On the night before the 2020 Northwestern University duals, the Temple women’s fencing team filtered out of a restaurant in Chicago and onto the street corner. Before the group started a walk back to the hotel, one of sophomore Cassie Navalta’s teammates delivered news that stopped them in their tracks.

The Temple women’s fencing program had earned its highest ranking in team history by securing the No. 5 spot in the national College Fencing 360 rankings, a feat more satisfying than the meal they just shared.

“Everyone was screaming,” Navalta said with a laugh. “We must’ve looked very funny.”

The Temple fencers had consistently appeared in the top 10, peaking at No. 6 in 2017. No. 5 marked an unprecedented achievement for the team. On that street corner in Chicago, Navalta felt as if she became a part of the program’s history.

But before 1972, that program didn’t have a history. In fact, it didn’t exist. The university only offered the sport to women in the form of a club populated by students enrolled in a fencing class. That changed when 21-year-old public health graduate student and fencing teacher Nikki Franke approached women’s athletic director Barbara Lockhart — “Being very naive,” Franke said. “Absolutely naive.” — and asked her why Temple lacked a bona fide women’s fencing team.

Lockhart told her if enough students expressed interest, Franke could start an official team that would compete against other schools.

“Not many schools would have given me that opportunity,” Franke said. “There is no school that would have let a 21-year-old recent college graduate start a Division I program. So you look back and you go, ‘That was crazy.’”

This past season, Franke, the first Black woman to coach an NCAA Division I fencing team, celebrated her 50th anniversary at the helm of the Temple program. The start of her tenure coincided with the passage of Title IX, which protects people from sex-based discrimination in education programs and activities.

Without Franke and without Title IX, the Temple women’s fencing program would not exist as it is known today.

“She is just one of the most outstanding women, this century or any other,” said Pixie Roane, a former Temple fencer and head coach of the Wallingford-Swarthmore Panthers Fencing Club. “People talk about Eleanor Roosevelt. Yes, you’re right. But I’ve got to tell you, Dr. Nikki Franke, to me, she’s one of the greatest women in this century or any other because of what she’s done, not only in the world of athletics, but also in the health education field.”

‘She was going to go far’

Growing up in Harlem and attending New York’s Seward Park High School in the 1960s, Franke first learned about fencing during her senior year. She heard that a new teacher had started a fencing club, which piqued her curiosity as a student involved in athletics.

After she attended practice one day after school, Franke was hooked. She loved the chess-like nature of fencing, trying to set up an opponent while anticipating how that foe would react in any given situation.

“Starting out, I was pretty awful,” Franke said. “And I remember the first time I had some friends come and watch and I thought I was all that and a bag of chips. And after it was over, they were like, ‘I’m sorry, did we make you nervous? You really had a bad day.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, OK then.’”

As Franke traveled to tournaments, fellow fencers encouraged her to continue to pursue the sport at Brooklyn College. Denise O’Connor, a 1964 U.S. Olympian renowned in the world of fencing, ran the women’s program.

Before the institution of Title IX, most fencers started competing in college. Franke was the lone exception upon joining O’Connor’s team.

“I knew that she had something and that she was going to go far in fencing,” O’Connor said of Franke. “She was athletic. She was very smart. She had good timing. And she learned skills quickly and she used them. Just what I needed for an athlete because fencing is very difficult and it takes a long time to learn. But she was already on her way.”

Franke and her teammates were known as “Denise’s girls” in fencing circles. As a Black woman in a European male-dominated sport, Franke said being associated with O’Connor gave her a layer of protection from discrimination that other fencers of color may have encountered.

O’Connor also fostered a supportive environment on the fencing team, which helped Franke carve out a community at a big school that lacked students of color.

“It was kind of a family, which I think has a lot to do with my philosophy, even today, very team-oriented,” Franke said. “And it gave me some place where I belonged in a very foreign environment.”

Franke thrived at Brooklyn College, placing third individually at the 1972 National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association’s championships and earning an All-American nod. After graduating with honors as a four-year letterwinner, Franke aspired to become a high school health teacher, passionate about helping young people lead the healthiest lives possible.

O’Connor and Franke’s mother, Beatrice Tomlinson, persuaded Franke to leave New York for a Temple graduate assistantship that would allow her to get her master’s degree in health education while she taught the university’s fencing class.

“They were like, ‘You have to get your master’s anyway, so why not just go?’” Franke said. “‘They’ll pay for it. And then in two years, you’ll come back.’ Of course, I never got back.”

‘Really powerful’

Roane saw Franke for the first time when Temple traveled to Hunter College in New York for a fencing competition in 1989. At the time, Roane fenced for Hunter College and didn’t know of Franke’s legacy.

By that point, Franke had built a dominant program, leading Temple to a second-place finish in the NCAA foil team championship in 1987, third in 1985 and 1991, and fourth in 1983, 1984, 1988, and 1990. Franke herself continued to fence until 1980, competing at the 1976 Olympics and making the 1980 U.S. team that boycotted the Games, all the while becoming a full-time faculty member in 1978.

As Franke instructed Roane’s opponent from the sideline, Roane could tell that Franke was unlike any coach she had ever met. She was intimidated by her opponent, who screamed at Roane when she hit her.

“I’ve never seen someone coach with such intensity,” Roane said. “I’ve never been exposed to that. And I just went, ‘She is really powerful.’”

When Roane returned to Hunter College in 1992 after she served in the military, Franke said that Roane’s coach, Julia Jones-Pugliese, strongly encouraged Roane to transfer to Temple. With the Owls, she could fence for Franke and also continue her studies in physical education. In addition to serving as head fencing coach, Franke was an associate professor in Temple’s department of public health.

Intimidated by Franke, Roane avoided her and the team that season. Roane never showed up to practices while the program went on to win the NCAA team foil championship. The following year, Roane hoped Franke had forgotten about her. She did not.

“My college counselor stepped in,” Roane said. “She said, ‘You were sent here by Julia to train with Dr. Franke. So you will be at every practice, and you will be on time.’ And I didn’t realize the college counselor had been working directly with Julia and with Nikki to get me back into fencing.”

Franke never gave up on Roane, having her fence both foil and épée, which the NCAA instituted for women in the mid-1990s. That surprised Roane, as all of the épéeists she saw in magazines were tall and quick, while Roane described herself as “small and slow.” Nevertheless, she excelled at both disciplines, earning a team gold medal at the épée championships in 1995.

Roane faced personal medical challenges while she was a student athlete at Temple, visiting the hospital “sometimes for weeks at a time.” She recalled one occasion when she had been released from the hospital right before the fencing team traveled to Baltimore to fence against Johns Hopkins.

She decided she would meet her teammates before they loaded onto the bus to wish them well in their competition.

“When I got there, Nikki looked at me and said, ‘Get on the bus,’” Roane said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, I can just sit and cheer for the team. That’s good.’ And then she said, ‘No, get on the bus. You’re competing.’”

Fresh out of the hospital, Roane fenced both foil and épée at Johns Hopkins. She won all of her bouts. Franke, matter-of-factly, made it known to Roane that she wasn’t surprised.

“She had such a faith in what I could do,” Roane said.

A coach’s guidance

After several women opened doors for her in the sport, Franke has opened plenty more for her Temple fencers by helping them reach their potential, in athletics or otherwise.

Navalta, for example, entered Temple as an environmental science major. But early in her Temple career, Navalta stumbled upon the public health major and decided to make a change. She graduated this year after four seasons on the fencing team and will head to George Washington University to pursue a master’s in public health in the fall.

“Maybe Coach secretly influenced me,” Navalta said.

But Franke’s influence stretches beyond the Temple program. In 1992, Franke co-founded the Black Women in Sport Foundation with Tina Sloan Green, Alpha Alexander, and Linda Greene. Sloan Green and Franke met at Temple while Sloan Green coached the women’s lacrosse team, the first Black person to do so, and taught in the college of education.

The group attended conferences held by the Women’s Sports Foundation at the time, but Franke found that the organization wasn’t addressing some of the issues that they were seeing both as Black coaches and athletes. By running their own conferences, they were able to mentor and connect people who want to go into sports administration and coaching.

“Both Nikki and I were probably the first of our kind at Temple,” Sloan Green said. “I think that was a part of Title IX. But then we found out that we might be the first, but we didn’t want to be the only.”

One of the group’s primary initiatives is to introduce nontraditional sports including fencing and lacrosse to young people in disadvantaged areas. Teachers and coaches like Roane ran fencing programs at North Philadelphia elementary schools.

By introducing children to unfamiliar sports and to coaches and athletes who look like them, Franke said “it changes their perspective” on the opportunities they can pursue as they grow older.

“We need to all work together to make sure that these opportunities are available,” Sloan Green said. “Fencing is one of those sports that a lot of people, especially girls of color, would never get an opportunity to play unless Nikki was there and Pixie was there.”

Thirty years after the founding of the Black Women in Sport Foundation, Black women still are underrepresented in Division I leadership roles. According to WeCOACH and the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport’s 2020-21 Women in College Coaching Report Card, Black or African American women make up just 5.2% of Division I women’s coaches (184 of 3,578).

The NCAA Demographics Database reports that 3% of athletic directors at Division I schools are Black women (nine of 351). Meanwhile, Black women comprise 7% of Division I athletes.

“I didn’t think we would need the Black Women in Sport Foundation at this point in my life, but we need it more than ever,” Sloan Green said. “Because you need to have a seat at the table where decisions are being made. And we found that we were still not there.”

Roane views Franke’s investment in everyone she comes into contact with as a gift. She pays it forward by mentoring her students as a health and physical education teacher at Strath Haven Middle School in Wallingford and as a fencing coach.

By instilling a passion for fencing within students, Roane helps Franke continue her legacy and fulfill her ultimate aspiration.

“The door’s been opened,” Franke said. “I don’t want it to shut behind me.”