Legendary Black fencer credits good mentors for success

Fencing is a sport that features three related combat segments—the foil, the epee and the sabre. You score points by making contact with your opponent. First making its appearance in 1904, fencing has been in every modern Olympics ever since.

“I never dreamed of being a fencer, traveling around the world, going to the Olympics, or even coaching,” Dr. Nikki Franke admitted of her legendary career that spans six decades. A New York City native, Franke got started in fencing back in high school, a sport that was then and still is expensive to pursue.

“I started fencing during the turmoil of the late ‘60s,” she recalled. “I started in a public high school, not a private club, which is the norm today. We didn’t have the money for private clubs.

“I starting with a female coach in my senior year of high school,” continued Franke. “Most fencers don’t experience having a female coach. Then I went on to a college [Brooklyn College] where I had another female coach who was an Olympian [Denise O’Connor].”

Before she graduated from BC in 1972, Franke lettered four times, placed third in the 1972 national championships, and was named All-American. She later competed in two Olympic teams (1976, 1980), two World University Games (1973, 1977), a slew of international competitions, and became a two-time United States Fencing Association National Foil Champion (1975, 1980).

But perhaps Franke’s biggest contribution is as a coach. While pursuing a master’s degree in health education and still competing internationally, she was asked to start the Temple University fencing program in 1972 “with absolutely no coaching experience,” she admitted.

Now nearly 50 years later, Franke has amassed over 860 wins, reaching the 800-win milestone in 2018. She’s a four-time national coach of the year and led the Owls to a 1991 third-place finish with a senior, three juniors, a sophomore and four freshmen. 

Under her tutelage, Temple has been an annual presence at the NCAAs, first in 1976, the 1992 Foil Team champions, twice runners-up, two third-place finishes, and four fourth-place finishes.

Even more impressive is the fact that Franke is a rarity: “I am the only Black female head coach in the country in all three [NCAA] divisions,” she said proudly. “Being a female head coach of a women’s team truly matters. Representation matters.

 “I believe that being an example and a mentor to others is one of the best forms of activism that a person can engage in,” stated Franke, adding that 12 of her former fencers went into coaching themselves. “It is so important to advocate for and support female head coaches so that our young female athletes of color can look at us and see a mirrored image of what they can be, and not feel they are looking through a window and not see who they are.”

She also is a co-founder of the Black Women in Sport Foundation, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit. “None of us would be where we are today without the support of our families,” said Franke, who earned her master’s in health education from Temple in 1975 and graduated from its doctoral program in 1988.

She recently retired as an associate public health professor at the school and is a member of multiple Hall of Fames: Brooklyn College (1979), Temple Athletics (1995), United States Fencing Association (1998), International Sports HOF (2002). “I’ve been truly blessed to have good mentors over the years to help me grow and develop in ways I could never even imagined.”