Q&A: Ola Strzalkowski

The second-generation Penn State fencer brings an international—and swashbuckling—flavor to the sport.

Ola Strzalkowski in fencing uniform photo by Cardoni


Q: What got you into fencing and when did you start?

STRZALKOWSKI: I started when I was about 5 years old, and it was my dad (former U.S. Olympian and three-time NCAA fencing champ Tom Strzalkowski ’95 Lib) that got me into it. I was a part of karate for a little bit, but he didn’t like the way it was run. I got knocked out first round and still got a medal, and he was like, “Oh that’s dumb. I can do something like that, but with fencing and make it better.” He started at a local rec center and eventually moved his way up and he started his own club, and I’ve been training with him ever since.


Q: How did that club grow over the years?

STRZALKOWSKI: When it first started, it was small. We had maybe 20 students at the start. And then over time, we kept growing. We had to add more days to the practices because we couldn’t have everybody there at the same time. We rented a warehouse space out and then we had a few of our members help paint the floor. We opened up the new space in December of 2010, I believe, and then from there we’ve kept expanding, and now my dad runs three of our more permanent locations on top of some after-school programs, rec centers, a little bit of everything.


Q: You said you started when you were 5. When did you realize that your dad had a pretty good set of credentials himself and knew what he was doing? And when did you realize you could get to a good point if you followed what he was teaching you?

STRZALKOWSKI: I kinda knew that he was an Olympian for the longest time. I remember being a little kid and he’d have people who would come by and say hi to him, or people who were in town visiting. The Olympic training center is in Colorado, so sometimes they would just call and be like, “Hey, I’m up at the training center this weekend. Do you want to come out?” so I was always exposed to that. The point I realized I think I had the potential to get to that point, too, if I followed him and listened to him, was about … I want to say I was 10 or 11.  That’s when everything started to settle in and I started taking this sport a lot more seriously. I started competing more. That was when everything kind of kick-started.


Q: Why the saber? Did you dabble in foil or epee?

STRZALKOWSKI: I respect all the weapons, because obviously all of them have their own set of skills and techniques and strategy that you need to get to a certain level in them, but I have always been someone who likes things to just be really fast and really aggressive. And the saber is much more aggressive than the other weapons. I’m not very good at paying attention to detail; with the other weapons, you have to hit with the point, and I didn’t feel like dealing with that (laughs). When I go into it, I kind of feel more like a pirate, you know? I can just go in and just hit them however I want, and it’s fine. I don’t have to worry about hitting them in such a precise way that it counts.


Q: What did you learn from some of the international events you competed in prior to Penn State, and how did they make you better?

STRZALKOWSKI: Athletically, it taught me the different ways people approach the sport, and different styles, techniques, and different mentalities you’ll see throughout the world. But aside from the sports part of it, I always felt really blessed, because it taught me to really see from different people’s perspectives. And I feel like it made me much better (at) understanding other people’s circumstances. So when I’m meeting people from other countries, if they grew up near somewhere that I had a tournament, we can talk about that. Overall, I think it just gave me a better perspective on what’s going on in the world and it made me much more aware of current events in other countries, and how other countries perceive us, too, because I feel like so much of that we don’t get to experience all the time.


Q: Do you get the sense that that perspective isn’t common among other Penn State athletes simply because they have only played in the United States?

STRZALKOWSKI: The fencing team and the tennis team both have quite a few international students. It really lets us share cultural ideas and perspectives that a lot of people won’t get to. And because a lot of football players and soccer players and the more strictly American teams, because they spend so much time with each other, they don’t really get to venture out and have those other conversations and experiences that I think could be helpful to them.


Q: Why Penn State? And what advice did your father give you on selecting schools?

STRZALKOWSKI: When it came to selecting schools, my dad said, “I’m hands off. Wherever you want to, you’re more than welcome to.” And I’ve always loved learning, I love school, but I can also sometimes struggle in school. I was getting offers from Ivy Leagues and other universities. I wanted to follow Penn State. Plus, I like the state schools, but I like that this wasn’t in a big city where there was a lot of chaos. Right now, I live a little bit outside of downtown, and that lets me focus on what I need to get done and my studies without being a part of the chaos of living downtown.


Q: What would you say has been the highlight of your collegiate fencing career so far?

STRZALKOWSKI: Probably my teammates. Because I was so into fencing when I was growing up, I really struggled with building a community around me. I had my friends from fencing, but even then, once you’re at practices, it’s down to business. But being able to come here, you really get to know these people and they really take the time to help you around. The upperclassmen really help the underclassmen. And there’s a sense of community that I’ve never really had the chance to experience. And they’ve just all been so great and welcoming to me.


Q: What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses as a fencer?

STRZALKOWSKI: My strength is probably my stubbornness, which can also be my weakness, I guess. My stubbornness tends to make me so determined to get something done that nothing will stop me from getting it done regardless of what the end result is. The other side is the stubbornness can make things difficult for me and sometimes it takes me some time to take a step back and realize that OK, maybe this wasn’t the best way of approaching it. I should try again with a different way.


Q: Are the 2024 Olympics a goal for you?

STRZALKOWSKI: I don’t think so because I was actually out of fencing for a couple years before coming here with COVID and everything. And I’ve been slowly working my way back. But my hope is for 2028. I think I just needed to take a little bit more time, get everything figured out with school. That doesn’t mean that I’m not trying for 2024, it’s just right now it’s a little bit of an unrealistic goal.


Q: What do you hope to do after college?

STRZALKOWSKI: Truth be told, I’m not quite sure yet. I might take a couple of years just to travel and do some freelance journalism. Explore the world. Do what I love, get to travel, get to see different cultures, the ways things are run in different countries, maybe learn a couple of new languages. Just enjoy life a little bit before I come back and focus on work and what I need to do.


Q: What are you studying right now?

STRZALKOWSKI: Undecided, but I will likely be in photojournalism.


Q: What’s your favorite campus spot?

STRZALKOWSKI: Probably the Alumni Garden.


Q: Favorite sport besides fencing?

STRZALKOWSKI: I was best at swimming, but I love volleyball.


Q: What do you like to do for fun?

STRZALKOWSKI: Dancing and writing, for sure.


Q: Why Ola instead of Aleksandra?

STRZALKOWSKI: That’s actually a Polish thing. I don’t know why they decided this, but everyone that is named Aleksandra is Ola, the same way that everyone named Aleksander is Olek. The only people who call me Aleksandra are TSA agents.