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Nikki Franke, former Olympian, has built the Temple women’s fencing program from the ground up

Nikki Franke has spent 46 years building a nationally ranked women's fencing program from the ground up.

Temple women's fencing coach Nikki Franke in her office.
Temple women's fencing coach Nikki Franke in her office.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Nikki Franke is running out of space on the walls of her Temple office.

The area directly behind the legendary fencing coach's desk is covered with plaques. Being in four halls of fame can do that. The adjacent walls are littered with mementos, family portraits, and photos of the people who helped her on her 50-plus-year journey from a high school senior new to fencing to an Olympian, a national champion, and a pioneer in women's sports.

Franke, 67, just entered her 46th year of coaching the Temple women's fencing team, a program she built from the ground up. She has amassed an 807-242-1 career record and has led fencers to 27 All-American awards. She earned her 800th victory in February.

Franke grew up in New York City and started fencing her senior year in high school at Seward Park out of curiosity. She went on to fence at Brooklyn College and graduated in 1972 before going to Temple as a graduate student. At Temple, she taught a women's fencing class and ran the club team.

Her curiosity and naïveté led to a pivotal moment in her life.

She asked the athletic director, Barbara Lockhart, why the women's club team wasn't a varsity program. It wasn't out of a push for equality, but it became that and more for Franke, who now uses her position to help expose a diverse group of women, some local to North Philadelphia, to fencing.

The athletic director asked, "Should we have a team?" Franke recalled, "and I said, 'Yes.'

"That's how it started."

The program began with a coach just out of college and a handful of athletes. They didn't have scholarships. They barely had a practice facility.

Their numbers were so low that Franke had to ask her athletes to bring friends to practice. Her first All-American, Maureen Syrnick, was a converted field hockey player.

"We went from nothing to now a nationally ranked program," Franke said recently. "That's a tribute to all of the women that have come through a program who have helped us develop it."

It took just five years for her program to qualify for the NCAA championships, and her squad won its first title in 1992. Franke won her first women's fencing coach of the year award from the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association in 1983 and has earned three more since.

She has been inducted into the Brooklyn College, Temple, U.S. Fencing Association, and International Sports halls of fame.

"When you go to anything like our national tournaments and meets with collegiate teams, everyone knows her," junior foil Kennedy Lovelace said. "They call us 'Nikki's girls'."

But building one of the university's most successful women's programs isn't all Franke has accomplished in the sport. She competed internationally and was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1976 in Montreal and the 1980 team that boycotted the games in Moscow.

She still remembers meeting gold-medalist runner Madeline Manning Mims in '76.

"She was the star, and I was talking with her, and it was like she was so focused on me and what I was saying," Franke said. "She made everyone she talked to feel like they were the important person, and not her."

Franke, who is a cofounder of the Black Women in Sports Foundation, exposes young women of color to sports they otherwise might not try.

Since she took the coaching job nearly 50 years ago, she has searched for "balance" in her life. But sometimes it sounds like chaos. Whether it's training for the Olympics while coaching a dozen nonscholarship athletes new to fencing, raising a family, winning national titles, or helping young women in her community — all while tallying her 800 wins — she has always found equilibrium through hard work.

"Fencing gave me so many opportunities that I never would have had," Franke said. "I try to give that back to other young ladies. … For girls of color, it's all about opportunity. There's nothing you can't do, but you have to be able to do it."