There are moments in the day when Maya Lawrence lets her imagination run off on a sprint, taking her to a place where fame and wealth are 1 and 1-A on the list of accessories. That virtual life wouldn't be so unreachable but for the fact that Lawrence doesn't actually pine for it, not even as a Princeton graduate with a master's degree from Columbia.
The Teaneck native has everything she needs in the here and now, and in case you missed it this summer, all you needed was a TV set tuned to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. There, in high definition, was Lawrence's brush with magic – clutching the bronze medal for the U.S. women's fencing team.
Calling the experience surreal gets at only a fraction of its true impact on Lawrence. It was more like a return on a lifetime investment of sweat and tears, a matching set of torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees and a liberal sprinkling of obsession.
"All athletes have that in them – being a perfectionist, getting it just right," Lawrence says. "That's where the drive comes from, when it's positively channeled."
That's especially true for fencers, who live so far off the grid she has to suppress a smile when asked about the celebrity that never was.
Fame? If that were Lawrence's most important currency, she would've parlayed those Ivy League degrees in the private sector. Lawrence's intellectual engine would've take her straight to the top – she traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, to research her senior thesis. But Lawrence is also a competition junkie who is in on the secret shared by athletes in every sport, from the pros to the amateurs all the way down to the Pop Warner quarterback throwing his first touchdown pass.
So who could blame Lawrence for clinging to the memory of her victory over Russian Lyubov Shutova in the women's team epee competition? With the U.S. locked in a tie with the heavily favored Russians, Lawrence defeated Shutova 4-2 in touches, paving the way for this country's first Olympic medal for women's epee.
It was the culmination of 17 years of devotion to the niche sport, including a turbulent start at Teaneck High School. Lawrence took up fencing as a freshman, mostly because she and her friends were hooked by the swordplay in the 1987 movie The Princess Bride. But two weeks later, Lawrence's career almost ended.
"I got a bad grade in math, so I got scared and quit," Lawrence says with a laugh. She returned as a sophomore, however, and never looked back, improving exponentially over the next six years.
By the time Lawrence had enrolled at Princeton, she was on her way to becoming a national powerhouse, earning All-American and Ivy League honors in all four years. Lawrence graduated with a double major in political science and African American studies, but instead of academia, her sights were fixed on international competition.
It wasn't a crazy path; no one doubted Lawrence had the talent to make fencing her career. But there was the nagging problem of making money. That was the trade-off the sport demanded. There would be no endorsement deals, no commercials, no bold-name mentions on Page Six, even as an Olympic champion.
Lawrence, however, quickly made peace with the insular world she was about to join. Fencing has been around since the mid-1400s, originating in Spain, although the more modern version was developed by Italians in the 18th century. The United States Fencing Association was founded in 1891 in New York, and it has come a long way from the days of European "dueling."
Today, there are as many as 20,000 registered fencers in this country and many more who are unaffiliated with the USFA. Either way, the journey is expensive. According to Forbes, the family of an aspiring Olympian can expect to pay as much as $25,000 a year in coaching, trips and equipment, although Lawrence says the final bill is much higher, especially if you don't have a sponsor or financial assistance from your club.
Lawrence's parents had envisioned a more conventional path to success – law school, maybe, although they were open to compromise. In exchange for a graduate degree, the Lawrences would continue to underwrite their daughter's pursuit of the gold medal. Hence, she enrolled at Columbia, where she earned a master's in English as a second language instruction in 2007.
With an educational background she could use overseas, Lawrence began working at a high school in Paris, although she actually started two years earlier in 2005, without speaking any French. The assimilation has been slow but steady – Maya lives in Paris nine months out of the year – but her Teaneck roots are still strong.
"I've gotten used to [European culture], although it's definitely different," Lawrence says. "There are things I still don't like."
Homesickness, however, is eclipsed by the superior training she receives in France. Under the tutelage of her coach, Daniel Lavavasseur, Lawrence has methodically climbed the world rankings. She's currently No. 19, with an eye on the top 10. And at age 32, in a sport that rewards experience and maturity, Lawrence believes she'll remain in her peak for another four years. But that's not to say she'll still be fencing by the time she's 40.
Lawrence isn't planning that far ahead. After all, winning an Olympic medal isn't much different from reaching the end of the universe: You look around and ask, is there anything left? Maya took time to decompress after London, vacationing with her mother in Europe and then returning to Bergen for Thanksgiving. The folks in Teaneck threw her a homecoming party, although she was back on a plane soon after. This winter, Lawrence will begin another series of international competitions that'll take her to Germany, Brazil and Qatar.
Lawrence knows the rest of her career won't be played out on the back pages of the tabloids, but rather in the inner circle of the fencing world, where she's practically royalty. She might be anonymous walking the streets of New York – or even Paris, even after living there for almost a decade – but no one at a fencing competition needs a score card to pick her out.
"People come up to me and say congratulations, or sometimes they'll just stare," Lawrence says.
She admits it's a "weird" sort of flattery, but nevertheless an acknowledgement of that long, beautiful ride that started all the way back in high school.
Even as a ninth-grader, Lawrence had a hunch fencing would someday be the air she breathed. She wasn't wrong.
"I really love this sport," she says. "There's a certain feeling you get from the competition and bouts and touches. For me, I don't find that anywhere else in life."