Some women are considered pioneers in women’s sports. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Billie Jean King, Wilma Rudolph and Althea Gibson, to name a few. Women who helped pave the way for other women to create lasting legacies in the sporting landscape.
There’s another pioneer you may be familiar with, by name or personally: Linda Vollkommer-Lynch Hon. M.Eng. ’04 , who just completed her 45th season as the head coach of Stevens’ decorated women’s fencing team.
“[Back then] I had worked part-time for two years as a women’s fencing coach and they said that they needed female faculty,” the likeable Vollkommer-Lynch began. “There were two other women on campus in the humanities department who were full-time. [Physical Education] counted in the grade-point average, so anyone that taught PE had to be a member of the faculty.”
Leaving her job as a teacher at North Bergen High School for what was originally supposed to be just one year, Vollkommer-Lynch became a full-time employee in 1976 and was the first woman faculty member to receive tenure at Stevens. She immediately wore many hats, from teaching 14 PE classes a semester to serving as senior woman administrator, while attempting to start many varsity programs, including softball and women’s volleyball. But despite the variety of positions held by the Hoboken native, her first love at Stevens was, and continues to be, coaching fencing — although that wasn’t the case at the start of Vollkommer-Lynch’s athletic career.
“When I was in high school, I was all-state in basketball. Back then, there weren’t really women’s sports per se, but the Catholic all-girls high schools all had basketball teams, so they were ahead of their time,” she joked. “So I ended up playing basketball.”
Arriving at what was then Jersey City State College, (now New Jersey City University), Vollkommer-Lynch found that the intercollegiate offerings for women were lacking, so she took up fencing simply because “they happened to have a fencing team.”
During her time there, Vollkommer-Lynch began the women’s basketball program, while also competing in swimming. But once she stepped onto the strips, she was immediately hooked.
“I liked it right away because it was different and it was fun, and the history of the program was unbelievable,” she said. “I mean, in the 1976 Olympics, two members of the team were graduates of Jersey City State.”
After arriving at Stevens in 1974, Vollkommer-Lynch jumped right into her duties and immediately found herself in a position to be a role model to women students, as Stevens had only begun admitting undergraduate women three years before.
“Because [women students] saw so few women during the week, it was nice that I then had them once a week,” she reflected. “It was just nice for them to have a woman to talk to, to relate to, to connect with.”
Mixing a group of athletes that included members of the pre-existing team with first-year fencers who competed in other sports in high school, the fencing program posted its first winning season in 1977-78 and reached 16 wins in its sixth year as a program. To date, the program has competed in nearly 900 meets and has made two trips to the NCAA Team Championship.
One of her favorite stories involves Krista (Sticco) Carr ’12, the now-wife of Stevens Athletics Hall of Famer Zach Carr ’11 M.Eng.’13.
“Krista joined the team because she watched the Olympics and [the U.S.] won a bronze medal in fencing and it inspired her,” Vollkommer-Lynch shared. “She was a walk-on, and was a starter right away because we [had injuries]. We went to our first match at Temple, and she’s about to fence her very first match of her career and everyone is watching, all these Duke fans, and she asks, ‘Linda, why is everyone watching me?’ I said to her that it was because Duke is a popular school. But [in reality] she was facing the Olympic bronze medalist who was her idol and she didn’t even realize it. She loses 5-1 and afterwards, I have a picture of her fencing and I said, ‘That was the Olympic bronze medalist.’ So then, four years later, we’re out at Northwestern and we’re fencing Duke again, and she goes 5-4.
“Situations like that — getting someone in who’s never fenced before, teaching them what it’s like to be an athlete — stick with me. Remember, [the early teams] had to learn to be athletes and I treated them like athletes.”
Looking fondly at a picture hanging on the athletic communications office wall, Vollkommer-Lynch recalls countless details about that first varsity fencing team and remembers the names and stories of every member of that team.
“It was like women’s fencing started the women’s revolution here,” Vollkommer-Lynch said. “It wasn’t basketball. For most schools, basketball was first, but at Stevens, it was fencing.”
Despite being first, Vollkommer-Lynch didn’t feel that either she, or the women’s fencing program, faced any of the discrimination one would associate with breaking the gender barrier.
“Everyone thinks we had these hurdles to jump or that it was difficult for us,” she reflected. “But women’s fencing was treated fabulously. In fact, I’ve never been in a situation where I have been treated badly as a woman.
“I guess I am one of the lucky people, really.”
Now approaching 600 career victories, and battling to this day with her good friend, men’s volleyball head coach Patrick Dorywalski, over who has the most career wins at Stevens (“He includes [his victories as both] a women’s and men’s volleyball coach, and that’s totally unfair!”), all while serving as a mentor to countless student-athletes, Vollkommer-Lynch speaks fondly of her teams and her generations of student-athletes. She is known for her annual alumnae matches, attracting generations of players, and for her many photo albums — lovingly collected snapshots of team trips.
She reveals that her greatest accomplishment as a coach is the team’s participation in the first NCAA Championship in 1982. But she believes that her lasting legacy is serving as the “fun fencing coach that was still very successful.”
“We won and we had fun,” she remarked. “You can win and still enjoy yourself. I’m proud of each of my teams and of their accomplishments. We are athletes.”
Just like their coach.