From the early age of five, first-year Cornell fencing head coach Daria Schneider knew what she wanted to do: become a professional athlete.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ is a very common question with some very common answers, especially for five-year-olds. Along with some other lofty professional goals — firefighter, policeman, astronaut — athlete is seldom left out of the conversation for young children.
The difference between Schneider and a majority of ambitious children is one thing: she actually went and did it.
“I always love playing games and being competitive and being physically active,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be an athlete.”
The moment when Schneider knew she was determined to make this dream a reality came in a completely different sport than her eventual sport of choice. Before starting fencing at age 10, she played a plethora of sports, including soccer, softball and tennis, among others. It was an unforgettable moment in the sport of soccer that truly convinced her that she knew what she wanted to do.
In 1999, US Women’s National Team’s Brandi Chastain notched the game-winning penalty kick against China to win the World Cup and took her shirt off, dropping to the field screaming in joy in an action that would became one of the most iconic photos in sports history.
For Schneider, this was when she knew she wanted to be immersed in the spirit of competition and passion for the remainder of her life.
“I saw the women’s soccer team win the World Cup in 1999 and Chastain ripped her shirt off and I had that picture of her in the newspaper in my head,” Schneider said. “It really created an impression on me.”
Her aspirations as an athlete presented her an unforgettable experience on the White House front lawn. Schneider met the Obamas while putting on a event to promote and try to secure the 2016 Olympics for the Obamas’ hometown of Chicago, which eventually was awarded to Rio.
“I fenced with another fencer in front of Obama and he refereed our match,” Schneider said. “I got to fist bump the president, which was amazing, and Michelle gave me a hug. I got to tell her that my mom was also from Chicago. The Obamas were amazingly generous with their time. I think they took time to speak to all of the athletes that participated in the event.”
While not every athlete can meet the Obamas, almost every athlete shares the goal of making it to the Olympics. It is the one event where billions of people — either sports fanatics or not — tune into sporting events. It is an international symbol of unity, sportsmanship and in some cases, diplomacy.
Through her career, this was one goal for Schneider she did not want to let slip away. In 2008 she tried to qualify for Beijing, but even herself said that she was not good enough back then to make the team.
“I didn’t have a very good shot then because I wasn’t ranked very high, but I wanted to see how close I could get and prepare myself for London qualifications,” she said. “I was ranked 13th in the country going into that season, but was ranked so low internationally that it doesn’t really even count.”
Although she missed out on Beijing, her time in the qualifiers boosted her national ranking and placed her in a better position for London.
“At the end of qualification, and after other fencers dropped out, I was in the top four in the country and I was ranked between 70 and 90 in the world,” Schneider said. “I drastically improved my domestic and international ranking and that allowed me to be on the national team for the next five years towards London qualification.”
However, women’s team sabre — the sport in which Schneider had the best shot at qualifying — was taken out of the 2012 games and she was not ranked high enough to make it in the individual. With a team event, a country can send four athletes, but since London had only an individual women’s sabre event, the top two were the only ones who were sent. Schneider had just missed out.
“In 2012 I qualified for the Olympics but in the games we don’t have [the full] 12 events, we only have 10 events, so every four years they take out two of our team events,” she said. “That year my event was taken out in the team competition, so only two athletes from any given country could go and there were two Americans ranked higher than me internationally.”
After London had come and gone, Schneider went on to have some of her best years as a fencer, boosting herself into the top 20 fencers internationally and went on to help secure bronze in the World Team Championships in 2012.
Despite this, Schneider still had her sights set on the Olympics in Rio, but a hip injury that had come with years of wear and tear kept her from being able to compete.
“People forget about all the athletes that don’t qualify and you only hear about the ones that do,” she said.
Even with all the heartbreak, Schneider has amassed an impressive amount of hardware, totaling over 50 medals through national and international competition.
While becoming an athlete turned into a dream come true for Schneider, she never quite expected she would enter the coaching world, which began for her on Columbia University’s staff.
“I never really thought I would end up being a coach,” she said. “It was something I did because I was an expert in my sport, so it was a job that could help support my own competition and travel because if you’re going to compete at that level you have to support yourself somehow.”
Along with coaching at Columbia — where she served as interim head coach for a period of time — Schneider coached at local schools in New York City, but truly felt at home in the Lions’ staff.
“College coaching was the first time that I felt like this is something I could actually do,” Schneider added. “It spoke to me in a way that high school coaching and working with elementary school kids [did not].”
When it came to a head coaching job, several schools were looking for a new head coach, but to her, Cornell was easily the number one choice.
“I really was won over on my final round of interviews when I came here and met with people in the department,” she said. “There is just an energy here and a sense of ambition, but people are very grounded. I felt like this was going to be a place where because of my ambitions as a competitor and a coach, that I was going to be supported to really build an amazing program.”
Schneider also was enamored with Cornell because of the type of students that it attracts.
“I wanted to work with kids who have that level of interest in their academic life and ambitions in their future and professional lives,” she said. “I feel like my experiences at Columbia were so special because it was the Ivy League and because of the people I was interacting with on my team.”
This outlook on her team plays into how she recruits. She does not just look for great fencers, but fencers who handle themselves well both before and after a match.
“I like paying attention to them after they finish a match, whether they win or lose,” she said. “I like watching how they respond after. I think it says a lot about a person. It’s kind of an art, not a science. I like people who have a sense of themselves and what they are bringing.”
As a first-year head coach, Schneider clearly has a lot of ambition and hopes for the program she is taking over. Though she hopes to teach her team as much as she can, she will be doing some learning herself on the side, as well as hiring assistant coaches who specialize in the two other weapons.
“I am going to be taking coaching lessons so I can become a better foil and épée coach,” she said. “I am going to do that because I want to compete at the highest level in everything that I do. I want to become the best possible foil and épée that I can be, as well as sabre coach.”
While Cornell has only a women’s fencing program and not one for the men, the team is not eligible to compete for an NCAA title, Schneider said. Though she hopes the men’s team can get back up and running in the future, for now, she’s making do with what is available in the Ivy League.
“I really want to develop this as a place that people come because of the training they’re going to get here,” Schneider said. “I want to make us highly competitive in the Ivy League and I want to compete against the best schools.”
Through a rollercoaster of a career, Schneider is above all one thing: extremely happy with the fact that she does what she loves every morning her alarm goes off.
“I don’t feel like I have a job, even though I work all the time, but I just really love it,” she said. “Early in the morning it’s the first thing I’m thinking about and late at night I’m thinking about things I want to do with the team. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”