TWO FOR YOU FROM HAWAII'S FOIL CHAMP
THE HOLY TRINITY OF FENCING
by Colin Chock
(originally published in "Sports Hawaii", July 1998 published by Ron Williams of Ron/Glo & Associates, P.O. Box 1521, Pearl City, Hawaii 96782, 808/486-0163.)
I have had the good fortune to have met some of the greatest fencers in American history.
I met NYC foilist Albert "Albie" Axelrod in the mid-80s in NYC. (I last saw him in January in upstate New York.) Axelrod won a bronze in the '60 Rome Olympics, and, though Christian d'Oriola was past his prime when he competed against Axelrod, Axelrod can claim a winning record against the great Frenchman.
After Axelrod, America didn't achieve another fencing medal in the Olympics until another New Yorker, sabreur Peter Westbrook won bronze in LA in '84. I witnessed this and also Westbrook's other top result - making the final of the '89 World Championships.
Westbrook is, by culture, black, though, like Tiger Woods, he is of both black and Asian extraction. For more info on Westbrook, read his book, Harnessing Anger.
America has never won more than a bronze in Olympic fencing. It might be argued that Axelrod's bronze is a greater achievement than Westbrook's, because the '84 Olympics was boycotted by the Soviet Bloc - which accounted for about half the best fencers inthe world. That may be so, but unfortunately Axelrod was before my time, peaking before I was born, and my personal knowledge of his fencing is limited. I have had conversations with Axelrod about how good he was, but he sometimes talked above my head and I didn't understand everything he said. And I haven't had a chance to talk to his contemporaries. Thus I reluctantly choose to end my references to him here.
I continue now with Westbrook and with my Portland, Oregon, teammate, foilist Michael Marx. Marx is a bit older than I am and Westbrook is a bit older than Marx is. Their careers overlapped mine and though I've never fenced either one, I've seen both of them in action several times.
Westbrook and Marx remind me a bit of Magic Johnson and my hero, Larry Bird; one is black and one white; one East Coast and one West Coast.
Who was better? I'm not sure. Unlike Magic and Bird, Westbrook and Marx competed in different weapons and thus never went head to head.
Westbrook won the National Saber Title an amazing 13 times and Marx won the National Foil Title a record eight times, but that's not necessarily a good gauge with which to compare them because foil is more popular and sometimes more competitive than saber.
To continue the NBA analogy, in the mid-80s the West Coast's Magic Johnson and the East Coast's Larry Bird were the two best players. Michael Jordan (appropriately from the under-represented Midwest) was an up-and-comer, but not yet in their elite club of two.
Now imagine if Jordan had quit basketball at that point. He would never have achieved the level of Magic and Bird, let alone have surpassed it.
Well, that is what happened to another black Midwestern athlete, collegiate foilist Tyronne Simmons. Had Simmons (who was also a dancer) fulfilled his potential, he, Westbrook, and Marx might now be considered the Jordan, Magic, and Bird of American fencing.
But Simmons's career was nipped in the bud.
I first acquainted myself with Simmons when I was poring over old news clippings on fencing at the Whitworth College library in Spokane in the early '80s. Simmons' is the most intriguing and tragic story I have come across in American fencing. The top NCAA fencer, he was on track to make the '72 Olympic team. But, citing racial prejudice by a good old boy network that controlled American fencing, Simmons quit fencing cold and disappeared. He never competed in the Olympics. I've talked to his contemporaries and they say that he was on his way to becoming the Michael Jordan of fencing. But he never developed this potential so we'll never really know. It remains a dream of mine to someday meet him. He is now a college fencing coach in Detroit. So if not Simmons, who is the "Michael Jordan" of American fencing? It may be Westbrook. It may be Marx. Or it may be the legendary Heizaburo Okawa of LA. Of all American fencers, I think Okawa's story would make the best movie.
Roughly Simmons' age, Okawa is a small man who cast a large shadow over Asian, American, and even world fencing. Already the Japanese National Foil Champion before immigrating to the U.S. (to Southern California), he immediately became the top American foilist.
Okawa, when granted permanent residency, was eligible for the American National Championships, which he proceeded to win. He would have won several, but the story goes that some of the American fencing establishment (the previously mentioned good old boysclub), reluctant to let a national title be dominated by someone "fresh off the boat," changed the rules to eliminate participation in Nationals by any but full-fledged citizens.
Okawa did eventually become a citizen but not before a ruptured Achilles tendon put a premature end to his fencing career. He married the daughter of a samurai named Mori and, upon retiring from competition, became a top coach, as well as the most highly regarded U.S. referee.
In the early '80s, when I was back from Spokane and contemplating a return to the mainland, I wrote to the U.S. Fencing Association, asking who the best American coach was. They wrote back saying that there were several good coaches, but I noted that Okawa was the only one they mentioned by name.
I decided to go to Oregon, so unfortunately I never studied under Okawa, nor have I seen him fence. I envy Duncan Campbell, owner of Caf? Haleiwa. Duncan, who is from LA, was a student of Okawa's for a short time.
I have seen Okawa officiate; he has a deep Southern California tan and an air of authority.
And I've talked to those who've fenced him in his prime. They say he could dominate bouts even if he was injured and the ref was biased against him. They say he could touch you before you knew he had moved.
So who is the best? Well, I don't really know about those who were before my time, but based on what I've seen, and based on talking with people who've fenced these guys, my top three candidates for the American Fencing Hall of Fame would be Okawa, Westbrook, and Marx.
This being America, it's appropriate that one is Asian, one black, and one white.
In my next column I will tell you what I consider to be the most interesting and terrible story in the history of modern fencing.
(Editor's Note: I was going to make you wait till the January issue of TFA MAGAZINE for the article to which Colin refers here but I couldn't be that mean. Consider it a Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Chanukah, and New Year's Monkey gift to you from me. I wouldn't have wanted you to suffer the suspense for three months.)
FENCING'S MOST TERRIBLE MOMENT
by Colin Chock
(originally published in "Sports Hawaii", August, 1998 published by Ron Williams of Ron/Glo & Associates, P.O. Box 1521, Pearl City, Hawaii 96782, 808/486-0163.)
The first world-class fencing tournament I saw in person was the '84 Olympics in LA. In my favorite weapon, Foil, I watched from the third row as Mauro Numa of Italy beat Mathias Behr (a tall man from West Germany) in the gold-medal match. Because the Salle Auriol Fencing Club had contributed one fourth of the American fencing team, I decided to move to Portland, Oregon, to join them.
The president of Salle Auriol at that time (and possibly to this day) was Robert Marx, older brother of the great foilist Michael Marx. Robert, an ep?eist, won the National Ep?e Title in '85.
One evening at the Pizza Caboose, where the club meets after practice, Robert told me the following story, which, I must warn you, is not for the faint of heart.
Years before the '84 Olympics, Robert was at the World Fencing Championships when they were held in Rome. Russian Vladimir Smirnov was the defending World Foil Champion and considered by many to be the world's best and most creative fencer - in any weapon.
In those days safety standards weren't as high as they are now. Thus, in a bout with his friend, the above-mentioned Mathias Behr, Smirnov was using a mask that was too old.
I should say here that a foil is three feet long and flexible, but when it eventually breaks, the spike left in the fencer's hand is one-and-a-half feet long and rigid.
Behr, in one particularly ill-fated thrust, broke his foil on Smirnov's torso and, because he was moving too fast to stop, inadvertently shoved his broken foil through Smirnov's mask, the front of Smirnov's skull, and completely through Smirnov's brain. Behr quickly jerked his weapon out of Smirnov's head, allowing Smirnov, his arm moving on reflex only, to pull his mask off. While blood and brain fluid spilled out of the hole in the Russian's forehead, Behr stared in horror into the eyes of the man he had just killed.
Then the world's greatest fencer collapsed, never to rise again.
A few minutes later, Robert Marx, ignorant of what had just happened, walked into the arena. Imagine that. "Hey, what's up, guys? Why the long faces?"
This may sound ridiculous at this point, but fencing is a very safe sport. Freak accidents like this happen very rarely. What are the odds that one of those rare accidents would happen to the World Champion at the World Championships? I have no idea.
Not surprisingly, this is not a story that most fencers find appropriate to tell prospective fencers. So why am I telling you?
First, because I want to discourage everyone from ever using old masks, or from skimping on safety in any way. And second, because the story of Smirnov's death is so spectacular and ironic that it needs to be told, and better you hear it from me. Fencing's most terrible story is the equivalent of Michael Jordan doing a slam-dunk in the NBA finals and having the backboard collapse on him, killing him instantly.
Because of Smirnov's death, the International Fencing Federation raised its safety standards. Among other things, never again would a fencer in a world-class competition be allowed to fence in a mask that was too weak. Fencers are now required to submit their masks to a strength test. If a mask fails, it is destroyed on the spot.
As for Mathias Behr, he took a hiatus from fencing but came back strong and, as I have mentioned, eventually won silver in the Olympics.
By '89 Behr was a referee. He refereed at the '89 World Championships in Denver, where I was his scorekeeper for a short time. After the tournament, Behr shook my hand and said, "Thank you for all your hard work." I thought of the '84 Olympics and wanted to say to him, "Mr. Behr, you remind me that the journey of a gold medallist is not necessarily greater than that of a silver medallist."
But all I managed was, "You're welcome."
Colin Chock, born and raised in Honolulu, in '88 and '89 was the top collegiate fencer in the Pacific Northwest and is currently Hawaii Foil Champion as well as the founder of Salle Honolulu. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Salle Honolulu meets on Oahu Mondays 6-8pm (Weinberg bldg.) and Saturdays 5-7pm (room 305) at the Moiliili Community Center, 2535 South King Street. Wednesdays we meet 630-830pm at Lanikai Elementary in Kailua.
Visit Colin's webpages at http://pages.prodigy.net/chock.
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