Fencing Lessons
“In the moment, it always feels like dying to lose.”

By Eve Overton | Dave Micahnik C’59 is frustrated. He is giving me a fencing lesson, one of dozens I’ve taken during my three years on his team. We are working on a syncopated attack dependent on careful handwork, a patient body, and an explosive lunge as its punctuation. We have worked on it perhaps three times before, and I am still not getting it.

“Can you tell the difference between your hand and the point? Don’t sweep across the blade like that—you’ll have no leverage.”

We pad up and down the fencing strip. It takes many repetitions to adjust my hand. He slows down the action, breaking it into steps. Then he increases the pace.

“Better,” he says, followed by yet more iterations. The tink-pause-swish of our weapons develops a more constant rhythm. Mistakes of fine tuning get a disapproving “hmmm,” but movement continues.

He responds to a successful attack with a final parry-riposte to make sure I’m thinking, not just being mechanical with my actions, as is my tendency.

“All right,” he sighs, with finality.

 

When we had to choose someone to profile for a class writing-assignment last spring, I picked Dave. A man with such an unusual career had to have an interesting story. Even though I see him almost every day, sitting down to interview him in his trophy- and memento-filled office in the Dunning Coaches’ Center I felt sweaty and nervous. Besides being my own coach, Dave is a one-man Penn institution.

As an undergraduate in the 1950s, he was coached by the legendary Maestro Lajos Csiszar, and continued to train with him throughout his competitive career—which included being part of three Olympic teams (1960, 1964, 1968) and an individual national championship in 1960. He took over the men’s program after the Maestro’s retirement in 1974 and fought hard to begin and maintain the women’s team following the passage of Title IX, the law requiring equal opportunities for female athletes in academic institutions: His record as coach includes an incredible 32 winning seasons, 11 men’s and 10 women’s team Ivy League titles, and 43 All-American selections.

The game has changed a lot since Dave tried out for the team as a freshman with no sports experience, never mind fencing knowledge. Today most fencers are nationally ranked juniors, often traveling to train and compete worldwide before they get to college. He jokes that, as a coach, if he saw himself walk in today as a novice he would ask himself to leave. There is no longer room for late-bloomers on Penn’s team.

While he coaches in today’s fencing world, the past is never far from his mind. Black-and-white pictures of Maestro Csiszar and his champion Salle Csiszar teams hang high in the Penn fencing room like a shrine to our patron saint, and Micahnik’s reverence for his mentor is palpable. At each team banquet his voice grows full as he speaks about the Maestro to his fencers, who are mostly adolescents, and mostly ignorant of the program’s history.

Although Csiszar would one day be the best man at Dave’s wedding, their first encounter had not gone smoothly:

“He said, ‘There is no point to giving you a lesson if you can’t lunge right,’” Dave remembered, affecting a rough Eastern European accent.

“He dropped you just like that, Dave?”

“Ah ha, I heard the if in that sentence,” he replied, finger raised to emphasize the point.

Dave worked in the mirror with a teammate to get the lunge correct. He worked in the fencing room 20 to 40 hours every week, an amount even he recognizes was unhealthy for a full-time college student. He decided he would make a run for the Olympics. He also decided, while still an undergrad, that he would coach, too, just like Csiszar.

Explaining the power he found in his own coach’s style, he said, “With Csiszar everything was either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It made everything clear. You didn’t have to be a champion to get affirmation; you just had to do as he taught you. He wanted you to understand the actions.”

That sounded familiar. I could see Dave pressing his student to grasp the tactical and physiological basis for an action while physically retreating from the pupil—because, after all, you must also develop strength and endurance while improving your technique. You stagger off afterward huffing, your legs numb. You chug water to combat the heat and chuck your weapon into your bag with disgust. But sometimes the click comes during one of these lessons, or maybe afterwards in a bout. After weeks of Dave chastising you for the angle of your elbow, you suddenly nail an opponent square on her back when before you thought that only her belly was vulnerable. It is a revelation. I wondered, does Dave still consciously follow the Maestro while he coaches?

“Every minute,” he replied, with fervor.

After graduating from Penn, when he was still competing full-time, Dave held a string of jobs. They ranged from Philadelphia civil service, to life insurance sales, to administrative work for a chemical company in New Jersey. “The only hope in purgatory is that you might one day get out of it,” was his sly response to questions about his occupations before coaching.

His coaching career began with building the women’s club in 1973. At first, they received little equipment and no attention. The team itself was also a motley group: “Some of them had fenced before, most hadn’t. We had fun, though,” he recalled fondly.

Dave remembers students from the seventies and eighties without apparent effort—reeling off the names, fencing accomplishments, and subsequent personal histories of each member of the 1986 women’s team (which won a national championship), for example. He doesn’t find his own recall extraordinary: “When you teach fencing, people aren’t numbers.”

This does not mean that he claims a personal intimacy with his students. “I learned early on that my team wanted a coach, not a buddy,” he says. Instead, he works hard to know us as athletes. He pushes Jackie; her infuriated cries are part of their routine. With Mike the lesson is calmer, fluid. They work through actions in a complementary manner, pausing to discuss the variations on a move or how to tweak footwork. His hugs are reserved for the elation or misery that comes only at championships.

Dave protects his privacy, and won’t discuss his family—although I have seen one picture of him with an infant clasped to his chest, his face relaxed with grandfatherly contentment. And on his office wall is a picture of his wife, Phyllis, smiling among the certificates and medals. At our last season-ending banquet she rose briefly to speak to us as a group: “I just want you all to know how much you mean to this man. Every day he gives it all to you and you to him.” It had been an eloquent moment from a gracious woman, forcing the team, dolled up in suits and skirts for once, to take stock of what college sports mean on a grander scale.

To be honest, I had hoped that Dave would offer me an equally enlightening sound bite. He did reach for a platitude about the greatness of loving the game, but came back to the fact that in the moment it always feels like dying to lose. By the end of our conversation, history was dropped for the training issues at hand. He pondered the coming season; we both knew I might not get a starting spot. Unnerved, I tried to change the subject by asking, “How has the game changed you?” He looked incredulous; this was not a well-formed question.

“Well, it forced me to stop resisting to learn new things, which is humbling. For example, I thought the flick was going to be eliminated, so I didn’t teach it. Now it’s still being used, and I’ve lost a couple of years of training with it. I’ve learned from that.”

(The flick, for you non-fencers, is an attack where the blade is whipped in an arch to briefly touch the point to the opponent’s target rather than placing it from a direct line. It requires wrist strength and an excellent sense of distance from one’s opponent.)

“You know who’s not practicing the flick right now?” he baited me.

“No?” I didn’t like where this was going.

“You.”

I blushed; learning to flick is not pretty. One does a lot of floppy-armed slashing and missing before getting it right. Dave would be giving me more difficult lessons in the future. He certainly doesn’t plan to stop working, so I’d better learn to keep up.


Eve Overton is a senior English and Biological Basis of Behavior major from Long Island. Despite her worries, she did earn a starting spot on this year’s women’s fencing team. She can now flick to the stomach, but she’s still working on hitting the shoulder.


FIRST PERSON: Essays

Notes from the Undergrad Fencing with an idol
Alumni Voices Swinging history
Elsewhere Happiness and frozen fingers
Expert Opinion Everybody’s slash-ing

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