This Fuqua professor always makes time for fencing

Busy” and its close cousins (“intense,” “crazy”) are how Leslie Marx ’89 likes to describe her schedule, yet it soon becomes apparent that her “busy” starts at a higher baseline than non-academics’. Her first e-mail notes that she’s in Shanghai teaching in the Global Executive M.B.A. program at the Fuqua School of Business, where Marx is the Robert A. Bandeen Professor of economics. Days later, she’s back in Durham, teaching that same course remotely and preparing to audit a course at the law school (on antitrust economics) that she might lead in the future. A few weeks after that, she jets off to a conference in Germany. Of note: She’s managing this while also raising three kids.

So empirically, Marx is busy, and that’s before carving out time for fencing—which she has had to do since the mid-1980s. A former Olympian, and now the team’s volunteer assistant coach, Marx is a “regular” at every practice from November onward, when her teaching load lessens and the varsity season nears. “She has a virus—the fencing virus,” says head coach Alex Beguinet, whose thirty-three-year tenure with the team means he has both coached Marx and coached with her. “When she got it, that was it.”

Tall and athletic, Marx grew up playing basketball, but she didn’t harbor hopes of trying out at Duke—especially considering her academic obligations as a math, economics, and computer science student. Coincidentally, Beguinet had just stepped in as coach on short notice—“we were both freshmen,” he says—and, without the benefit of a recruiting cycle, needed to fill out his roster for practices. He went to P.E. fencing classes, picking out one or two talented novices from each session. In that first class? Marx.

“Now you could never—without having a lot of experience fencing before—just jump onto the team,” says Marx. “Fencing was a little different back then.”

The team had no designated space, practicing in Card Gym “at the mercy of other basketball or volleyball” players, she recalls. Another key difference was the variety of weapons: Given her height (and reach), it was clear that Marx would best thrive in épée, in which making contact with the opponent anywhere (with the weapon’s tip) earns a point. However, at that time women only fought foil; women’s épée didn’t become an Olympic event until 1996. As a result, Marx’s collegiate career isn’t that decorated athletically: While she graduated as an Academic All-American, she competed only in NCAA Regionals.

Yet as she waded further into her studies, the fencing virus maintained its hold. Marx traveled to Northwestern for her Ph.D., which she completed in five years—even though she took a year to train in Poland with their national fencing team. After graduating, Marx landed at the University of Rochester. It wasn’t an accident: The Rochester Fencing Club was then the Olympic training center for the U.S. women’s team. Next stop: the Atlanta Olympics, where she took sixteenth in the individual épée. “Tenure was kind of looming for me at that point,” Marx says, so she skipped practicing but continued to enter competitions. Remarkably, she still qualified for the 1997 World Championships.

In 2002, Marx landed at Fuqua and immediately rejoined Duke fencing. With Beguinet recently adding foil and sabre specialists to his staff, Marx has shifted into the volunteer assistant role. But she still is the lead voice coaching Duke’s épée contingent, which includes seniors Camille Esnault and Bryn Hammarberg, both of whom were All-Americans in 2017. Last spring, Hammarberg, who won the ACCs for men’s individual épée, helped lead Duke men’s fencing to its first-ever ACC Championship.

Months before, in October, Marx finished her Global M.B.A. teaching duties in Santiago, Chile, and flew directly to the Veteran World Championships in Slovenia. She had had this competition circled for a long time: It offered a window of opportunity in which her main rival, a year younger than Marx, and not yet at the minimum age to compete, would be absent. “She’ll be there in a year, and she’ll beat me again,” Marx says, explaining her logic at the time, “so I wanted to get in there before I had to lose to the same people I lost to in the ’90s.” Starting her training with Beguinet years in advance, including frequent spars with Duke team members, Marx managed to claim gold in the Vet-50 Epee division.

Marx admits that she “probably” could have been a better fencer, or a better economist, if she had just chosen one path. “But I’ve enjoyed enough success [at] both ends that it’s been a lot of fun,” she says. Plus, it’s not as if the duties of academia distract her during her training. “I don’t have much trouble with other things disrupting my concentration, because you have an opponent there who’s trying to hit you. And, it kind of focuses the mind to see someone attacking you.”

Beguinet, after listing all of Marx’s duties and accomplishments, is left asking, simply, “How?” But that last quote could hold the answer to why, even though Marx’s life might be busy, her mind is at peace: When fighting for tenure or the matchwinning touch, it can’t afford to be otherwise.

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