MAPLEWOOD – For many years, Maplewood’s Jack Woods has accomplished many extraordinary accomplishments in the sport of fencing as a foilist.
After an absence from fencing for over one-and-a-half years, the Columbia High School junior has made an amazing comeback this season, winning a medal at the 2019 Junior Olympics in February in Denver, against 318 top foil fencers from around the country.
Earlier this month, he won the 2019 New Jersey High School State Individual Foil Fencing Championships after being the only fencer to be undefeated in both the second and third round of fencing.
In his freshman year, he took silver after only being defeated in his final bout by one point. Woods is the first CHS fencer to win this State individual title since CHS and Harvard graduate Brian Kaneshige won in 2010.
For the second time, Woods earned the highest accolade of being named on the First All-State Team.
Woods catapulted into Division 1 fencing on the national stage at 10 years old. His victories on the national and international stage include being the first fencer to win gold two years in a row at the CEP Marathon Le Fleuret in Paris, the largest youth foil fencing tournament in the world with 495 fencers from 27 countries competing over an entire weekend in the first year.
The United States Fencing Association website reported him as being the first American to win this prestigious event in eight years, and has posted videos which have been viewed by thousands around the world.
Woods continued to win medals in three different age divisions at top national tournaments and was on target to realize his dream of competing on the National Cadet Foil Team.
What he, his family, and none of his doctors knew at the time, was that despite his success on the fencing strip and in the classroom, his physical development had slowed down to the 2 percentile range, shutting down puberty. After many months of tests, it was discovered that he had been living with an undiagnosed and severe form of “Oral Motor Dysfunction, Dysphagia,” since birth. This dangerous condition, if left mis-managed, can cause life-threatening consequences. It was responsible for his inability to obtain sufficient nutrients to maintain normal development and weight gain in his teenage years, when his body requirements are so much higher.
His happy disposition and appearance masks the anxiety that he and his family face every single day. He continues to spend hours each day working to prevent any further complications that can arise, and to overcoming the 15 years of habituation. This is not easy to do during your most difficult years at high school.
Said Woods: “Firstly, I would like to say that it is so easy to overlook what any teenager that appears happy on the surface, may actually be going through. I am happy to share my story, if it can help anyone else who is facing serious medical issues, and like me, is trying to work through them. I now know through the help of my counselor this year, that there are many caring professionals at Columbia High School that you can turn to for help.
“Last year was a nightmare for me, as I did not know this. I am lucky to have a very devoted family and a mother who questions everything, and gives up on nothing. I can’t tell you that I wasn’t stressed out of my mind, and that all my fears and anxiety have suddenly evaporated.
“I went from literally feeling like the luckiest boy in the world, doing well at school and achieving all of my personal goals, to having everything suddenly taken away from me. It has also been really hard to watch the huge toll that it has taken on my family.”
Woods was asked if his fencing has helped him in any way.
“It was really depressing not being able to fence,” he said. “Not just because I love fencing, but it is my mental, physical and social outlet. There is no question that my years of competitive fencing have taught me much more than how to fence.
“I kept reminding myself everyday that I was fighting my next bout, and tried to only focus on the present as I do at fencing tournaments. I was always told that I am very tenacious and determined on the fencing strip, and I guess this has served me well over the last couple of years.
“Fencers face different levels of uncertainty every time they step onto the strip. Literally anything can happen, regardless of whether you are fencing a champion or inexperienced fencer. Every victory has to be fought for. You are always at the mercy of bad calls by referees, as they may not be familiar with your style of fencing, or your movements may be so fast and subtle that they miss them. Fencers are constantly fighting against the clock. They have to adapt very quickly when making strategic decisions, which is why fencing is often likened to a physical game of chess. And just like in other sports, equipment failures and injuries are very common.
“To be a good fencer, you need to develop patience, and you can never give up,” continued Woods. “In Paris, I was in a difficult bout in which the score was 14-14 and my opponent had priority. This means that he did not have to do anything to win, but I had to make a winning touch on him in order to win. I had thirty seconds left and after I made my winning touch, I had 0.01 seconds left on the clock. I was so happy that my coach and friends took a photo of the time left.
“I think it’s really important to believe in yourself, both on the fencing strip, and in life. I also try to put a positive spin on any problem bouts and disappointments that I have had, by trying to find the lesson I can learn, and then I can move on. It’s funny that I can still remember all of those lessons.
“My mother (Krysia Woods) has always told me that no one’s life journey is a straight line, and no one is immune from life’s difficulties. I guess athletes are more prepared in life, as they are constantly facing ups and downs in their sports.”
Woods hopes his experience will help others.
“My advice to anyone else who is going through a very painful and stressful time, would be to face each obstacle one at a time, and to try not to dwell on the bad, as it is so easy to become overwhelmed. I was devastated in September last year when I learned that I had regressed very badly. I desperately wanted to fence again, and was in a worse position than I was in after my initial diagnosis, despite many many months of everything starting to move in the right direction. I think my years of being known for my dramatic comebacks on the fencing strip, helped me summon the strength to keep trying and to never give up.”
Longtime CHS fencing coach Daryl White was delighted when Woods was once again well enough to fence on the CHS Foil A strip, which helped the boys’ foil squad win bronze at the 2019 Cetrulo, Districts, and State Championships.
Coach White said, “Everybody loves Jack! Not just the fencers from Columbia, but all the coaches and fencers from the other schools are always talking to him and love watching him fence. I am proud of his outstanding fencing, but most proud of the person that he is. He is just so nice and so humble.”