March 18, 2015
A large television screen on a wall in a conference room in the University of Notre Dame fencing office displayed a rapid-fire epee clash between fencers from Columbia and St. John's.
Fighting Irish student-athletes and coaches sat around a table, locked in on the action on the screen. Insights were shared about potential opponents in the upcoming NCAA fencing national championships in a room surrounded by the memorabilia of Notre Dame's championship legacy.
The international tone of the Fighting Irish program was reflected in a kaleidoscope of conversation flavored by French, Azerbaijan and Georgian accents that swirled around the room.
As the coaches and student-athletes observe and analyze, it's clear that the diverse tones and backgrounds converge, giving the Irish fencing program a strong, unified voice.
"We don't lose anything in translation, because, fortunately, Notre Dame students are smart enough to understand us," Irish assistant coach Cedric Loiseau laughed. "They really want to understand us. That makes our lives much easier. Having so many people from different backgrounds just makes it fun.
"I really think our diversity is a strength," said Loiseau, a French native. "Nobody cares about where you are from, or what you look like. People come here because they want to be the best fencers, and they are willing to work hard for that. If there is something I don't know, I ask the students, they teach me, and then I know one new word. The relationship works well."
Samir Ibrahimov, Notre Dame's assistant coach in charge of sabre, coached in the former Soviet Union system, as well as working with the Azerbaijan national team and coaching in Hong Kong. He said that the Notre Dame program is unique in its diversity, and its togetherness.
"I think that the cultural backgrounds that we bring to Notre Dame, and the fencing backgrounds that we bring really enhances the program," Ibrahimov said. "In terms of the social life, it makes it fun, because that's what America is all about, one big melting pot.
"The difference with Notre Dame is I've never seen such unity. The unity of the coaches and staff and athletes is a defining factor versus everybody else. There is a special cohesiveness. There is also incredible camaraderie at Notre Dame. No matter how disappointed one person is, they forget about themselves and go cheer for others. I have not seen that in other places."
Notre Dame head coachGia Kvaratskhelia, who is in his first season as the Fighting Irish head coach, has pulled together all of the strengths of the program to forge a powerful force in NCAA fencing. What is also remarkable about the Notre Dame program is the number of people who contribute to the success of the student-athletes.
"This is a work in progress, the managing,"Kvaratskhelia said. "But when someone wants to be part of this program and contribute that heavily ... the desire is there. Everything else is details.
"They are truly as important as the coaches,"Kvaratskhelia said about the involvement of key contributors.
BraskeyPowell andPam Walkowski have ushered in a new era for Notre Dame fencing: the Irish are now able to utilize film study.Kvaratskhelia said that Powell and Walkowski travel with the team and record every match.
"This is a new addition,"Kvaratskhelia said of the film study. "It tremendously enhances our ability to dissect and study what happened in previous competitions, and adjust for future tournaments.
"We also have a statistician who has been part of the team for 25 years, who knows every single move in terms of statistics,"Kvaratskhelia said. "He gives us all the data from years past, he can update the scores during a match, so we know where we're at, and we can make substitutions if we need to do that. Having him with us is invaluable."
Kvaratskhelia said that people like Robert Baldwin, the team armor, are also essential to Notre Dame's success. Baldwin is a special education teacher at Nuner Primary Center in South Bend. At least three times a week, when the final bell of the day rings at Nuner, Baldwin heads over to work in the armory at Notre Dame, surrounded by the blades that the Irish fencers use to carve out their NCAA legacies.
"This is a craft that goes back to Roman times," Baldwin said of working as an armorer. "Ours is a little bit different, because we're not standing in front of a hot fire with an anvil and big huge hammer and having to pound down the metal. Fortunately, I don't have to make my own parts."
Baldwin started working on repairing blades when his sons got involved in fencing at the Indiana Fencing Academy. His son Scott was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one time, and Neal was in the top 50. When he and his wife took their sons to fencing tournaments in San Antonio, Sacramento and Boston, Bob Baldwin started to look up the armorser on staff there to get some information about how to fix his sons' equipment.
"I walked up to a man who was working as an armorerat a national tournament," Baldwin said. "I asked him if I could learn to do what he does. It turned out to be the armorer who gets hired to work at the Olympic Games. I was really blessed."
Baldwin learned the trade, and gained a reputation as an outstanding armorer. When former Indiana Fencing Academy instructor Janusz Bednarski became the head coach at Notre Dame, he invited Baldwin to be the team's armorer.
"It's really nice because I'm dealing with really bright kids who have wonderful social skills and appreciate me," Baldwin said.
Kvaratskhelia relies on director of operations, Alex Buell, to be a driving force in uniting the Irish support staff.
Notre Dame created the full-time position this year for fencing, and Buell, a former Irish fencer himself, made an immediate impact by implementing a High Performance Initiative that brings together the voices that need to be heard within the program.
Buell, who learned of the technique when he was an intern at Cal, brings together a group that does or can include Kvaratskhelia, Loiseau, Ibrahimov and volunteer assistant coaches Gerek Meinhardt and Ewa Nelip, along withDr. Miguel Franco (psychologist), Geoffrey Puls (strength & conditioning coach), Heidi Uebelhor (compliance director), Tara Pillai (academic services coordinator), Kayla Matrunick (sports nutritionist), Dave Ludwig (athletic trainer) and Maureen McNamara (sports administrator).
Buell, who organizes everybody and everything having to do with Irish fencing, puts it all together. He organizes travel, making sure the Irish have lodging and food, and that the equipment gets shipped to the right arena. He even works in the armory when an extra hand is needed. His work on the High Performance Initiative is invaluable.
"It's a very holistic, integrated approach to development, and providing services and support for student-athletes," Buell said of the High Performance Initiative. "The concept at its core is to bring people who have an impact on the student-athletes in to meet every two weeks and have a roundtable with the coaches.
"People talk about if anybody sees red flags, or it's a chance to communicate and let people know what is going on in their field with the student-athletes," Buell said. "We didn't want to meet for the sake of meeting. We will strategically lay out the road map for the season and the mileposts that we need to be meeting.
"We would map out, in the realm of strength and conditioning, what do we need to be doing, when do we need to do it; the same with nutrition. But instead of the nutritionist meeting with the head coach, alone, all of the coaches hear what the nutritionist has to say, and so does the strength coach, and the academic person."
Buell said that everyone in the program has grasped the concept of enhanced and comprehensive communication and made it work for the student-athletes.
"At the first meeting, there were people looking at me kind of crazy," Buell said. "But they trusted me, and now, it's taken flight."
ForKvaratskhelia, the "it takes a village" approach to enhancing the program is vital.
"It is possible to be successful and not have such a big group of people, but the number of people we have involved gives us more of an opportunity to be successful,"Kvaratskhelia said. "These people bring so much expertise in their fields, and so much experience, so much life experience. It's so easy to communicate, because they don't have an ego. They are all focused on the well-being of our team.
"Notre Dame is the attraction,"Kvaratskhelia said. "The people in our program are really committed to Notre Dame, the institution, the place. They have a connection with fencing, and those two together lights up the fire in their hearts."
By Curt Rallo/special correspondent