From 1996 to 1999, Christy Beckert dominated the epee event and led the NYU women's fencing team to UAA titles all four years. She has turned the creativity that helped her excel in the sport into a career in animation.
"From the first day of practice to her final championship event, she was a great athlete, with terrific honor and sportsmanship," said Steve Mormondo, who is in his 31st year as head coach of the NYU women's fencing program. "She was a tremendous captain of the team, and foremost, she was a wonderful student."
Beckert remembers taking as many esoteric classes as she could as a child. “I wasn’t good at music and pottery, but I became good in fencing right away,” she said. “Both my father and his father fenced.” She progressed quickly in fencing and eventually left high school to attend Northern Colorado Fencers (NCF), a fencing school in Boulder, Colorado, with Olympic aspirations.
The decision to attend NYU was an easy one for Beckert. “NYU was the only school that had the strong fencing and film programs that I was looking for,” she said. “The first time I went to New York City, I knew it was my home. After I figured out New York City, I knew I could be a part of it.”
What Beckert valued most about her time as part of the NYU team was the family atmosphere that was new to her at first. “At NCF, everything was about the individual,” she commented. “I came to NYU thinking, ‘You should treat me like a rock star because you brought me here to win these tournaments, right?’ The team aspect was new to me and it was hammered into me quickly.”
Several of Beckert’s friends from NCF went to NCAA Division I programs and didn’t have nearly the same experience she did. “I would see my amazing friends on the bench,” she recalled. “Some of their teammates were older and there just to fence. It was not a real team.”
“I learned that the team was the most important aspect of the program, not the results,” she said. “It was great being part of a group and a family. That is the way Steve wanted it. He has done everything already, having gone to the Olympics three times! NYU is his fun time. We are like his children in this big family.”
“At NYU, you would become friends with people you may have not been friends with otherwise. I would not have as many different kinds of friends if I had not been on the team,” she remarked. “I would hang around with students who were from all over the world. I got to learn about things I would never have known or understood. There were so many perspectives. It had not been easy for all of them to get to NYU. I loved the perspectives of all those people who came to New York City.”
When Beckert and Mormondo saw each other recently in Beckert’s new home of Columbus, Ohio, the coach introduced her to the current NYU team as “Captain Christy.” Being captain was a role Beckert relished. “I learned to take care of people. I loved that it was a family and all about the team,” she stated. “As a captain, I could read new fencers and see who needed a little extra push or maybe some validation. Making everyone feel part of the team was deeply rewarding.”
One rule Beckert insisted on as captain was that the team would be dressed well. “Even if we aren’t going to win, we have to look good,” she said. “We would get off the bus all dressed up like we were going to the club. We represented NYC and that meant a certain style and self confidence. I wanted to win as much as anyone and that was important, but we always had to hold our heads high and look like winners."
Entering her first UAA Fencing Championship in 1996, Beckert unintentionally put a lot of extra pressure on herself to win the epee title. “I went into UAA’s pretty cocky and said some things I shouldn’t have,” she laughed. “I was always an underdog at elite competitions, but now I was a favorite at UAA’s and felt I had to win every time.”
In fact, she did win every time, sweeping the epee title during her four-year run. In 1998, she became the first woman in UAA fencing history to win an event three consecutive years before adding the fourth the following season.
Perhaps her most unusual victory was an unofficial title in the 1999 championship. The NCAA was adding the women’s sabre event to its championship and the UAA held a sabre exhibition that season. “Once again I said some stupid stuff, this time about competing in the sabre demonstration,” she recalled. “Steve told me I would be competing in it. I didn’t want to fence sabre and the others were taking it so seriously. I don’t enjoy sabre as my mind is not quick in that direction. I fence with flow rather than planning complex attacks. It turned out to be great because I won. It was rude to beat them I suppose, but it was fun to win. Steve and my teammates threw me up in the air when I won it. I was so flippant about it.”
“I have been blessed over the years to have been coach and mentor to so many talented student-athletes,” Mormondo said. “In the UAA, college athletics has the tremendous opportunity to actually support and promote these student-athletes. The UAA really exemplifies all those great qualities. Christy Beckert exemplified what the UAA is about.”
9/11 Changes Everything
After the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, New York City became a much different place for many people, including Beckert.
“I got extremely depressed,” she recalled with tears in her eyes. “There was a blanket of sadness I could not escape. I was there on Sept. 12th, helping firefighters at a temporary medical facility near Ground Zero. Seeing New York's bravest so sad and broken was devastating. And after, the posters of the missing, who we knew were all dead, were all over subway walls and sides of buildings.”
Beckert still suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and remains in therapy. “I have not looked upon Manhattan in more than 15 years,” she stated. “I only watch television shows from before 9/11 or from another country. One time I saw a cartoon of the Freedom Tower and it made me cry immediately. I have lived all over the place, but New York City was my home. I didn’t even pursue jobs that I could have gone for because I couldn’t go back there. I pushed those jobs away like they were on the moon.”
In April, Beckert is planning to return to Manhattan for the first time since she left, with her boyfriend at her side. “I could never go back alone,” she remarked. “It feels like my home and I want to see it again. If it has healed, maybe I can heal.”
When she left New York, she moved to Los Angeles and began her career as a visual effects (VFX) compositor and motion graphics artist. Compositing combines visual elements from separate sources into a single image, making the elements appear to be a part of the same scene.
“My friends were making X-Men 2 and told me to come out to Los Angeles. I wanted to get lost in comic book fantasyland and forget about the sadness in New York," she remembered. "In Los Angeles, I found everyone to be incredibly ambitious. I went to California and I felt invisible.”
Beckert’s goal was to make science fiction movies, but found the reality of filmmaking to be much different than her dreams. “The filmmaking lifestyle is very stressful,” she commented. “It is a very difficult job. You have to be a little psycho and somewhat obsessive, never straying from the path.”
Among other projects, Beckert has done work on Agents of Shield, The Flash, Gotham, and films like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and the first film she worked on, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. She also did VFX work on Charlie Kaufman's Anomelisa, a stop motion animated film.
The work itself was rewarding, but the challenges continued to mount. “Most visual effects companies left the country,” she said. “Most of that work is in England now. The work became more of removing someone from a shot than anything creative. I only worked as a contractor and we had no union, which meant sometimes there was not even a guarantee of payment.”
One of her favorite genres is horror. “I worked on a lot of awesome and gory horror movies. There is so much creative room,” she stated. “Often, you can collaborate with the director, which is a lot of fun. The thing is they don't move you up in your career." Beckert did the main titles for the horror film Trick 'r Treat.
Beckert has done a lot of animation work, which remains her favorite. She worked on visual effects for Rainbow Brite (2014), based off the original Rainbow Brite series that ran from June 1984 to July 1986 (also known as Magical Girl Rainbow Brite in Japan). Some of her favorite work was as art director and color artist for Bravest Warriors, an animated series created by Pen Ward, the creator of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, produced at Frederator Studios.
Photo: Recent Bravest Warrior animation work of Christy Beckert from drawing by Steven Sugar
“Doing animation for an internet series is so much fun,” she said. “You are not taking up a prime time spot and don’t have to worry about fitting it into 22 minutes every week.”
After living in New York City and Los Angeles for all of her adult life, Beckert recently moved to Columbus and jokes that she is living in a city where she can afford a house for the first time.
“I have been working on other people’s projects forever,” she remarked. “I worked in comic books and learned a lot of cool visual effects that I want to put into use. The number one thing I want to do is digital painting, my own style, with the various techniques I have learned over the years.”
She can be found spending much of her time on her Cintiq, a large-screened graphics monitor that allows the user to draw directly on the display surface, which she refers to as "the number one tool for animators." Beckert has a particular interest in portraiture. “Portraiture is about finding the most pleasing image of a person, not reality,” she said. “I am filled with ideas. My weakness is marketing.”
“I finally have some security and a house. I have two dogs who keep me happy during the day and a boyfriend who loves to show me all the great things around Columbus,” she stated. “I have the opportunity to pursue the work I always wanted. I love the visual language and tricking people with images. It is so much fun to communicate with people without words.”
Photo (and main story photo) by Michael Chambers
In addition to the other benefits of being in Columbus, Beckert has also revived her love for fencing. When NYU traveled to Columbus for the North American Cup earlier this month, Beckert was thrilled to connect with the current team. “Steve called me and said he was going to bring 42 fencers to my house,” she chuckled. “Of course that wasn’t going to happen, but I went to see them compete. One of the things I have always appreciated about Steve is that he brings the whole team, even if they are not competing. It is great that they all get to go and see what a North American Cup (NAC) tournament is like.”
The trip to the national event inspired Beckert and allowed her to see familiar faces, including legendary coach Gary Copeland, who coached her at NCF. Copeland, who was named 1999 U.S. Olympic Committee Fencing Coach of the Year and has served as the U.S. National Team coach for more than 20 U.S. national squads, welcomed Beckert by reminding her that one of her drawings was still displayed at NCF. “My first thought was ‘oh no, I am so much better as an artist now,’ but then I was flattered that it is still displayed.”
Another familiar face to Beckert, for different reasons, was Ohio State University head coach Vladimir Nazlymov, a 10-time world champion. “When I was younger, my mom wanted Vlad to coach me, but he was only coaching sabre at the time,” she recalled. “Now I am thinking about getting back into fencing because I miss it so much. Gary called Vlad and told him he had an older student who would like to be coached by him now.”
“The new part for me is how to compete without ruining my knees,” she stated. “They are younger, faster, and harder, but I have experience that helps me figure them out better.”
In addition to seeing her former coaches and watching NYU compete again, Beckert is also inspired by watching the U.S. Olympic Fencing Team. ”I am so proud of the teams now. We didn’t use to medal,” she said. The U.S. women’s epee team earned a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. “These women are incredible. The sport is changing, the distance and attacks are different. I don’t think I could keep up with it. I would need to change to a French grip. Watching the finals in the Olympics has shown how the sport now maximizes the women’s physique and athletic ability. I fenced more like men do, using my height and strength as my advantage. It’s more of a women’s style now and I love to see it.”
Mormando is as confident in Beckert’s talent as ever. “There was not a moment in her career where I ever doubted that she would develop not just as an athlete, but as a leader and trendsetter in life,” he commented. “She amazed me back then and she continues to amaze me now. I am proud and humble to have been there for a small part of her life, and look forward to where her future takes her.”
“I am lucky to have fencing and art,” she said. “Fencing is a puzzle and I enjoy figuring it out my way.”
Photo by Michael Chambers; Beckert with her mask that includes UAA and NCAA stamps