2007 NCAA Fencing Championships, day-2 of men's competition (Madison, NJ). Photos by Chris Pedota.
Guiorgie "Gia" Kvaratskhelia (GEE-uh KLAW-duh-SKELL-ee-uh) enters his first season as head coach of Notre Dame after having spent the previous three as associate head coach and five years prior to that as an assistant coach. Kvaratskhelia is a foil specialist, regarded as one of the top foil coaches in the nation.
Since joining the Irish staff in 2007, Notre Dame's foilists have enjoyed tremendous success with Kvaratskhelia at the helm. The Irish have qualified the maximum of 4 foilists each year for NCAA championship play, with 29 of the 32 total appearances resulting in All-America honors.
Notre Dame's foil squads have enjoyed the most success of any weapons class recently, boasting five NCAA individual champions since 2010. In 2014, Lee Kiefer repeated as women's foil NCAA Champion, defeating teammate Madison Zeiss 13-10 in the final bout. On the men's side, captain Gerek Meinhardt won over Penn State's David Willett, 15-12, claiming his second NCAA title. At the 2013 NCAA Championships in San Antonio, Texas, Kiefer tied senior London teammate Meinhardt with a 22-1 round robin record, with both advancing into the direct elimination bouts. Keifer was joined by partner Zeiss, while 2011 NCAA Champion Ariel DeSmet finished in 10th place. Meinhardt and Zeiss both finished tied for third in their classes and Kiefer won her first NCAA title in the Lone Star State, defeating Jackie Dubrovich of Columbia-Barnhard, 15-8.
Kiefer was not the first freshman to win the NCAA title, as DeSmet out-touched Penn State's Miles Chamley-Watson 15-13 to clinch the title in 2011. With the maximum of four foilists competing, DeSmet, Reggie Bentley and Hayley Reese all earned All-America citations, building on Meinhardt's individual title a year prior. DeSmet's win in '11 stood as the first freshman foilist win since Charles Higgs-Coulthard did so in 1984.
Reese represented another milestone for the Irish foil program, as she became the first foilist to complete all four years under the tutelage of Kvaratskhelia as a four-time All-American, after receiving second team recognition following her eighth-place showing in 2011. Kvaratskhelia previously had tutored Adrienne Nott to three such citations, but her first honor was won a year prior to him joining the staff.
For all his successes, Kvaratskhelia has remained humble, despite being tabbed as the 2013 Midwest Fencing Conference Varsity Coach of the Year and the 2010-11 U.S. Fencing National Coach of the Year. In '11, Kvaratskhelia helped several Irish representatives achieve high finishes on the North American Cup (NAC) circuit, in addition to top placements in several international competitions.
At the 2012 NCAAs the men's foil squad earned 32 points, winning the weapon class. Enzo Castellani (t-3rd) and Bentley (5th) posted matching 16-7 records, earning first and second team All-America honors respectively. The women's squad finished second, fueled by second-team All-Americans Grace Hartman (16-7, 5th) and Zeiss (15-8, 8th).
Throughout the 2010 season, three of Kvaratskhelia's foilists earned All-America honors at the NCAA Championships, as Meinhardt, Castellani and Reese finished first, third and fifth, respectively. Meinhardt, a 2008 and '12 Olympian, became Kvaratskhelia's first NCAA gold medalist, posting a solid 15-9 victory against Penn State's Willette. Also under Kvaratskhelia, Castellani earned a third-place, bronze medal finish with 16 round robin wins and a +40 indicator.
In 2008 and '09, all four foilists earned All-American distinction, led by Meinhardt, Castellani and Reese who were awarded second-team accolades in '09, with Nott rounding out the group as a third team honorable mention. In '08, it was freshmen Steve Kubik (8th) Zach Schirtz (11th) and Reese (11th) who qualified as All-Americans, as Nott (4th) earned first-team recognition in her second year of tutelage under Kvaratskhelia. In '07, four foilists qualified once again for the NCAA Championship, with three of the four (Nott, Mark Kubik and Jakub Kedrkowiak) earning All-American honors.
Kvaratskhelia has shaped the Irish team through his recruiting efforts as well. In his first full season on the scene, he helped secure one of the top freshman classes in all of college fencing for the '07-'08 season, led by elite foilists Reese, Schirtz and Steve Kubik - all of whom went on to earn All-America honors in '08. Kvaratskhelia hasn't slowed down since then either, as he helped ink Meinhardt for the men's team and Radmila Sarkisova for the women, ranked as high as 90th at the time in the FIE World Junior Rankings. For the '11 season, DeSmet and Rachel Beck signed on with the Irish, but perhaps his highest ranked recruit was class of '12 signee Kiefer, who joined the Irish fresh off a fifth-place finish with the U.S. women's foil squad at the 2012 Olympics. In 2014, Kvaratskhelia shifted his weapon focus, helping to attract such top sabre talents as Francesca Russo and Claudia Kulmacz for the women's squad, and Jonah Shainberg and Jonathan Fitzgerald for the men's team.
Prior to joining the Notre Dame coaching staff, Kvaratskhelia spent 10 years as coach of the Kanza Fencing Club in Salina, Kansas. In that time, Kvaratskhelia transformed Kanza from a small recreational club into one of the nation's top foil centers. His fencers at Kanza - which included the Kubik and Hodges brothers - combined to win three USFA national men's open foil team championships, with six of his Kanza fencers going on to compete at the Division I level as scholarship athletes.
Named the 2002 USFA national development coach of the year, Kvaratskhelia molded his fencers at Kanza into top competitors on the national and international levels. His Kanza fencers combined to be national finalists 15 times, while receiving nearly 50 national medals. Former Kanza fencers Ryan Dunn and Chris Miller were members of the U.S. Junior National Team before going on to successful collegiate careers (Miller as an All-American at Penn State and Dunn at Air Force.) Kanza product Christina Tillman also went on to fence at Air Force, while Eric McConkey joined her as a Division I competitor at Cleveland State.
Known previously as the Coyote Fencing Club, the Kanza foil center had a roster of only five active fencers when Kvaratskhelia arrived in 1996 but that number grew to a bustling gym full of 30 fencers by 2005.
During his time at Kanza, Kvaratskhelia worked cooperatively with many coaches throughout the United States and from overseas. Kanza has hosted an impressive list of nationally-ranked fencers during recent years, with those elite foilists including the likes of Kurt Getz, the Kubik brothers, Andras Horanyi, Meinhardt and Tamara Najm. Kanza also welcomed more than 60 out-of-state fencers for its 2005 summer training camps and created an "exchange" program with clubs in Russia and Ukraine, allowing fencers from Kvaratskhelia's homeland and Kansas to train in an overseas setting. Kanza likewise has sponsored community outreach programs while helping grow the sport of fencing throughout the state of Kansas.
Kvaratskhelia - who became a U.S. citizen in 2004 - developed an elite four-fencer team of youth men's foilists at Kanza, with that group winning USFA national titles in the open category during 2001, `02 and `04. The Kanza foilists brought home bronze at the 2006 USFA Summer Nationals, led by former Notre Dame fencers Steve (`11) and Mark Kubik (`09).
After immigrating to the United States in 1994, Kvaratskhelia stayed active in his own fencing career by competing in domestic and international events. He placed fifth in the open competition at a 1996 North American Cup and fenced at World Cup events in 1998 and `99. Kvaratskhelia first ventured into coaching in 1994, assisting Vladimir Nazlymov (now head coach at Ohio State) at Central Fencing Club in Kansas City and at the satellite Lawrence Fencing Club. Two years later, he accepted the challenge in Salina and spent 10 years building Kanza into a nationally recognized club.
Kvaratskhelia grew up in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and began fencing in 1988 at the age of 13. He progressed quickly and was a member of the Georgian National Foil Team from 1990-94, during which time he fenced alongside the likes of Vladimir Aptiaouri (a member of the U.S.S.R. foil team that won gold at the 1988 Olympics). Kvaratskhelia took home the bronze medal at the 1990 Soviet Junior National Championship - shortly before Georgia declared its independence - and later had an impressive 11th-place finish at the 1992 European Championship.
Noted for his tremendous communication skills, Kvaratskhelia is fluent in Russian, Georgian and English. He received his bachelor's degree in physical education and sport in 1993 from the Georgian State Physical Training Institute in his hometown of Tbilisi. He also earned a sports journalism certificate from that institution (`92) and pursued graduate studies in journalism at Tbilisi State University in 1993 prior to coming to the United States.
Kvaratskhelia and his wife, Dani Edson, have one daughter, Maya, and one son, Alexander.