Dec. 13, 2007
Fencing prodigy Gerek Meinhardt - a 17-year-old who already holds the nation's top ranking among all men's foilists and is ranked second in the world among under-20 foilists - recently signed on to join the Notre Dame fencing program, starting in the 2008-09 academic year. The Olympic hopeful has been ranked first in the nation at five different age groups (ranging from 12 years old to the senior-level listing) and became the youngest men's foil national champion in U.S. fencing history, after topping current Columbia University junior Kurt Getz at the 2007 Summer Nationals in Miami. As a 16-year-old, Meinhardt became the first male fencer - from any of the three weapons - ever to earn a spot in the U.S. senior, junior (U-20) and cadet (U-17) national teams during the same season.
With most of the current Irish squad set to return in 2008-09, the talented Meinhardt could help Notre Dame be a major contender for the NCAA combined men's and women's fencing title in the spring of 2009. Meinhardt trains in his hometown of San Francisco at the Massialas Foundation, where he is coached by former Olympian Greg Massialas (the 1980 U.S. national champion).
"Gerek is a complete winning machine with superb technique and intelligent tactical abilities that make him possibly the most promising young foillist in the history of U.S. fencing," says sixth-year Notre Dame head coach Janusz Bednarski, whose assistant coach Gia Kvaratskhelia will be the primary instructor of Meinhardt during his time with the Irish.
"Recently we have seen Gerek winning World Cups today and we can expect one day for him to be an NCAA Champion. His great talent has been developed through the excellent club coaching of Greg Massialas. Gerek is on to pace to fence in the 2008 Olympics and we all will be cheering him on for great results in Beijing."
In addition to being a virtual lock to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, Meinhardt is a standout student who posted a lofty SAT score that ranks among the highest ever by an incoming Notre Dame fencing recruit. After attending high school for two years in San Francisco, he made the bold move of pursuing his Olympic dream while continuing his studies through various college online programs.
Meinhardt first began fencing at the age of nine and steadily has climbed up the national and international rankings. He currently sits atop the U.S. Fencing Association (USFA) rankings for all men's foilists - above the likes of 28-year-old veterans Jon Tiomkin (a 2004 Olympian) and Jed Dupree (the 2001 NCAA champion) - and he recently rose to the number-two spot in the FIE world rankings for under-20 men's foilists, behind 19-year-old Italian standout Martino Minuto. Meinhardt also currently holds an overall world ranking of 18th among all men's foilists, with the 17 fencers above him on that list having an average age of 26 (none of them are younger than 22).
In addition to winning the recent Senior Pan America Zonal Championship that was held in Mont-Tremblant, Canada (Aug. '07), Meinhardt turned in a respectable 28th-place finish at the Senior World Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia (Sept. '07), and then placed 13th while fencing against another elite field (110 total fencers) at the Challenge Licciardi, in Aix-en-Provence, France (Nov. '07). He also finished as the runner-up - behind Hungary's Bence Szeki - at the under-20 Junior World Cup that was held in Bratislava ((Memorial de Martinegro; Oct. '07).
"I chose Notre Dame because of the school's history of academic and athletic excellence, its facilities, and the campus environment," says Meinhardt. "I also have known and respected Coach Gia Kvaratskhelia and many of the fencers on the team for several years."
Meinhardt's ties to Notre Dame trace back to the Kanza Fencing Club in Salina, Kan., the club that Kvaratskhelia shaped into one of the nation's top foil centers (before joining Notre Dame prior to the 2006-07 season). Three current Notre Dame fencers - junior Mark Kubik, sophomore Teddy Hodges and freshman Steve Kubik - also are products of Kanza and have trailed alongside Meinhardt in the past, as have many other elite foilists from throughout the nation.
"Gerek has a smaller frame, at 5-10, and he fences with an unorthodox style that is anything but classical. But he continually beats people with his footwork and so many intangibles that place him well beyond his years," says Kvarathskhelia, who first began observing Meinhardt's fencing greatness when he was 14.
"Through years of repitition, Gerek has become very committed to his footwork and that makes him so dangerous. The opponent can never catch him on the strip. Despite his unusual style, Gerek can deliver the touch from any angle and at any time of a bout, no matter where his hand or body are located.
"Gerek is very well-coached, fundamentally sound and - most importantly - has great emotional maturity. He recently went through the grueling cadet, junior and senior World Cup cycles all in one year, without getting burned out. Emotionally, he is like a grown-up. He can be really calm but also really aggressive - whatever he needs to win a bout, he will come up with it. Gerek could lose 5-4 in a pool bout and then turn it up in the direct-elimination phase and beat the same opponent 15-1, no matter how good that opponent might be.
"Gerek's parents, Kurt and Jane, both are architects and they have committed a lot of time and money to his fencing, with so much travel involved. The parents are delightful people and that has rubbed off on Gerek. He has a very easygoing personality and is very social and likeable. Gerek is a low-key, down-to-earth kid and - off the strip - you never would know he was one of the best young fencers in the world. He is a hard worker and just a flawless guy. All of the fencing community loves him and we obviously are thrilled that he has decided to be part of the Notre Dame program."
As a 16-year-old in the 2006-07, Meinhardt held the nation's top ranking at there different levels (senior, junior and cadet) while cracking the world rankings at #74 and ranking 16th among the world's U-20 foilists. He was runner-up in both the U-20 and U-17 bouting at the 2006 Junior Pan Am Championships (San Antonio; Aug. '06) while also competing with the U.S. cadet- and junior-level teams at the World Championships in Izmir, Turkey (April '07). Meinhardt had an impressive seventh-place finish at the La Havana Senior Grand Prix in Cuba (June '06) and added top finishes at Junior World Cups that fall in Bratislava (5th), Madrid (3rd) and Aix-en-Provence (6th). He also won the overall men's foil competition at the USFA North American Cup held in Tucson, Ariz. (April '07), three months before his historic win at Summer Nationals.
Meinhardt - whose first taste of Senior World Cup competition came at the Paris Grand Prix in January of 2006 - was the nation's top-ranked cadet foilist as a 15-year-old (2005-06), when he also was ranked fourth among the U-20 fencers, eighth among the U.S. senior-level foilists and 21st in the world U-20 rankings. His top international events that year included placing fifth at the Junior World Cup in Montreal (Jan. '06) and competing with the U.S. cadet and junior teams at the World Championships in Taebek City, Korea (April '06). On the domestic circuit during the first half of 2006, he won the N.A.C. event in Houston (Jan.) and was the junior champion (U-18) at the Summer Nationals in Atlanta.
His 14-year-old season (2004-05) also included a USFA top ranking (Y-14), plus fourth among the cadets, ninth in juniors and 22nd among all U.S. men's foilists. Meinhardt earned the "A" classification in foil at the age of 14 and later fenced in his first international competition, placing sixth at the Junior World Cup held in Madrid (Nov. '04). He later won the Y-14 title at the N.A.C. in Chattanooga, Tenn. (April '05) and won both the Y-14 and cadet titles at 2005 Summer Nationals in Sacramento, Calif.
The 2003-04 season is the only time in the past six years that Meinhardt has not held a number-one national ranking, as he was second in the USFA's Y-14 rankings, 14th among the cadets and 25th in the junior-level rankings. One year season earlier as a 12-year-old (2002-03), he sat atop the USFA's Y-12 rankings for boys foilists (also sixth in epee), in addition to ranking seventh among Y-14 foilists and 42nd in the cadet rankings. He won the N.A.C. in Overland Park, Kan. (April '03), producing his first gold medal in a national competition.
He made his debut at a USFA national event at the age of 10-and-a-half, as a Y-10 and Y-12 competitor at the N.A.C. held in Colorado Springs (Nov. '00).
Meinhardt currently owns a huge lead of nearly 2,700 points in the USFA U-20 rankings, with his 6,827 points well ahead of second-ranked Nicholas Chinman (4,186), a sophomore at Penn State. Meinhardt (5,300) also owns a lead of more than 1,000 points in the USFA overall men's foil rankings, followed by Dupree (4,266), Tiomkin, current Ohio State junior Andras Horanyi and Columbia's Getz. Tiomkin fenced collegiately at St. John's and was the 2002 NCAA runner-up while Horanyi won the 2007 NCAA title (after being the '06 runner-up). Tiomkin ('99, '03), Dupree ('01, '02, '05) and Horanyi ('06) had combined to win six of the eight previous USFA men's foil national titles, before Meinhardt topped Getz in the 2007 final.
The recently-completed North American Cup in Richmond, Va., saw Meinhardt tie for third while Horanyi defeated Canadian Josh McGuire in the final bout - capping the competition in a men's foil field of 153 competitors.
The 17 fencers currently listed ahead of Meinhardt in the overall world rankings include five from Italy - Andrea Baldini (#1; 22 yrs old), Andrea Cassara (#5; 23), Salvatore Sanzo (#8; 32), Simone Vanni (#9; 28) and Steffano Barrera (#17; 27) - plus Germany's Benjamin Kleibrink (#2; 22), Peter Joppich (#4; 25), the French trip of Erwam LePechoux (#3; 25), Nicholas Beaudan (#15; 32) and Brice Guyart (#16; 26), Chinese fencers Sheng Lei (#6; 23), Liangliang Zhang (#11; 25) and Jun Zhu (#13; 23), the Japanese pair of Yuki Ota (#7; 22) and Kenta Chida (#14; 22), Poland's Slawomir Mocek (#10; 31) and Israel's Tomer Or (#12; 29)
Notre Dame fans wishing to regularly track Meinhardt's progress can do so via the USFA website (www.usfencing.org) and the international fencing site (www.fie.ch).