The fencer, the showman, the poet: UNC’s Ezra Baeli-Wang has made the most of his career

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Senior fencer Ezra Baeli-Wang poses with his gear in Fetzer Hall's fencing room.

As a lazy afternoon dragged on in Hillsborough, N.J., he sat at his kitchen table and surfed the web. No goal in mind. Just wasting time.

He had decided he was attending North Carolina in the fall. Why not read up a little more?

Ezra wasn’t doing anything until he saw the number 28. From the way the athletic department proudly and frequently cited its number of varsity teams, it was almost as if it wanted Ezra to know. Now he was interested.

“I found out there was a fencing team, read up on (head) coach (Ron) Miller and decided, ‘Why not send him an email and just give it a shot?’” he said. “I had nothing to lose.”

It was a whim. He sent it and forgot about it.

Two weeks later, there was a response. This was the first year the fencing team didn’t hold open tryouts. But Ezra had experience, and the coach was willing to meet with him.

On the same day Ezra moved into Craige Residence Hall, he went to Fetzer Hall for lessons with Miller and assistant coach Josh Webb.

“Wasn’t anything special,” Miller said. “Just a look-see.”

They were impressed. Within 24 hours of arriving on campus, Ezra Baeli-Wang the student became Ezra Baeli-Wang the student athlete.

He hasn’t looked back.

***

There were three important things to know about 10-year-old Ezra.

He loved knights in shining armor and samurai and anything involving a sword. He had an unlimited amount of energy. And he needed a way to burn that energy.

His parents, Derrick Wang and Lenore Baeli Wang, were most interested in that last point. So when Derrick saw an advertisement for an introductory fencing course at the local YMCA, he didn’t hesitate.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Ezra said. “Like most people, I had no idea what fencing was.”

In 2006, he didn’t care about technique — something he now names as one of three keys to fencing success. He just cared about the swords.

Four classes later, Ezra got his hands on a blade. But he didn’t feel like a knight or a samurai. He felt like a fencer.

In foil duels, fencers use 35-inch blades that weigh less than a pound as they try to touch opponents’ torsos and backs. The duels are too fast to score by the naked eye — points are awarded through an electrical system that counts touches on each fencer’s vest.

It’s a specialty that requires quickness and discipline. For Ezra, it was a perfect fit.

That changed at Hillsborough High School. In a state known as a hotbed for fencing, Ezra’s high school was the only one in the county without a varsity team.

Ezra had fenced with a competitive travel club — led by current Pennsylvania head coach Andy Ma — since his early days in the sport.

But in his sophomore year, he switched to track.

The first time Miller saw him, Ezra had been out of the fencing game for years. But the same hyperactivity that drove him from his house to a YMCA gym was still there.

“He has energy to spare, and he will put every last drop of it into what he wants to accomplish,” Miller said. “He never gives up.”

***

Deep within the Castellan Family Fencing Center at Notre Dame, a newspaper clipping is taped to the inside of Virgile Collineau’s locker.

It serves one purpose — to ensure he never forgets what Ezra did on Feb. 6, 2016.

Notre Dame had already clinched a win over UNC in Durham that day, but Ezra and Collineau were up.

“There was no pressure,” Ezra said. “In those situations, you fence a little bit better.”

With nothing to lose, Ezra decided to try something new. His brainchild.

He’d been working on the steps in practice: jump as high as he could, pull his knees to his chest, rear his arm back and whip his blade forward.

The foil’s flexible carbon steel blade would arc over his opponent’s back and touch it. Unorthodox, to say the least. But if executed perfectly? Almost impossible to defend.

“It was this crazy move with very low probability of hitting in a real bouting scenario,” Ezra said. “But I did it.”

Collineau was shocked, but everyone else erupted. Fencers on UNC’s bench howled in laughter — they’d seen the move that had failed so many times finally work.

“We were all going nuts,” teammate Gabe Foster said.

Ezra wasn’t done. The Carolina Panthers were playing in Super Bowl 50 the next day, so Ezra added a little Cam Newton tribute.

“I tore off my mask and walked back to the end of the strip and dabbed,” he said. “The other team called a timeout. They were like, ‘No, we’ve got to call a timeout. We’ve got to talk this over. This man’s momentum is ridiculous.’”

Ezra eventually lost that duel. Collineau went on to win the ACC men’s foil title and has been named an NCAA Third Team All-American two years in a row.

But his teammates won’t let the moment go. It’s immortalized.

“The Notre Dame guys found that article, cut it out and put it in this man’s locker,” Ezra said, “so that he never forgot the day that Ezra jump back-flicked and dabbed on him.”

***

The sestina is an incredibly complex form of poetry.

The first stanza is simple enough: six lines, all with a different rhyme, that make a rhyme scheme — ABCDEF.

Each following stanza has a specific rhyme scheme. The third is CFDABE, for example. The catch: the end-words used in the first stanza can’t change.

The sestina restricts its writer like no other poem. It’s also Ezra’s favorite to write.

“It’s all an exciting challenge for me,” he said. “Making it flow and embedding those words so they feel natural and refocusing the reader’s attention on different areas of the poem — but also allowing the repetition to serve its purpose.”

Poetry is just one challenge Ezra embraces. He’s the co-president of UNC’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council and the president of the ACC’s. Government has caught his eye as a future career.

Ask him about brewing, and he’ll talk about Low Expectations Ale — the IPA he created and named with his father and a friend in New Jersey. Ask him about pets, and he’ll mention his chinchilla, Salem. He’s a Sigma Phi brother, a Phillips Ambassador and has never missed the Dean’s List.

“One of the things that makes Ezra who he is,” Miller said, “is his ability to focus on a lot of things at once and get everything done at a high level.”

This weekend, Ezra will compete in the ACC Championships for the final time. Next up are NCAA regionals, which he’s qualified for each of the past two years.

But his days as a UNC fencer are numbered. An athletic career that began with a whim and defined his life for four years is almost over.

“I reflect on that very often,” Ezra said. “I joke with my friends that I’ve really gotten more out of being a fencer than probably any collegiate fencer ever aside from NCAA champions and Olympians.”

@chapelfowler

sports@dailytarheel.com

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