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Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Candidate for USA Fencing President Peter Burchard on Fencing Clubs, Leadership, and the Importance of Being Local

Peter Burchard - Candidate for USA Fencing President

Peter Burchard is a well known name in the world of American Fencing. He’s been the head of the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association since 2014, and has a long history of working as an advocate for the sport. Just about everyone knows who Peter is thanks to his networking and work ethic. 

Since 1970, he’s been involved in fencing as a fencer, a referee, a coach, and an administrator. He’s both a licensed referee instructor and examiner. Peter is the founder of North Bay Fencing in Santa Rosa and a coach in Halberstadt in San Francisco, California, which has been his home base for fencing for many years. 

Currently, Peter is running for President of USA Fencing against the incumbent USFA President Don Anthony (you can find our interview with Don Anthony here). Peter sat down with AFM to talk about his vision for the future of American fencing, opportunities for the sport, the importance of clubs and local fencing, and much more. 

An Interview with Peter Burchard

Igor – Hi Peter! So, how are you doing?

Peter Burchard – I’m running for president, so you know it’s an exciting time.

Igor – It is an exciting time. First of all tell me, how is this time for you?

PB – I’m just sitting inside until it’s time to zoom. I’m still teaching German and still teaching fencing through Zoom three days a week. 

IG – What made you think about running for the president?

PB – I pretty much had to. People have been asking me to for several years. I was nominated by clubs and USA Fencing members. Why was I nominated? Because I’ve been at virtually every NAC for forty years. I’ve been a head referee, I’ve been a coach, I’ve been a bout committee member all the way from very local tournaments, as you personally know, all the way to the bout committee chair, and the Grand Prix in Anaheim. So I’ve worn all the hats. I’ve been a fencing parent. I know what parents need. I’ve been a referee, an FIE referee for thirty-eight years. Then I’ve been the president of the coach’s association for two terms, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting coaches from the highest level all the way down to the beginning coach. Educating them and bringing them into the fold if you will. I’ve developed a fencing education curriculum for coaches. All of these things bring me to a place where people know me and they trust me and they want me to run for president. So one more time, clear and transparent communication. Frequent communication, and talking and listening to the constituents. That’s what makes me run. 

IG – Well, I have known you for the last seven years, and we have spent quite a good share of time sitting shoulder to shoulder in numerous tournaments.

PB – Stay six feet away please. (laughing)

IG –  So, you are a very transparent person. We had a lot of discussion on quite sensitive topics and I do know your point of view. People do like you and they do appreciate your opinion, they do appreciate your straightforwardness. I’m going to dig into difficult topics because that’s where I think it gets interesting. It is one thing to understand an issue and communicate it, knowing what should be done. Another totally different thing is to be able to run the organization that executes all these points and all of these visions. How do you rate your business acumen against ability to run this organization and being able to execute what you think should happen?

PB – I’ll just reiterate that I’ve been two term president of the United States Fencing Coach’s Association, and we’ve done very well, we’ve expanded. We have a much larger treasury than we had before, though that’s a much smaller organization. I’ll say to you that I hear that people think that I don’t have executive qualities or people think that I’m not able to run such an organization.  I’ll say that I’m a from-the-ground-up kind of person. I’m a hands on person. I listen to people and I’ll surround myself with experts. I like to speak to the dues paying members. They’re the ones that we need to serve. While I love the elite team, am so proud of the way that the United States has advanced and I want to support them, they’re not the only ones that need to be served. 

My ability to run the organization, whatever deficiencies I have, I recognize. I can surround myself with a team, which I’ve already organized, that are financial experts, that are coaching experts, that express the point of view of parents, and other people who have expressed the athlete’s point of view. I know how to use the inherent expertise in our amazing fencing community. 

The way I intend to run the organization is to bring such a team together, gather all the points of view, and make a considered and astute decision whenever an issue comes up. And as far as cajoling and persuading the board to do what I want, I’m pretty good. I’m a pretty good talker and I can ask them and I can tell them why and I can logically explain my point of view and I think that I’ll be able to, given my experience in the other organization and many organizations 

IG – Right now obviously, everybody’s mind is on the lockdown. Which is unfortunate and tragic. What do you envision should be the day after tomorrow in terms of fencing?

PB – I believe that everything will have to become very localized and I think it’s a great opportunity for us to re-authorize local infrastructure. If we make qualifying paths out of the division, which is a qualifier, that goes to the regionals, which will be further qualifiers, and then go to the national tournaments, we will have smaller and more high quality entries. This will let us be able to manage our tournaments. To start out, we have to stay local, restrict the size of our tournaments. We have to do social distancing. That’s how we have to do it. 

The next thing I’ve done is develop a protocol so that our fencing clubs can gradually reopen. These are going to be guidelines. I can’t persuade anyone, I don’t have any teeth. I can give you guidelines on how to social distance, on how to keep the corona away. On how many people per square foot are recommended to be in a club. These protocols are available to the general public, not just to our membership. I think the job of USA Fencing is to have leadership and make things available to the different regions. I don’t understand why USA Fencing would not come up with this kind of research. Please go to our website [United States Fencing Coaches Association] and you can see what we’ve come up with.

IG – There are a lot of clubs that are very limited in space. Social distancing might be very difficult.

PB – My club, for instance.

IG – That’s a big ask right because you have a small space and you need to make social distancing, so a lot of clubs will have big problems. How can we cope with that? What kinds of things do you think that fencing clubs and programs should do differently?

PB – I’d first like to talk about the leadership involved in the rent paying and stuff. There’s no income coming into USA Fencing because they put all their eggs in one basket – the tournament. With income from USA Fencing cut off and they have no provision for emergencies, they have no fund for helping clubs, they did not anticipate any kind of problems like that. And why not? So I say to you that it’s going to be a tough time, but I pledge to you that we will establish a certain percentage of membership dues that will go into a fund to support clubs in the future. 

That’s how we have to prepare for the future but we also have to stabilize USA Fencing’s financial status. At one point we were in debt of almost two million dollars and we’re not there now and we have quite a reserve and we can’t let that go away. On the other hand we really need to offer as USA Fencing some kind of relief and not sort of turn our backs on the clubs.

You wanted to know what clubs are supposed to do. You schedule when you have guidelines for the scheduling also on our website. You probably have to be open longer, although nobody is going to school so you probably have a lot more time on your hands. You schedule gradually as you open lessons in the club, and as I said before that one person every 30 square feet or something that’s acceptable. There’s a protocol to do this, and then comes the next one. You can actually keep your fencers engaged with individual lessons that way. 

The other thing is our zoom classes, and we’ve all gotten pretty good at doing those. And now that we’ve been forced to do it, it’s amazing and it’s been pretty amazing what you can do with a footwork lesson and it’s pretty amazing what you can do with targets and all kinds of things. All of these things that we’re learning in this pandemic, it shouldn’t be just a disaster there’s also a silver lining there. We can use this as a way to move forward and to keep these things that we’re learning and make them part of the curriculum in general. These are just a few of the ideas that I have about how we can move forward and the kind of guidance that the national office should be giving to our constituent clubs because a lot of people are in trouble. 

IG – One of the things that you mentioned that I want to dive into is you said that USA Fencing put all of their eggs in one basket, which is tournaments. Everyone wants to diversify the sources of income. Every business should do this. Organizations such as USFA are a different thing. What do you think would be a diverse source of income for such an organization?

PB – Some of that diversity is a lot of online resources. We can get the coach’s education online. Refereeing study and referee guidance. Referee seminars online. 

IG – That’s small money for an organization such as USA Fencing.

PB – That’s true. And we also need to come up with sponsorships. How do we do that? Advertisement. Online we need to have advertisements from various companies. 

IG – In the beginning of the discussion you criticized the focus of the national office on the elite team versus the rest of the organization.

PB – I support the elite team. I just think they don’t pay any attention to the common dues payer. They should be a big source of our success. What happened when the women’s sabre team took first, second, and third individually, and Bronze in team? We should have barnstorming tours. Our celebrity fencers going all over the country. Sponsored by USA Fencing. Doing seminars for kids, doing camps, speaking. Everyone admires Race Imboden. Everyone admires Alexander Massialas, and USA Fencing doesn’t take advantage and has never taken advantage of it. 

IG – That was twelve years ago, right? It was the Beijing Olympic Games. Since then, things have changed. Don Anthony took the reins in 2012. Don’t you think that during his period things changed on the front of visibility of USA Fencing?

PB – No, I don’t see as I said these barnstorming tours. The question of public visibility to people who aren’t fencers. I think that kind of thing is due to people like you, honestly. We need to televise the sport, like finals at NAC’s, nationals, etc.

IG – The thing is it’s a very difficult sport to televise. It’s exciting, but it’s exciting in movies because in movies it’s all theatrical. 

PB – We need more cameras. This is not expensive. You need more cameras on the strip. Behind the fencer, from the side, from above. That’s the key because of disengages around the blade. And then you need cameras that record facial expressions of the coaches, of the crowd. Notice I didn’t say fencers. Then when they take off their masks, that’s when we need to focus on them. That’s the kind of stuff that just goes by the wayside because the commentators we have, they put you to sleep. They don’t build up the character of the fencers. Like for instance, if you take basketball, Lebron James or in the old days Dennis Rodman, these guys are kind of built up as villains if you will. Then there are the golden boys like Michael Jordan or Stephen Curry. 

IG – But these are very watchable sports.

PB – A lot of this is because they develop characters, the media does. I’m not just talking about USA Fencing, I’m talking about the FIE or whatever. The announcers that they choose are not fencing people. 

IG – The thing is with sponsors is you know it’s “show me the money.”

PB – I think it’s show me the membership, show me the numbers, you’re right about that. Think of the Olympics, they love the rings, they love it and they put it up big like that. They love that stuff.

IG – Still, fencing is not something that is very watchable. I give it to you that there’s no storytelling in fencing. 

PB – But there has to be.

IG – Interesting. It’s very much an uphill battle. 

PB – I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of it. I’m going after it. 

IG – Ok, so one thing is sponsorship, which is going to be a long haul to bring this sponsorship. And you think you know how to do it.

PB – I’m not an expert in this but I have people in my team that have told me that they’re confident that they can bring sponsorship into this sport. As I told you before, I’m assembling a team of people with expertise in various fields.

IG – May I ask you who are these people?

PB – I don’t think so. I have to be elected first. But I’m telling you we’re going after it. There are people in New York, there are people in Los Angeles. There are people where money and publicity are, I can just tell you that much.

IG – You have tons of good ideas.These ideas are valid and important regardless of who stands at the helm of the organization. If you are not elected, will you be willing to work with Don and the USFA on advancing this agenda?

PB – Of course! I’m for the fencing community. They are my people and I’m their people. It’s the community that matters to me. 

This is a very tough time. We haven’t seen anything like this since 1918, however, there are resources that we can tap. Ours is a very small community, but everyone knows each other. Amazingly enough I hear from many many clubs that despite the fact that students can’t come in, students are at home and miss their friends, they’re not getting the type of service they’re used to. They want their club to still be there. I think that demonstrates the spirit of clubs, because a club is not a building. A club is the people around them, and the people who build such community in a club. Their loyalty to the club is directly attributable to the coaches and the administrators in such a club that have built the community in quote unquote normal times. 

That’s an amazing demonstration of what kind of community the fencing world is. As we move forward, we can look forward to the restructuring of local tournaments. They’ve lost their importance for us. I think that this time is actually going to build community and I think that, as I said, people are going to realize they’re all on the same team. We all want to come out together. That’s the thing I want to see. Community building. 

It’s going to be a dimmer switch, it’ll gradually come back on. We’re going to see that everybody is so happy to be together again and everybody will be so happy to compete again that people are going to turn out to realize that they don’t have to smash against each other. They’re going to come together and welcome each other gradually back into fencing normalcy. Remember, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all in this together, so let’s come together as a community. 

This interview has been edited down for time and readability after our fascinating interview with Peter Burchard. It is published with his approval on this blog.

Photo Credit: Peter Burchard. Peter asked that this photo open the blog post.

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3 Comments

  1. Gerald Duffy

    Re: in your interview with Peter Burchard, which was very interesting and instructive, there is absolutely no mention of the Veteran community, neither in a question nor a comment.

    A comment for Peter:
    In the fencing community at large, veterans are arguably the most dependable cadre. If you’re fencing after 40, you’re probably in it for life, until you’re no longer physically able (a limitation/condition we stretch every years that passes. For younger fencers, vets can play a role that coaches can’t, be mentors/friends, be surprisingly competitive and bridging generations. As we know, a fast, experienced hand can compensate for limited mobility (Kaz Campe, spinal surgery and now in this 80s!!). It’s a unique sport in that there are so many ways to compensate for age and physical ability. Unusually, it’s a sport where you can continue to improve as you enter your 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond. COVID19 will eventually be a memory and while I really like the idea of more television exposure for the sport, the USFA should also take advantage of vets. They can be great ambassadors.

  2. Gerald Duffy

    Hi Igor!

    I read your blog about veterans. Really great piece. You point out the collegiality of veterans and I think that’s a really good thing for younger fencers to witness. Many vets really enjoy hanging out together, especially after they’ve just fenced each other. I hope the USFA finds more ways to take advantage of us. I know my friend Bill Walker is working on that.

    Best wishes,
    Gerry

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