Art of Fencing, Art of Life

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From COVID to Careers – An Interview Alexander Gorbachuk, Coach of the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team Part 3

From COVID to Careers - An Interview Alexander Gorbachuk, Coach of the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team Part 3

Taking a team to the highest level of fencing is a task that’s filled with tough decisions, long hours, and much sacrifice on the part of everyone involved. Getting there takes a team effort, and it takes a fencing coach with vision like Alexander Gorbachuk.

Originally from Ukraine, Gorbachuk has been the leader of the Japanese men’s epee fencing team for a dozen years now, but he’s always looking forward. Even after his team’s win on the world’s biggest sports stage, he’s got an eye for what comes next for Japan and for fencing.

His rigorous work ethic and layered understanding of the intertwining cultures of fencing across the world have helped him to lead the Japanese epee team all the way to the Gold in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Bridging the cultural barriers has not been a walk in the park, but after investing more than a decade into the Japanese epee team, Gorbachuk has found a way to bring out the best in his fencers. In this piece, he gives us a remarkable insight into how fencing in Japan works, from the way that various weapons interact to how athletes are supported during their fencing career, to what happens after.

Clearly, Alexander Gorbachuk is a deep mine of knowledge within fencing, but he’s also a coach who meets his staff and his athletes where they are. Once he meets them, that’s when he’s able to take them to the next level.

The transformational methods of his coaching are showcased in this series of interviews. In Part 1, he shared his experience shaping the team in the lead up to the Olympics. Then in Part 2, he showed us what it means to do the challenging work of crossing cultures in sport. Finally here in Part 3, Gorbachuk gives us insight into training through COVID and the path forward.

Challenged to be Resilient – An Interview with Alexander Gorbachuk, Coach of the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team – Part 2

Challenged to be Resilient - An Interview with Alexander Gorbachuk, Coach of the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team - Part 2

Understanding the dynamics of international fencing is fascinating for those of us who work primarily on the youth sports level. It is so incredibly different, from the methods of training to the rigor that is required. The stress of this level of competition takes its toll on everyone, and preparing for that kind of stress sometimes comes in some unusual and controversial ways.

Coach of the 2020 Olympic gold medal-winning Japanese men’s epee team Alexander Gorbachuk opens up about what it takes to get to the gold, both the highs and the lows. In our in-depth interview with Gorbachuk, he tells us what he really thinks about the most talked about subjects in Olympic fencing. 

Coming from the Soviet Union and Ukrainian background, Alexander had to learn to navigate the substantial differences between fencing training and sports philosophy in Japan versus what he knew and what he knew to be successful. Shrinking the cultural chasm between the two was challenging, though his team’s incredible success at the 2020 Olympics proves that Gorbachuk’s methods were worthwhile. 

The emotional depth and resilience that is needed for a fencer to reach this highest peak are incredible, and the road up to the top of this mountain was not an easy one. Alexander speaks candidly about the controversy surrounding his suspension from coaching, his relationship with his athletes, and how his philosophy of coaching is founded on preparing his athletes for the realities of competition. 

This is Part 2 of our three-part interview with Gorbachuk. In Part 1, he walked us through the Olympic experience up to the final round. Part 3 focuses on what’s next for fencing and for his own career. Here in Part 2, he pulls back the curtain to show us the inner workings of the top men’s epee team in the world. 

From Big Dreams to Olympic Gold – An Interview with Alexander Gorbachuk, Coach of the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team – Part 1

Japan Men's Epee team and coach Alexander Gorbachuk - Gold at Tokyo Olympics

This is the story of one coach who went down in the history of Japanese fencing and world fencing through perseverance and strength of character.

For the world, one moment of Olympic Gold can seem like just one moment. For Alexander Gorbachuk, that one moment is the culmination of decades of hard work and a commitment to giving his athletes the best possible structure. Success in fencing on this level does not come without the application of a persevering mindset. Originally from Ukraine, Gorbachuk has leveraged his knowledge of fencing and his unique understanding of international competition to help the Japanese Men’s Epee team reach the highest level of fencing.

The Gold medal win for Japan might have seemed unexpected to the world of fencing but Alexander Gorbachuk was not at all surprised to see his athletes rise to the highest level of epee. In fact, he saw how their talents could be woven together to create a strong team that could make it all the way to the top. He shares with us how he was able to unleash the power of his fencers, including details of some of his training techniques that pushed them past their own barriers. 

In our wide-ranging interview with Gorbachuk, we were privileged to garner an inside look at the process of getting to the Olympic Gold in fencing. His coaching of the Japanese epee team is nothing short of transformational.

This interview is split into three parts. Here in Part 1, we walk through the training experience and those preliminary matches. In Part 2, you’ll peek through to see what leadership in fencing means at this level. Finally, in Part Three we turn to the future. The whole of all parts will help you understand aspects of high level fencing that are fascinating and deeply personal. 

Big Dreams to a Gold Medal – Part 1 of AFM’s interview with Alexander Gorbachuk

IG – Alexander, I start by congratulating you with great joy for your brilliant victory as the head coach of the Japanese National Epee Team – a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics! 

AG – Thank you very much! For many, it was a very big and very unexpected victory. But for me, as a coach, it was a natural process that always went in the right direction, though it was long and difficult.   

Fencing History was Made in Tokyo 2020

Fencing history was made in Tokyo 2020 - Italian Women's Foil Team greets their opponents before the match starts
Italian Women’s Foil Team greets their opponents before the match starts

Anyone who either watched the events live or followed the results from Olympic fencing in Tokyo would agree – history was made at Makuhari Messe event hall. These were fascinating Games in general across all sports. There was incredible, real drama at each turn. Decades-old world records were broken. Huge topics that had been hidden beneath the surface of the sport rose to the top. Camaraderie between athletes shown through across countries, with athletes sharing moments of both glory and defeat in union and community. 

These Games were everything the sport can display, once again showing us why so many people across the globe come together for two short weeks every four years. Even those who barely follow sport in their everyday lives watch for the outcome beneath the Olympic rings. Suddenly, everyone across almost the entire population engages in a conversation about the human spirit, achievements, healthy competition, taboo topics, and the real drama unfolding before our eyes. 

Everyone who watched fencing at the Olympics should be awed by such a great tournament. I would call the outcome of the fencing competition at Tokyo as surprising as any we’ve seen in any year, challenging even the most seemingly inevitable predictions. These Games produced, in my opinion, the most diverse results we could imagine and added tons of new fencing records to what we’ve seen.  A lot of things happened for the first time in these Games. Surprises both positive and negative characterized the action both on and off the piste. 

Just a short while ago, I wrote about my predictions in the individual competitions. Now let’s take a closer look at my initial predictions regarding the team competition and how the events played out at Makuhari Messe. 

‘I was nobody, and that helped me to relax’ – Olympic Surprises and How Wrong Any Prediction Can Be

One of the biggest and nicest surprises in the Tokyo Olympics - first time in the history the USA women's foil fencer got a medal, and which one - the GOLD!

The first half of this Olympics, which showcased the individual events in fencing, was full of surprises, great stories, and the birth of new stars in fencing who brought a great deal of pride to their nations. The surprises went in both directions – frustrating, unpleasant, and disappointing, as well as inspiring, motivating, and uplifting 

This is what we come to the Olympics for, this huge spectrum of emotion and inspiration. It’s the depth of the experience that is so incredibly satisfying. 

The uniqueness of the Olympics

One of the most beautiful things about the Olympics is that it offers us the biggest sports drama on the biggest stage. The stakes are highest in the lives of the athletes because for many niche sports, this is the only time that the world is watching. The international news only covers rowing, gymnastics, swimming, and fencing once every four years! Even for mainstream sports like basketball, the Olympics offer a rare opportunity to represent a country with pride. It is a moment that is unlike any other, given the worldwide attention and the patriotism. 

The Olympics are arguably the most nerve-wracking experience for athletes. That pressure usually falls hardest onto the favorites of a sport, the strongest in the field of contenders. They have to prove to the whole world that they are indeed the best. In a sport like fencing, it is extremely difficult for the leaders to perform at the Olympics at the level that is expected from them. Those athletes who are not quite so far at the front, the underdogs of the sport, they have nothing to lose. That makes the race fundamentally different for them. 

The newly crowned Olympic Champion in men’s individual foil, Edgar Ka-Long Cheung, said in this interview after winning the Gold today, “I thought to myself – everyone was either an Olympic champion or a world champion, and I was nobody. That helped me relax a bit” 

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