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.
Challenged to be Resilient – Part 2 of AFM’s interview with Alexander Gorbachuk, an Olympic Gold coach
IG – As the coach of a high-ranking national epee team, how do you navigate world rivalries?
AG – We have always had a lot of talk about the leading fencing countries, especially as fencing becomes more prominent in Asia. The Koreans have always been a dominant country, not only on the Asian continent but also on the world fencing scene. They have always been good. The Japanese fencing community has always said “Korea is strong! It’s easier for us to fence against the Chinese.” I have always said, “No one is invincible!”
Over the course of my long work with Japan, we have met Korea and China innumerable times. I have always explained to my fencers that China is a more dangerous and uncomfortable opponent for us because everyone is tall. A French coach is working with the Chinese national team and the team has become very disciplined. When it comes to distance, they are much stronger than they used to be. Their older generation was much stronger in blade work and legs, and this current team has more mastery of distance while they are weak in blade work.
Due to the difference in height and their training, we now have to do double the work in the area of distance. When you are having to do that much work, you make a lot of mistakes and it becomes difficult to get the bladework right. The men on my team still say “The Chinese are easier for us!” “No,” I say, “guys, believe me, though the Koreans are stronger than the Chinese, they are just like us. They are short ones. They are not so fast. They conduct a dialogue in the match, and you can deceive them with blade work.” I always thought this and I explained it to them many times.
In these last tournaments on the way to the Olimpics, we beat the Koreans. And before the Olympics, at the last stage of the qualifiers, we lost just one touch to them in the qualifying match. The fencers opened up a little and believed me in the semi-final. I told them that Park, in my opinion, looked tired. He didn’t look like himself in some way.
IG– Maybe it was the responsibility he felt?
AG – Yes, he did not have any medals then and he was a little worried. Park had high stakes and hopes to make it to the podium, but I know him. I watched him, analyzed his matches on video. Before, Yamada could not fence well against him at all. In this instance, he now came out and beat him 5: 4. After that, they believed. I told them, “Guys, look, here it is – it is ours …”
IG – It was your match and your victory. It seemed to me from the outside that the Koreans were a little lost? Especially after the first touches.
AG . – Yes. Yes. The Korean team was completely lost. In the first bout, I took a chance. I bet on Yamada against Park. It was a risk, because before that in Canada, Yamada had lost 4-5 touches to him. Because of that, I understood that if I put him in a second or third position in this match, Park would have a better chance against him. I put him on the first bout, with a maximum of five points and with the promise that we could still come back. If he had been placed in the middle or the end, there would be no chance. Yamada took the shot and won the points from Park! And from now on, without the reserves that Park was supposed to build, the Koreans could not use their initial tactics. They had to go to the rest of the bout to regroup and try to salvage the match. On our side, now Kano felt good, Uyama felt good, and it went as it should have.
Thinking about fencing
IG – The Koreans lost everything in the first six rounds, but then they began to recoup. Did they not have enough left in the tank? It was clear that the medal was already in your pocket and that in the final you would go against the Russians. They are a strong team, and all the athletes are older so the medal is urgent and important for them. What were your thoughts at that moment?
AG – I thought of this as a great success for us, definitely. At the moment, I was not thinking about medals and definitely not about Olympic Gold. I was thinking about fencing. I just had to think about the order in the right way. Kano always fenced the last fight, and I always changed the places between Uyama and Yamada. I watched who started, who was in the middle for the Russians. Who would be the last to fight. These were my main thoughts. In the end, I arranged our team correctly and successfully.
I liked the fight between Yamada and Glazkov. Glazkov, I think he is a very strong fencer. He is so difficult that he makes his opponent uncomfortable. You could write a manual on fencing from him. Yamada is a more defensive fighter. Yamada made three clean attacks in and Glazkov did not have time to react. After that, Glazkov fell behind a little. Then there was a moment when we started to win a little bit. Bida started to drag Uyama after Uyama first scored for or five shots. Bida fenced powerfully, it was such a dangerous moment.
The last fight was between Yamada and Sukhov. Sukhov began to score one touch, then a second, perhaps even a third on Yamada. It was very nerve-wracking, and Yamada was worried. I gave instruction for a certain action, and Yamada succeeded in it. The bottom line is that I understood that if Sukhov now squeezed too, it would be difficult for Yamada to hold on.
After the match, I asked Sukhov “Why didn’t you push until the end? You still had 30 seconds left. Why didn’t you push?” He answered, “I thought that four touches would be enough for Bida, because he is number one and he would beat Kano. I was sure that Bida would have enough time with only four touches behind, and I did not want to risk it.”
But it wasn’t enough. The rest is history.
IG– And the history was made! How did you and your team celebrate this overwhelming success?
AG – Oh, the team is probably still celebrating [Editor’s note: our conversation took place on September 7, 2021]. On the first day, of course, there were television cameras, interviews, and so on. They wanted to keep me in the Olympic Village for another week to celebrate something, but I asked to fly away to take a vacation and rest. You can continue celebrating and we will celebrate more later. The guys are still just swimming in glory, and they deserve it! They have television, interviews, parties, events, sponsors, etc. almost every day.
Those who understand fencing know how difficult it is to win an Olympic gold medal in epee! I am happy about the increased popularity of epee and fencing that’s coming because of this medal. Fencing is becoming more and more popular throughout Japan. This is what such success and victory mean!
IG– Who is the national hero there – Kano or you? 🙂
AG – That I do not know. I saw from the reaction of all the bosses from the Japanese Fencing Federation, right at the Olympics after the awarding ceremony, when they were in seventh heaven from winning the so coveted Olympic Gold medal. They thanked me very much. This gratitude and recognition did not come easily.
Mysterious Russian soul, or difference in mentality
IG – Have you had any problems with the difference in mentality with the Japanese Fencing Federation and the athletes in your work?
AG – Of course, the difference in mentality is noticeable. I had a lot of challenges in the course of my work. I have always defended justice, fought for the team as best I could. I did not have much conflict with the Federation when it came to those things, but I always defended my views. For the Japanese, my style is unusual – I am a more emotional and even an aggressive coach. On the one hand, the Japanese Fencing Federation understood this difference in mentality. On the other hand, I was called to the carpet and told that I needed to be softer.
There was a situation that was already known to everyone when I slapped Uyama to pull him into the moment, to bring him to his senses. The whole world knows about this situation. I explained to them that without rigidity, it would be very difficult to achieve something! I tried to explain my point of view, “Because you live in a cocoon that is made up of comfortable conditions, because you are doing well in life, you don’t understand it. Sports on this level is a lot of stress! You will be provoked, you will be called names, you will be insulted. People will even deliberately come up and provoke you. Will you be soft, obedient and not at all tough? Will you all always apologize? This is not the path to those big goals. Nothing will come of it!
In that whole situation, Minobe helped me a lot. He showed his leadership. He showed his masculine toughness. He quickly dived into world competition and won world medals. One might say he plunged into this toughness with strong fighters and he understood what he had to go through. I often said to him: “I need you to understand this. Sometimes you need to feel stress in training, in preparation, in order to pass through the stress of the competition!”
Stress is a part of life. In fencing it is part of what happens during a competition. Even in moments away from the competition, sometimes at training camps, on the road, on flights … I didn’t want them to relax. I wanted them to understand what that stress is like. At the beginning of my work, I was infuriated a lot by the Japanese mentality. I could not understand when any loss was perceived with a smile. Literally, three minutes after the fight and people were already smiling, they were already doing well. It made me angry, it upset me. I started to educate the fencers about how this mentality was a disservice to them. I discussed it with them, did lots of work, and in the end each team member was set up like a Gladiator!
Even in the area of mental training, I needed fighters! For example, there were moments when Uyama came out with his hand injury in training, and I said to Kano, “Don’t beat him on a blade, win it differently. Win by distance. You don’t need to go for his weapon. ” But Kano couldn’t win Uyama without beating on the blade. He lost to him all the time without making any contact with the weapon. He’d lose three or four points in training and then he would finally understand that he could not fence without that against Uyama. His emotions got turned up, and he started trying to win anyway, hitting even harder on the blade to try to win. It even got to the point where they were throwing their masks off. They got to the point where they were angry and swearing. It was no longer that constant and serene calm that they had before. These guys were young, and they didn’t smile as if they didn’t care anymore. There was a masculine character that manifested itself. This is what I needed – to cultivate a masculine character in them, and I succeeded.
IG – This is incredibly interesting. How does a Ukrainian coach work with the Japanese? The Japanese, on one hand, are very disciplined people. They have a culture of respect for a coach and for an elder. There is much discipline and dedication, even obedience. On the other hand, it is common knowledge that the Japanese hide their emotions. Strong emotions are needed to win. A person can have deep worry within his soul, but at the same time put on a smile. How did you deal with this?
AG – The fact of the matter is that they do not show these emotional experiences. I saw this way that they have of not showing emotion, and I had to get those emotions to come out in order for them to succeed. I tried an experiment. I had a couple of trainings when I said “Guys, your touches will only be counted as points when after you make the hit you yell and show some kind of emotion.” This created a paradox for the first few touches, when they could not squeeze the emotion out of themselves. They couldn’t even shout. I said, “all of this does not count. Your points, they do not count!”
It was important for me to pull out their emotions while also creating a healthy competition within the team. In all my years of coaching, I have always tried to create a lot of competition within the team. For example, it was Ito who tried to get onto the team after he won that first medal in Switzerland at the World Cup, then at the Grand Prix, and again at the World Cup, only to end up not making the team. There was Kumato, a young athlete who applied for this Olympics and who lost in Kazan for a medal. There were others. There must be healthy competition, and it is imperative that athletes feel that nothing will come of their work without full dedication. Without competition, there would be much less emotion, much less passion, and we would miss that burning desire to succeed!
There were five applicants for the Olympic team in epee. Kumato was the fifth. I presented these five to the Federation. If someone got injured or got sick with COVID, it was important that we have a spare. Everyone knew that the selection would be tough. I warned Uyama “If you don’t go to the Ukraine for training, Kumato will participate in the Olympics instead of you.” Immediately, the athletes stepped up and realized that I was not joking. There was nothing lighthearted about this. It was necessary for them to perform everything that the coach asked of them, to the last request. Even Ito, who knew that he had very little chance to participate in the Games, maybe just 1% of chance, even he worked so hard because he so wanted to get to the Olympics in his home country that he did everything unquestioningly. He even performed the training process more than the main team. He showed everyone that he was doing it all. “I can too, I am ready too! Give me a chance!” This encouraged all the guys not to relax and work 100%.
Admitting mistakes is another step to success.
IG – Since you yourself shared that you hit Uyama, I would like to ask you about that. You were suspended from participation in international competitions for several months. Why and how did this situation develop? After that, what kind of relationship did you have with the athlete himself?
AG – Yes, of course, this story is not a secret. First, I’ll tell you who Uyama is. In the team he is the softest, most talented person, and not only in fencing. He sings, he plays several instruments, he is a very culturally developed, erudite person. Uyama is the kind of person I shouldn’t have hit, if only because he is such a gentle, kind, friendly person in every way.
A situation evolved that allowed my emotions to burst out when I was in Argentina at a competition. The organizers had dragged out these competitions for a long time. There were long pauses for an hour and a half, which pushed our athletes greatly out of focus. My fencers started losing, fencing poorly, and I felt that everything was getting out of control. I felt tired. Uyama went to fence against a Korean, and the score was 14:14. I was sitting on the podium, with my assistant coach working with him. I sat there on the podium while he was at 14:14. There were mutual attacks, then one light went on and it wasn’t ours.
I didn’t get angry at first. Uyama turned his back to me, and I saw that his blade had broken in half at that moment! He did not protest and the referee did not see his broken blade, so that last touch of his opponent was counted. Uyama goes and simply turns away.
I ran over there and shouted, “Your sword is broken! Can’t you see?! Why didn’t you give it to the referee?” He stood there either in a stupor full of stress and he looked at me, looked through me. His eyes permeated me and he clearly did not understand a word. He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t respond. He didn’t react at all, not a twitch.
I said: “Don’t you see, your sword is broken! Answer me! Why didn’t you give it to the referee?” He looked up and was totally silent, in shock. I saw that he was in shock and reacted to the shock by trying to get him out. I slapped his ear with the palm of my hand.
He immediately came to his senses and reacted, saying “Sorry, sorry!” I immediately realized that what I did was wrong, and I felt really sorry for that. But this was too late – the train had left the station by then though.
In the morning, I got a text from the Federation with instructions to “to sit in the room and not to assist the team.” I gave them instructions on what to do, what setups to proceed with. I sent the assistant coach to lead the team and that’s it. The team went on to win first place, and then we all went to the restaurant together. I apologized. I talked to Uyama and explained my feelings, then gave him good wine there as a sign of reconciliation. Of course, I apologized and explained to all the guys. I was really ashamed. I gathered everyone, apologized. They said that they understood that Russian coaches are emotional, and as a person, I am very emotional. They understood that I root for the team with all my heart.
I said, “Guys, you know that my emotions were at their peak in that moment, but I still love you all.”
Admitting your mistakes is another step towards getting closer to the team and to success. They understood and accepted. That’s it, we moved on and were already celebrating the medal together.
The Federation did not want to understand the “peculiarity of the Russian soul.” It was definitely my mistake, I admit that of course. Especially given that I am a foreigner, a person of a different culture, I should not have done this, of course.
Uyama immediately said “I don’t want the coach to be punished,” but I was given six months of disqualification. At that moment, we were right at the main starts of the Japanese Championship, the Asian Championship, the qualifiers, and the World Championship. It was necessary for me to lead the team that I was building. I could not work with the team, even from the podium. It was complicated. Even at the Asian Championships, which was in Japan, I could not work with them.
I gave clear instructions to the assistant coach before the key match with China. I said that Minobe should not fence against the Chinese. At most, he must fight one bout, and that is the first one at most, or else not fence at all. “Look at the warm-up,” I told him, “Look at how he feels, and then put him in the first bout at the most. Only the first! First bout, first match or not at all! Well, he put him in the first bout. Minobe lost by two, but he did not change it. We had a lot of bouts fought in Asia. Then at the World Championships, they got a black card in what is now a well-known story.
IG – Tell us about the black card.
AG – At the World Championships, we had a meeting with Israel where we made a substitution. Uyama started the 8th bout. They fenced 0:0, they got a black card for passivity. Since we have no replacement left but they did, they were given victory. It turns out that we didn’t finish the last bout, but the score was equal. That’s it! We lost! This is a mistake of the Federation, this is a mistake of people who did not convey the rules clearly, a mistake at the level of the human factor.
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length and split into three parts. Read about the road to the medal and the challenges of pushing through difficult training in Part 1 and Part 3 of our interview. All three are published with Coach Gorbachuk’s approval on this blog.
AFM is so grateful to Japanese Olympic Team Coach Alexander Gorbachuk for his time and openness. His candid answers and remarkable discipline are both exciting and inspiring. Thank you Coach Gorbachuk!