How a teenager from Tijuana became one of the best young fencers in the world

Aryadna Alcantar, 17, left, trains with Natalia Botello, 17, at the Centro de Alto Rendimiento, CAR in Tijuana.
Aryadna Alcantar, 17, left, trains with Natalia Botello, 17, at the Centro de Alto Rendimiento, CAR in Tijuana.
(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union Tribune)

Natalia Botello won the under-20 world fencing championship when she was 14. Now 17, she and a team of Tijuana athletes have their eyes set on the Tokyo Olympics

When Natalia Botello picked up a sabre after being recruited by a talent scout for a fencing program six years ago, the 11-year-old had never heard of the Olympic sport.

She hated her first training sessions. Her coach, a loud and competitive Cuban man, would often yell at her during practice with an accent so thick that Botello could barely understand his directions.

“I wasn’t used to anyone yelling at me so I asked my mom to take me out of the program,” Botello, now 17, recalls. “I wanted to try racquetball.”

But within a year, Botello would go on to become Mexico’s national fencing champion for her age group. Fast forward a few more years, and Botello now has more fencing world cup medals than any other Mexican in history, including a gold medal for the under 20 world title when she was just 14 years old.

“It feels great,” Botello said of her success. “Every day reminds me that nothing is impossible as long as you have effort and dedication.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a teenager from Tijuana is a youth world champion in an Olympic sport. Over the last decade, Tijuana has become Mexico’s fencing powerhouse. Teams from the region have won the last nine consecutive national titles and graduates of the program competed in the most recent Olympic Games in Brazil.

The program’s head coach, the same one Botello used to be afraid of, credits part of the team’s success to Tijuana’s fighting spirit.

People from all over Mexico head to Tijuana with the ambition of one day living in the United States. However, many of them stay at the border and focus that drive on building a new life in Tijuana and passing on that fighting spirit to their children, says coach Alain Tandron, 47.

“Tijuana kids are very tough, intelligent, and dedicated,” said Tandron - the same coach Botello was afraid of when she began fencing.

Natalia Botello hopes to be on Mexico's 2020 Olympic fencing team.
(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union Tribune)

Fencing is a combat sport, dating back to the days of Roman gladiators and Homer’s The Iliad. In a way, it makes sense that kids who grew up in a city that’s had its fair share of crime and narco issues would excel in a sport that has its roots with pirates and musketeers, Tandron said.

A match can last mere seconds, with fencers moving so quickly that spectators can barely see the blade move. With each move, athletes have to simultaneously attack their opponent and protect themselves against counters.

Toledo describes the sport as, “the art of touching without being touched.”

“To be a good fencer you need to have the mind of a chess player, the speed of a sprinter, and the agility of a gymnast.”

Tandron also credits the team’s success to their state-of-the art facilities and professional training regimen.

The Cuban-born coach who is now a Mexican citizen first arrived to Tijuana 11 years ago through an exchange program between the state of Baja California and Cuba.

The state-funded program identified talented kids from local schools and offered them training in Tijuana’s Centro de Alto Rendimiento — an athletic training complex with football fields, an Olympic-size swimming pool and track, and equipment to train in anything from gymnastics to wrestling to fencing.

Although the kids pay for their own equipment, the training is free.

The kids train about three hours a day from Monday to Saturday. Botello and some of the other top tier athletes train twice a day. When you enter the building that houses the fencing studio, a two-story banner of Botello greets you at the door.

During the training sessions, 17-year-old Botello is like a celebrity to the younger athletes.

“There are a lot of little girls who come up to me during training to give me a hug and tell me that they want to be just like me,” she said. “I tell them, ‘don’t be like me, be better.’”

She reminds the younger athletes that success doesn’t come easy.

Botello, who was born in San Diego but has lived in Tijuana her entire life, has made sacrifices for fencing. She stopped going to school to focus on the sport full-time, missed holidays with family because of international competitions, and also spent two birthdays apart from her family.

She doesn’t plan to stop sacrificing any time soon. Botello and the rest of the fencing team is currently trying to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. To do that, they must perform well in four upcoming qualifying tournaments — starting with one this month in France, then Salt Lake City, followed by one in Belgium and the fourth in Greece.

Botello and other members of the team also have a chance to qualify as individuals through regional pre-Olympic tournaments.

Fencing coach Alain Tandron, 47, speaks with a group of fencing students.
(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union Tribune)

Helping her out will be Julieta Toledo, another Tijuana fencer who participated in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics and now attends Ohio State University on a full athletic scholarship.

“This sport has given me everything,” she said. “It gave me the chance to go to school in the United States. It’s like winning the lottery, I have a chance to go to school and have a bright future.”

Like Botello, Toledo started fencing when she was 11 years old after talent scouts visited her school in Tijuana.

Now that she’s living in the United States, Toledo finds herself representing Mexico and Tijuana. When classmates find out she’s from Mexico, they ask about drugs and cartel violence, and, when they find out she’s from Tijuana, they ask about crime, she said.

Toledo reminds people that Tijuana isn’t all crime and mayhem; you just have to know where to look.

“There are bad places in all parts of the world, but there is more good than bad,” she said. “You need to see beyond the headlines to find the good in Mexico and Tijuana.”