On a bulletin board in the fencing room deep in the bowels of Hutchinson Gym, there is a recent clipping from a British newspaper declaring that “Fencing is the hippest sport on the planet.”
Fencing coach Dave Micahnik (C’59) couldn’t care less that zeitgeist maven Madonna has taken up the sport he has loved since his freshman year at Penn in 1955. Micahnik has devoted his life to passing on to successive generations the lessons he learned as a three-time Olympic fencer.
In the winter Micahnik coaches Penn men’s (tied this year with Columbia for the Ivy championship) and women’s fencing teams. In the summer he is on campus running one of the oldest and most popular summer camps for aspiring high school competitors.
Q. You are one of the founding fathers of the summer sports camps program at Penn. How did you get started?
A. By now, I am the grandfather. We started in the early ‘80s when a national Junior Olympic [fencing] program wanted to create regional camps around the country for youngsters. They asked me if I would do one here [at Penn] and I said sure. The next year, they had changed their minds, so I decided I could run one here as a Penn camp.
For quite a number of years, we ran a one-week summer camp. The numbers have ranged from 15 participants up to 100 and more for the last two years. We have expanded it from one week to two weeks, and this year we are expanding to three weeks.
Q. Your campers are high school students?
A. Yes, boys and girls ages 14 to 17, with a minimum of one year of fencing experience in competition and preferably more. We are a very concentrated fencing program, with a dozen professional coaches from around the country and overseas. My assistant coach, Iosif Vitebskiy, and I are the host coaches. This is not an all purpose all-sports camp. The first week will be fitness and footwork. It sounds like less fun, but it will be fun and is fundamental to what we are going to teach. The second week will be about fencing-specific training and development. The last week will focus on optimizing tournament and competition results.
Q. Are there many high school fencing programs?
A. It is popular in certain pockets of the country. There are also an increasing number of private clubs that are primarily youth-based. Lately we have been getting students from around the US as well as from Katmandu, from France and from Abu Dhabi.
Q. Were you a high school fencer?
A. I learned to fence at Penn as a beginner. I had never played any sports and I certainly hadn’t fenced. I had a job in Dining Services. I was the guy serving soup and the guy standing next to me serving the meat had taken up fencing. The coach was a Hungarian everybody called Maestro. They had a freshmen team and by attrition I wound up as the number one in epee [There are three categories of weapons in fencing—epee, foil and saber].
In my sophomore year I made varsity, all-Ivy and went to the NCAA tournament. After I graduated, I continued training and a year later [in 1960] was at the US Nationals and at the Olympic Games in Rome. I was on the U.S. team for the two subsequent Olympics in Tokyo and Mexico City. At that point, I felt that I was not getting better and decided to take a job in Allentown and taper down my training
Q. What brought you back to Penn?
A. I came back as a recreation supervisor in 1973, but it was really Title IX that kept me here. Under the aegis of Title IX, we had to expand opportunities for women. There was some budgeting available to start a women’s fencing team.
Q. Have any of your Penn fencers gone on to the Olympics?
A. Five of my students have made it. The most recent are Tamir Bloom (C’94)—now Dr. Bloom—and Cliff Bayer (W/WG’03), who is currently finishing up his MBA. They made both the 1996 and 2000 U.S. teams.
Fencing is a sport where you don’t have to be in school to compete. In fact, for full-scale international training and competition it is very difficult to be in school. Most of the people trying to make the Olympic team these days will take time off from school.
Q. The ghost of Errol Flynn hangs heavily over fencing. Have you ever taught theatrical fencing?
A. I’ve taught at Curtis and at the University of the Arts. Flynn was pretty good, but I think that the fencing you see in movies today is better than ever. Several years ago, I was approached by one of the Mummers string bands. They had decided to do a “Three Musketeers” theme and wanted some fencing instruction. In the end, they asked me to “play” D’Artagnan and I got to march down Broad Street and keep the costume.
For a full listing of Penn sports camps programs see: pennathletics.ocsn.com/camps/penn-camps.html.
Originally published on March 20, 2003