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Pinecrest Academy's Caraballo finds her niche in fencing
Pinecrest Academy junior Isabella Caraballo poses for a portrait during practice Thursday, Jan. 25, 2017. - photo by Ian Frazer

Fencing was not Isabella Caraballo’s first love. Before that, there was basketball, soccer, cheerleading, volleyball, swim team, and tennis, which she got cut from right before joining Pinecrest Academy’s fencing team.

Three years after starting the sport as a high school freshman, though, Caraballo is competing on national and international stages. Later this month, she’ll compete in her second Junior Olympics Fencing Championships, and in March, Caraballo will head to Costa Rica for the Pan American Junior and Cadet Championships, where she’ll compete for Puerto Rico.

“When I started freshman year, I would not have thought, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll go to the Pan American (Games),” Caraballo said. “That was not in my head at all.”

But maybe the success isn’t so surprising, given Caraballo’s genetics. Her father, Alex, competed in the sport at Baruch College in New York City, and then he stuck with it until 1996.

Alex didn’t push the sport on Isabella, though, and he wound up donating or getting rid of most of his old gear. He did recently buy a new jacket, now that he helps with coaching Pinecrest’s team.

“Every kid needs to find what they like,” Alex said. “It wasn’t my (place) to push what I did and what I enjoyed on her.”

Isabella joined Pinecrest’s team, which mainly competes against other schools in the northern suburbs, because her friends were trying the sport. It was clear early that she was physically suited for the sport, with her slender 6-foot frame giving her a long reach ideal for epee, Caraballo’s weapon, where an opponent’s entire body is a target.

To reach the level Caraballo has, though, she has had to use more than just her physical gifts. Caraballo is particularly adept at controlling a match and staying mentally sharp, Pinecrest head coach Chad Morris said.

“Her motions are always a deliberate action that forces the other fencer to react, instead of letting the other fencer go on the offense,” Morris said. “They’re almost always on defense with her, even if it looks like she’s on defense.”

By her sophomore year, Caraballo was committed enough to fencing to make a stab at the national scene. She finished second in the 2016 state Junior Olympics qualifiers in the Cadet (U17) division but failed to make it out of the pool round at the 2017 Junior Olympics. At the most recent Georgia qualifiers, though, Caraballo won her division.

International competition brings tougher competition and more exposure, though, so Alex brought up the possibility of Isabella competing for Puerto Rico, where both of his parents were born. Many of the family’s relatives were affected by Hurricane Maria, so the prospect of representing the island during its recovery from the storm also drew Isabella.

Isabella traveled down to San Juan for the Pan Am qualifiers in January, and she finished third in the cadet division and earned her first opportunity to compete on an international stage. She said that’s likely where she’ll focus her efforts in the future.

She has a number of goals in mind for her fencing career, like competing in college and making the Puerto Rican Olympic team. For now, though, Isabella is just enjoying the feeling of finding a sport that clicks for her, no matter the reason.

“It’s my favorite sport that I’ve ever tried,” she said. “I guess because I’m better at it than all the other sports I’ve tried.”