COLUMBUS, Ohio — More than 10 years ago, Tomoko Streets wanted to find a sport that her Japan-born son, Kaito, would enjoy.
She picked fencing. Good choice.
Sunday in the championship round of the NCAA Fencing Championships at Ohio State‘s St. John Arena, Kaito Streets was lifted up by his Penn State teammates onto their shoulders after Streets defeated Ferenc Valkai of St.
Kaito’s dad was in the arena starting chants of “We are Penn State“ while also texting Tomoko back in California to share the happy news.
Streets won a Junior Olympic championship in 2011, but this was his crowning achievement. And it started with his mom years ago because she happened to see him playing with swords and knives during a kids‘ activity in Japan as a young boy.
“My parents made me try it, [they] wanted me to try something new, compared to baseball and basketball,” Kaito Streets said. “I did all kinds of sports. So did my brother. They wanted me to do something different than my brother. Fencing stuck with me.”
Over two days, Streets won 22 matches in saber, tying foil champion Gerek Meinhardt of Notre Dame for the most victories in the men’s tournament. Those victories helped Penn State win its first national championship since 2010. And the team title mattered more to Streets than his individual championship. He couldn’t bear to see the Nittany Lions step into their bus ride home without the national championship trophy.
“We came in here wanting to win as a team, especially for all the seniors who hadn’t won yet. It would have been the second class to not win a championship,” Streets said. “So I didn’t want that to happen. Especially like my mentor, Adrian [Bak, a senior who placed sixth in men’s saber]. I wanted him to win a championship. I wanted to do it for him.
“It meant a lot that we won as a team. The individual was just a plus.”
The victory also meant something to interim coach Wes Glon. He is hoping to become head coach.
“A lot of recruits are coming because they expect to be on a winning team,” Glon said. “This will help us with recruits and everything.”
Streets dominated the saber field in the men’s tournament after arriving in Columbus with his confidence shaken. His sixth-place regional finish was a little bit better than his eighth-place finish as a freshman in 2013. Preparations leading up to the NCAA championships were stressful.
“I struggled at regionals,” Streets said. “I thought going to regionals, I had a good game plan but it didn’t work out. Adrian [Bak] just beat me down. They yelled at me. Training was tough.
“Adrian just told me, ‘Just keep it simple. Be aggressive. Just do a couple of certain things and you’ll be fine. Be aggressive. Be a fighter. And it’ll work out.’ ”
In the midst of those struggles, Glon knew one thing: Streets is a worker. Go to the gym and Streets is there.
“Five o’clock in the morning or Saturday evening, he will always be there,” Glon said.
Bak, who finished second at the regional, was expected to be the title contender for Penn State in saber. Instead, Streets blew through the field. He won 14 of 15 matches the first day, three more wins than Bak and one more than Shaul Gordon, who was runner-up at the 2013 NCAA championships with Penn State before transferring to Penn.
“I stayed humble. I didn’t want to get overconfident,” Streets said.
“Coming in, I was very nervous. After the first day, my confidence went up. Talking to my dad, he told me, ‘Don’t get big-headed. Stay humble. Just focus on every touch. It’s not over yet. Every touch , every bout counts. Just go for it.’ ”
Sunday, he won another six round-robin bouts to win the No. 1 seed going into the semifinals. He defeated Gordon 15-13 in the semifinals, then topped Valkai, a world championship team gold medalist with Hungary.
Already, Streets is thinking about 2015. Tokomo, his mom, will be happy to hear it.
“Repeat. I want a repeat,” he said. “People are happy to win one, but I want to it more than once. Multiple times.”