ... if I worked at it, I was able to become good. I worked really hard, and I was able to excel quickly. It was exciting."
Fencing round the clock
Today, Lieu coaches after school, in the evenings and on weekends at the Beverly Hills Fencers' Club in Culver City. Her schedule conforms to her work hours. She trains at night and on weekends -- when she also competes -- and puts in time at the gym on her lunch break.
"Fencing has taught me to have really good time management," she said with a laugh.
In the gym, she works with weights on isolated muscle groups, especially in a surgically repaired knee, to gain strength and quickness and on cardio machines to gain endurance. But she doesn't run.
"I could lunge as much as I wanted and not get tired, but if you ask me to run a few miles, you'd get me really winded," she said. "You're using different muscles in fencing -- for powerful, explosive moves."
Since she turned 40, she has competed in the veterans division. Her first year, she was ranked nationally and placed among the top 16 in the nation. Last year, she didn't compete as much because her knee injury flared up. Now fit again, she is learning new techniques and hopes to place higher at nationals.
"I like to watch a lot of videos," she said, noting that recent Olympic matches from Rio de Janeiro are on YouTube. Fencers from each nation have different styles and tactics she can study and emulate.
Lieu's weapon of choice is the foil. She has tried the sport's other two styles -- saber and epee -- but foil suits her best. The foil is a long, light, thin blade just over 35 inches in length. Matches are as long as three minutes but can end within seconds. Points are scored only with the tip of the blade. The target area is the torso only.
Lieu disliked the slashing, more physical attacks in saber ("I didn't really like getting hit in the head a lot," she said) and wasn't comfortable with epee, in which the entire body can be targeted.
Perhaps what she loves most about fencing is the mental duel. She must be quick, have good technique and be able to physically execute her footwork and blade action with precision. But the chess-match nature of the sport is its most compelling aspect, she said.
"What's your move, and what's the other person's move, and your counter move?" she said. "You have to outwit them."
She appreciates the culture of fencing and that it's a lifetime sport. In fact, she plans to compete into her 70s. The fencing community is small enough, too, that she has made friends everywhere. One time, she recognized a former Olympian, but that Olympian knew of her because of her years as a coach and competitor.
"I'm like, 'Wow, you know me!'" she recalled.
The sport's impact
Years ago, after Lieu injured her knee and had surgery, she went home to her two-story condo and dragged her mattress downstairs so she could sleep on the ground floor while recovering. It was then that her mother finally understood her daughter's passion for fencing. Until then, her mom had questioned why she wanted to do a "boy's sport." She couldn't understand why her daughter put so much time and energy into it.
"I camped out for two weeks, so I wouldn't have to go up the stairs," Lieu said. "And my mom's like, 'Look what this is doing to you!' I cried and cried and said, 'I'm not quitting.' After that day, she never questioned my love of fencing."
Lieu can't imagine what her life would be like if she hadn't come across Olympic fencing on TV back in 1992. The sport has given her so much. When she was little, she says she was an introvert, and fencing helped her grow.
"In fencing, you have to take the initiative to attack the person, so it gave you courage, so to speak, so I'm less introverted," she said. "I think that is good to teach kids and adults to deal with obstacles. [You think], 'Oh, that person I can't beat.' OK, I'm going to try a different tactic and learn how to overcome."