Touche! Sibling Fight Brings Out The Best

Zimmermann Sisters Ready For Olympics

June 17, 2000| By Philip Hersh, Tribune Olympics Writer

The first time she had to beat up on her little sister in competition, Felicia Zimmermann cried.

That was in 1996, at fencing's national championships. Felicia, then 20, was a former champion and Iris, then 15, already was a title contender in foil, one of the sport's three types of weapon.

The sisters had fenced each other countless times in practice and in a number of competitions. Although Iris won some of those matches, the more experienced Felicia always had enough of a tactical edge to feel in command.

Felicia, after all, had made history at age 16 by becoming the first U.S. fencer to win a junior World Cup title.

"Fencing is a pretty combative sport, where people push each other around and try to manipulate the referee," said Buckie Leach, who coaches both at the Rochester, N.Y., Fencing Center.

"At this nationals, Iris challenged Felicia and pushed her harder than before. Felicia never had fought that hard against her sister. Felicia won, and Felicia was crying."

That reaction stunned Iris Zimmermann.

"I really had no idea that my sister felt so strongly until after the match," Iris said. "We have a very close bond so it is hard for us to fence each other. Neither of us wants to win, but neither of us wants to lose."

The sisters, ranked 1-2 in the country, both will fence for the U.S. in the individual foil and team competition at the 2000 Olympics. Felicia, 24, the shy sister, is the one with the blue stripes in her hair. Iris, 19, the outgoing sister, cringes at the thought of blue hair.

"How many people get to go to the Olympics with their sister and best friend?" said Iris, the top-ranked sister.

The sibling rivalry has become even more complicated for Felicia Zimmermann now that her kid sister is the one making history.

"Felicia always told people she had a sister who was going to beat everybody," Iris said.

Last year, when Felicia won a third national title and Iris placed fifth, Iris went on to become the first U.S. woman to win a medal at the World Championships, sharing the bronze with Svetlana Bojko of Russia. Felicia placed 55th.

"They both really support each other," Leach said, "but there has to be a degree of jealousy there. Felicia is proud and excited for Iris. At moments the thought has to sneak into her [Felicia's] head, `That could be me.'"

Felicia, who finished ahead (14th) of Iris (17th) at the June 8-9 World Cup event in Rochester, declined an interview request.

There were three sets of sisters on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team: Toni and Tami Jameson in team handball, Betsy & Mary McCagg in the eight-oared rowing shell and Elaina and Beverly Oden in volleyball. In none of those sports do athletes have head-to-head competition, as the Zimmermanns do.

Felicia Zimmermann competed at the 1996 Games. She finished 21st in foil and was part of the three-woman foil team that had medal hopes but wound up next-to-last of 11 entries.

No U.S. woman ever has won a medal in Olympic fencing. While reigning world champion Valentina Vezzali is a lock for the foil gold, according to Leach, the coach believes Iris Zimmermann is among seven women in contention for the other medals.

"Felicia knows she was ... the one who cleared the path and made it easier for me," Iris said. "There never is a moment when we're jealous of each other."

The sisters "did not get along real well," in Iris' estimation, until she began international competitions at age 13. Then she realized there was something to be gained from her older sister's experience in coping with school and the sport.

"When I was in high school, she told me, `Iris, you don't take four AP [advanced placement] courses,'" Iris recalled. "I thought, `I can do it, I'm so good.' In the end I told Felicia, `You were so right.' She gave me so much good advice I didn't take."

Both were honors students and accomplished musicians at the School of the Arts in Rochester. In the final push for the 2000 Olympics, they are taking time off from Stanford, where Felicia is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and Iris is a freshman who speaks Mandarin, Spanish, French and German.

"The bad thing about that is I can understand when other fencers swear at me in their own language," she said.

The Zimmermanns are daughters of a Taiwanese mother, Christina, and German father, Thomas. The parents first met in Germany, where Christina was a nurse and Thomas a merchant marine. When she moved to Rochester, he followed with a marriage proposal.

Felicia tried fencing after her father read about it in a newspaper, and Iris soon tagged along. A crisis occurred when her parents insisted she could not fence if she did not practice the piano.

"My coach was angry, and so was I," Iris said. "I thought I would never win anything if I have to practice the piano."

National titles were not the issue. Leach, the national women's foil coach, always thought U.S. fencers set their goals too low, believing they never could beat the Europeans who dominate the sport. He built his fencers on the Italian model, with emphasis on fluid movement and footwork.

Felicia Zimmermann is the more accomplished stylist. Iris is a more aggressive, powerful fencer, although she lately has been bothered by a knee injury that required surgery in 1998.

"I'm a lot bigger and stronger than a lot of girls," Iris said. "Some of them are scared of me."

Mental strength separates Iris from her sister, the coach said. Leach sees Felicia weighed down on the fencing strip by external concerns, such as a feeling that she will let others down by not winning.

Even while admitting how hard it is to watch her daughters fence each other, their mother agrees with the coach.

"You always think the first one will do better than the second, but Iris is much stronger physically and mentally," Christina Zimmermann said.

The sisters try to avoid meeting each other in major events by working the complicated math in the world rankings system.

"Felicia is a better fencer than Iris, but she doesn't have the same ability to not give a darn about everything," Leach said. "Felicia's way of being almost gets in her way sometimes."

Iris, on the other hand, longs for a moment when fencing, one of the original modern Olympic sports, would be popular enough that she would feel the pressure of the spotlight.

"Fencing is the original, daring, X Games sport," Iris said. "It's classic but it's also pretty modern, in-your-face. People are getting into a lot of obscure sports. Why not fencing?"

Every so often, fencing gets a boost from a movie, most recently, "Zorro."

"I sat there watching Anthony Banderas and thinking, `Yeah, I'll take him on,'" Iris said.

It would be easier than taking on her sister.