There are two scars, one below the left side of the chest and one below the right, forever embedded into the body of junior fencer Daron Jacob.
Each measuring about the length of an index finger, the scars were not formed by the sword of Jacob’s sport, but, instead, were first made by a scalpel from surgery more than five years ago.
Jacob was a young teenager in middle school when he was first diagnosed with pectus excavatum, a condition in which several ribs of the sternum grow abnormally, causing a deformation that makes the chest appear sunken or funneled. In Jacob’s case, as well as many others, the deformation caused pressure to the lungs and heart, which eventually became threatening enough to require surgery.
“I had a rough time in middle school,” Jacob said. “It was a visual effect that could be the point to make mockery of.”
Through the years of having pectus excavatum, Jacob had various encounters where he was picked on and made fun of for his abnormality. Two successful surgeries changed that, though. Entering his freshman year of college in 2011, Jacob said he was ready to turn to a new chapter in his life. The Texas Fencing Club became one of the first steps in Jacob’s fresh start. Since then, it has played the most important role in shaping his college experience. The club sport has served as Jacob’s ultimate comfort zone and place of growth in his life.
“It [has] changed me a lot as a person,” Jacob said. “I was very timid coming in. It’s helped me become much more assertive and have much more leadership skills. You hear a lot about [leadership], but you don’t really know it until you realize you have it.”
Jacob’s love of fencing uniquely began from the television show “Hey Arnold” when he was eight and furthered developed watching the Olympics.
“[The 2008 Olympics] is when I was like, ‘I have to do this,’” Jacob said. “Once the 2010 Winter Olympics came, fencing wasn’t on it, but it reminded me of it. College [at the time] was coming, it was on the horizon for me, so I told myself when I get to college, the first thing I am going for is fencing.”
Jacob’s two-and-a-half year career since entering Texas has seen him win 58.5 percent of his duals, with a career-high 66.67 win percentage in 2012. Jacob, who is a co-captain for the Longhorn’s team, fences in the epee category, which is the classification where all parts of the body are valid targets for opponents.
There was a time in Jacob’s life where breathing normally could, at times, be fairly impaired. Today there are no signs of that. By the way Jacob swiftly maneuvers around his team’s practice gym, shuffling his feet while moving his sword into different positions and often practicing for more than three hours on end, it is apparent that Jacob is accomplishing the mission he set out to do long before he ever put on his first fencing mask.
“Daron does not give up,” said his coach Paul Schimelman, who has coached fencing at Texas since 2001. “That is his best quality. I can always count on him to take the extra step and go the extra mile. Fencing can change people’s lives. I’m not surprised to hear that it changed [Jacob's life].”
Jacob said he owes several life lessons to fencing, like assertiveness, strength, poise and self-criticism. More than anything, though, Jacob values the relationships he has gained through it. Without fencing, he said, meeting his teammate and girlfriend of one year, as well as some of his other best friends, would not have been possible. Jacob’s college experience begins and ends with his beloved sport.
“I’m really proud of him,” said senior neurobiology major Kaethan Bysani, who is Jacob’s teammate and mentor. “He started off a little awkward but, as his skill grew, so did his self-confidence. He was willing to challenge himself. He’s definitely worked really hard to make the club successful.”
Like his mentor, Jacob is majoring in neurobiology. Unlike him, though, Jacob’s reasoning behind his career choice can be traced back to the physical condition that once impaired his lifestyle. Jacob aspires to work in the pediatric cardiovascular field, where he could help many children escape the same physical ailments that he himself once faced.
As far as fencing is concerned, Jacob said his future in the sport after Texas is not clear at the moment. He said that he plans to always keep some type of involvement with it, but believes it will be difficult to sustain a regular practice routine after he graduates. Jacob said that for many people, fencing can be difficult outside of a university club, because it relies on an individual to solely pay thousands of dollars for most of the expenses that come with playing the sport, such as equipment costs and club fees. This is true even at an Olympic level, Jacob said. He blames this factor, among others, as one of the reasons the sport has not been more popularized in America.
In the meantime, there are more timely obstacles facing Jacob right now. He and his team will compete in their second tournament of the season this Saturday as they head to College Station for Swifa II. The event will be yet another test for Jacob in accomplishing his ultimate sporting aspiration, which he said is to bring Texas a national championship in fencing.
“I want to make that Tower orange myself, and that can happen at the national competition if I get first place in an individual event or our team event,” Jacob said. “It’s very important to accept challenges. I just want to let people know, especially in our club, to always look for a challenge. Go for a challenge and you will always improve yourself [in some way].”