June 17, 2000| By Philip Hersh, Tribune Olympics Writer
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.
"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.
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."
"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."
"The bad thing about that is I can understand when other fencers swear at me in their own language," she said.
"My coach was angry, and so was I," Iris said. "I thought I would never win anything if I have to practice the piano."
"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.
"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."
"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.