Roar, Lion, Roar

Columbia Fencing: The Dynasty Is Back

With two NCAA Championships in the last four years and a pair of 2018 Ivy League crowns raising Columbia’s total to 50 — by far the most in the Ancient Eight — the Lions have reclaimed their place among the nation’s elite fencing programs.

Or, as Coach Michael Aufrichtig succinctly puts it: “The dynasty is back!”

The secret to Columbia’s success? A renewed commitment to placing the team ahead of the individual, as well as making the most of that real estate mantra: location, location, location.

two fencers

Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics

“We really focus on team in our program,” says Aufrichtig. “Fencing is an individual sport — it’s only you out there — but each of your bouts adds up toward the team scoring. Our team realizes that it’s much more fun when the team wins.”

Meanwhile, Columbia’s location in New York City places it in the middle of the greatest concentration of fencing clubs, coaches and competitors in the country. And the Lion fencers take full advantage, practicing not only in Morningside Heights, but also at the Fencers Club and the New York Athletic Club, which have hosted world-class fencers for more than a century.

It’s a formula that has worked for decades. “Promising fencers come to Columbia because they know that in addition to the great coaches here, they will have the opportunity to train with the coaches at the surrounding clubs,” says Steve Buchman ’59, LAW’62, a two-time All-American in épée.

Columbia’s fencing program was among the nation’s finest from the 1950s through the 1990s, but went through a dry spell until Aufrichtig assumed the helm in 2011. And there’s no doubt about it — the Lions are back. The Class of 2018 graduated with two NCAA Championships, a second- and a third-place finish; the men graduated with four Ivy League Championships and the women with three.

“Columbia has more than a century of tradition in fencing, going back to the 1912 Olympics. [It’s] a tradition that would stand up against any sport in any country,” says Jeff Kestler ’68, an All-American and two-time All-Ivy in foil. “The fact that Michael and his assistant coaches have been able to take hold of that and extend it is incredible.”

Columbia, which has won 15 NCAA Championships dating back to 1951, finished second to Notre Dame at this year’s NCAAs in April. Iman Blow ’19 won the women’s foil championship, defeating Ivy League titlist and fellow All-American Sylvie Binder ’21 in the semifinals, to become the 36th NCAA individual champion in Columbia history.

Columbia fencers are making their mark on a global scale, as well. Columbia had seven competitors in the Junior (under age 20) World Fencing Championships in Verona, Italy, in April, the most of any NCAA program. Binder led Team USA to the gold medal in women’s foil and Sidarth Kumbla ’21 came home with individual and team bronze medals in men’s foil.

Last summer, at the Senior World Fencing Championships in Germany, Margaret Lu ’17, Nzingha Prescod ’15 and Nicole Ross ’13 helped the United States win a silver medal in foil, the best result ever for the U.S. women at the Senior Worlds. They, along with Jake Hoyle ’16 and Jackie Dubrovich ’16, are candidates for berths on Team USA at the 2020 Olympics. And Aufrichtig noted that current fencers like Binder and Blow might take a year off to try to qualify for the team.

Columbia has had many outstanding fencing coaches including James Murray, Jose Velarde, Irv DeKoff, Lou Bankuti, George Kolombatovich, Aladar Kogler and now Aufrichtig, who has revived the program by stressing a team-first attitude where the fencers are part of a family that also includes coaches, trainers, parents and alumni.

Blow, for example, is quick to share credit for her NCAA individual championship, where her teammates swarmed onto the mat to celebrate with her after the final point. “It was a test of my own ability to perform, and also it was a test of our entire team’s ability to support and to cheer and to be there for one another,” she says.

Binder had a similar comment when she was named Columbia’s Female Rookie of the Year for all sports at the annual Varsity C Celebration on May 1: “As much as going to the Ivy League Championships and getting to compete at the NCAAs was amazing — and I hope I can do that again — I think that just showing up to practice every day and spending time with my teammates was the best part of my year.”

As for the benefits of being in New York City, it may well mean more in fencing than any other sport.

“The top fencers in the country, including more than half the Olympic team, come from the tri-state area,” Aufrichtig says. And while other schools with top programs, like Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State, might offer athletics scholarships to lure those fencers, Columbia can counter with the appeal of the New York club fencing scene; the city boasts mainstays like the Fencers Club and New York AC, and others are constantly sprouting up.

To maximize this resource, Aufrichtig holds two team practices a week at Columbia and then has his fencers travel to the various New York clubs to learn from their coaches and compete against other elite fencers. Often they split up by weapon, since a particular club might specialize in one of the three that make up the sport — foil, épée or sabre — and Aufrichtig and his assistants stay on top of which clubs are attracting the top fencers in which weapon. “Wherever the best fencers are, that’s where we go,” he says.

Lu, an All-Ivy First Team selection in each of her four years at Columbia and an All-American as a senior, was one of many recent graduates who took advantage. “The access to multiple strong fencing clubs results in an unrivaled caliber and variety of available sparring partners,” she says, noting that some teammates visited up to five different clubs in a week.

And while there are many schools in the New York area that can and do take advantage of this resource, there is only one Columbia. “It’s an opportunity to get an Ivy League education, which can open many doors,” says Dr. Tony Kestler ’71, the 1969 NCAA individual foil champion, a two-time All-American and Jeff’s brother.

Supporting the team effort are the fencing alumni advisory committee and the Rusty Blades, an informal group of alumni, including Buchman and the Kestlers, who have supported the program for decades; they cheer the Lions at meets and return to campus for the annual Spring Fencing Banquet, where they mingle with members of the current team and incoming fencers. Being welcomed into the multi-generational community impresses upon the younger fencers that they are joining a program rich in tradition.

“Success breeds success,” Buchman says. “It’s a winning culture and you can’t minimize that. People want to come to a program that has been and continues to be successful.”