In a time when things are constantly changing, one thing that remains constant is the sport of fencing. During this time, we have been honored to be able to sit down for a Zoom interview with the indomitable Don Anthony, president of USA Fencing, Vice President of the International Fencing Federation, and head fencing coach at the Ohio State University. He’s a man who has a long history of success on and off the strip, as a former championship fencer and a highly successful businessman. He has the kind of credentials and success that put him comfortably among the leaders in American fencing.
What you’ll get from Don in this interview is some true and fascinating insight in this global pandemic, from the standpoint of fencing. It’s a moment of clarity for us in what are undeniably uncertain times. There are not easy answers presented here, but rather a pragmatic and realistic approach to what the impact of COVID-19 can and might well be on college fencing, training, fencing clubs, and beyond.
Don Anthony, thank you so much for this remarkable conversation. It is an important part of the wider conversation that we must have as a fencing community.
An Interview with USA Fencing’s Don Anthony
Igor – It’s a pleasure seeing you. Thank you so much for your time. It’s a big honor. Please tell us first of all how you are doing?
Don Anthony – It’s a pleasure seeing you too. We’re all doing fine, we’re quite well. I thought I was going to have a lot of down time, but I haven’t had any downtime. It’s been just video and conference calls, just managing the changing environment. From that perspective, it’s not been what I thought.
I think the biggest disappointment has been the fact that the NCAAs got canceled and we had a really good shot at a title this year. All of my seniors have been denied that opportunity. That’s been really, really sad for them. Then all the other things as well: the Junior and Cadet World Championships canceled, the Olympics canceled, all that on and on. How sad is that!
When you really think about what’s important in life, my biggest concern is what’s best for our clubs and our coaches. For me, that’s tragic. Then I also really worry about the impact that it’s going to have on people’s psyche. Especially a lot of the young people that are going through something that they never thought was going to happen.
IG – Let’s talk about colleges. You mentioned that you had a good chance for good results at the championship, and that some of your seniors were denied this opportunity to compete. This affects the junior high schoolers right now too because they planned to compete, to get on the National Rolling Points list, to get the resulting medals and to sit down with coaches and to talk with them. So this definitely affects them. What do you think?
DA – First of all, the cancellation and why we canceled things in and of itself has a devastating impact on anyone, but especially on an athlete. I think the thing for me is that we train and we train in a cycle, and we train to peak at certain times. There were a number of athletes, especially those juniors, that were looking for the opportunity to be able to showcase how well they’ve trained, how their skillset has gone forward. They get the chance to interact also.
When you’re looking at that college experience, they are starting to make decisions. Some of them are based just on where they want to go academically, but some of them are where they want to go to be with the people that they want to spend the next four years of their lives with. I think it’s critical that when a young person is evaluating where they want to go to school that they have all of the information possible. The major competitions at this point in the season are one time where they have an opportunity to get that information both from interacting with coaches, being able to perform at the best of their abilities, and being able to spend that time with their friends and other people. That kind of dynamic is just very critical.
I think the other thing is that with all of the major competitions it is a really good opportunity for them to be able to interact with the coaches. I know as a coach there were a lot of people that we were looking to meet with at that would have been at the Cadet World Championships in Salt Lake City. We were counting on them already being there so that we could bring them to the university to show what kind of experience they would have. They haven’t had that opportunity to look at whether this is something they really want to do or not. But the clock for their graduation is still going to happen. So they haven’t been able to get that type of information, which once again that’s sort of tragic because now they have to make a decision. We all have to make that decision under uncertainty, but they won’t have as much information as they would have had to make that decision.
So those are the kinds of things that I think are, from the youth point of view, for us it’s hard that we haven’t had the chance to interact with them, and for them it’s hard because they haven’t had the opportunity to get a sense of “Is this someone I want to be my coach. Is this the coaching staff that I want to be with. Is this the institution where I want to be? Are these the people that I want to be with as far as my colleagues and my fellow fencers?” Those are all the things that I think are most critical in young people making a decision to go to college. And then for those who are looking to get into the elite institutions or to secure a scholarship in athletic aid, they need the opportunity to showcase their talent, and they didn’t have it.
IG – What are the imperatives now? What path should they take? What would you recommend as a head coach?
DA – What I’m finding to be the most important thing is for them to express their interest. I was on a call with a couple of juniors this week who I am very excited about. I am just hoping that we are their choice. I think it’s important that they actually show that it’s not a casual “well, I’ll come if I get to, but . . “ I’ve talked to a few over the last few weeks where they’ve told me “this is my dream school” Whether it’s my competition, whether it’s Notre Dame or Columbia, I encourage them to go to their dream school. But if that’s your dream school, they have to be proactive in making sure the coaches know that. Now if you’re one of the top elite athletes, like one of the young ladies I spoke with that it was clear that this was the experience she wants at another school, which I support 100%, she doesn’t have to really go out of her way because they’re going to come to her.
But if you aren’t on somebody’s radar and you want to get there, you have to make sure that even though you didn’t have a chance to fence and compete in a competition, make sure that you keep the dialogue open. Make sure that you let them know who you are. Create that relationship. The coaches are doing the same thing right now. I believe that if you’re going to have an effective and a really good team, it’s all about the chemistry. Every team has a different chemistry. That’s the kind of thing that I think is just really critical right now. If they can make sure that they’re relevant
IG – We were talking about proactive steps. Describe this girl or this boy that you say “I want her or him on my team”
DA – When you put together a team, a team is made up of a group of individuals that can work together. In the NCAA world you need superstars, and then you need that other group of people who are good fencers, and good teammates, and good athletes that are going to, especially if they’re freshman, that are going to come in a gel with the team, and then they’re going to have the potential to get better and better. You need them to come in with a certain level, but they don’t all have to be superstars when they come. For me, my ideal athlete is finding the superstar that has the right attitude, the right chemistry, who works well. My coaching philosophy is that I want to create a family. When you leave OSU, you have created bonds that will last you the rest of your life. I try to bring people in who want to be with the people who we have here and want to attract the types of people that we want to be part of our program.
So I’m looking for some superstars that have that same basic philosophy of life. Who are good young people that share that value system. I’m looking for others too that may not be superstars, but that share the value system and are hardworking. They have the level of talent, and they want to develop along the way. That’s what I’m looking for.
IG – Let’s talk about you as a coach. You came from executive and entrepreneurial positions, to fill one of the biggest shoes in US Fencing History. It’s a big role to take. It’s a big program. With you being an extremely visible figure in US Fencing, all the spotlight is on you. How did you manage this? What were your thoughts? What is your game plan and how has it changed over the last two years?
DA – When coach Vladimir Nazlymov, who was my coach, retired, I reached out the Athletic Director and said “Those are shoes that will be very difficult to fill.” There’s no way I could ever fill Coach’s shoes. One of the greatest fencers in the world. One of the greatest coaches in the world. I’m a huge admirer and fan. He’s taught me so much.
I actually went in to help The Athletic Department find a new coach when coach Nazlymov retired. I actually helped OSU find coach Nazlymov nineteen or twenty years ago. They asked me to come in and help them find the next coach. When the Athletic Director came over, because I was speaking to one of his Sport ADs, he said “Well, why don’t you take the position?,” but he had a caveat if they could get me through compliance. I had no idea what that meant. But I was like “Are you sure?” and then I spoke to the sports AD and she was like “We think that you are one of the most knowledgeable people in your sport. We’ve watched what you’ve done with your international teams. We know you’ve built grassroots programs. We think you’d be perfect for the position.”
I was very skeptical, but then I talked to them about what they were looking for. Basically he said “I’m looking for you to be the CEO of my fencing program. I expect you to be able to do what every other CEO does, put the right personnel in place so that you can be effective, run my program so that we win.” When he said that, I said I can do that. I’ve done that before. So that was why I took the position and that’s why I ended up in the head coach position. I was and still am the CEO of this fencing program.
What I didn’t know was that I was eventually going to have to get a new staff and go through that whole thing, which I don’t want to go into the background of all that, but I came into a world of NCAA compliance that I had no idea about. That was probably the biggest learning curve that I spent going through my first year. Just understanding how to be successful in that environment.
We had relative success, but from that first year of learning experience and then finally in November getting a full coaching staff in place, that was when I really felt we hit our mark. We were able to start the season with an amazing strength and conditioning coach that was able to bring all these athletes together and to make them come together for the first time.
The fortunate thing was that I did have an opportunity to work with that group of people that was there to instill what my philosophy as far as competitive athletics to be able to get them to know what I have learned as far as being successful on and off the piste. Being able to create an environment where they could work together as a unit and as a family who supported each other. Through our strength and conditioning practice and our training at the beginning of the season, it really gelled. That was the beginning of where we ended up at the end of this season as one of the top three schools going into the NCAA Championships. Where we were able to support each other, to work together. Our skillset came straight up.
IG – You have big programs, big names in the NCAA to compete against. What do you think are your program’s strengths compared to theirs?
DA – I think Ohio State has the best athletic department in the world. We have all the resources that come from having the best athletic department in the world. We offer strength and conditioning, we offer athletic training, we have nutrition, we have sports psychology. As our equipment manager says “We will give you everything you need to be successful.” Whether you do that or not is up to you. We have a long successful history that I inherited from coach Vladmir Nazlymov. We’re a public institution, and that has advantages as well. Academically, our honors program can compete with any program around the world. That’s something that we have not done a good job of letting young people know, that you don’t sacrifice getting a world class education to get a world class fencing experience. You can do both at The Ohio State University.
IG – Definitely it’s convincing. Let’s talk about what you think will be the next season in college fencing. How do you think it will be affected by this pandemic?
DA – It’s going to be very crazy. There are a couple of reasons. Because of the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games, I don’t know how many of those athletes who had taken a year off are going to be able to continue their training, how many will come back. That’s a variable that you just can’t predict right now. I think that the other part of it is that some of the athletes whose teams weren’t selected might decide they’re going to make a last minute run. I don’t think that there’s going to be a lot of those, but there could be.
IG – There are talks about the second wave, and they bring a lot of question marks about the competitions themselves.
DA – The competitions are going to be very questionable. The US Olympic Committee just put out guidelines to return to events. I think that there are two things. One is that we can’t predict the wave. The other is that we also don’t know what it’s going to be like when we do return.
I was on a head coach call with the chief medical officer for the university and the head of the medical center at Ohio State. The amazing work they’ve done in the private sector. You’ve heard about the disinfecting of masks, where they could disinfect them and use them again. Well the institution that did that is across the street from Ohio State.
Right now and in this area we can take those N95 masks and we can use them up to twenty times. We’ve also got our testing to the point, because we’re a big industrial state, so we’re putting our industrial strength behind it. So our institution will be prepared for the students to come back to school. The question is what everybody else does and what other parts of the country do.
IG – The thing is that the whole sport will be affected.
DA – The institutions of higher learning are really, really being impacted right now.
IG – Which might affect collegiate fencing too, potentially. And for some parents, who are very education driven, very determined to bring a better future for their kids this might have a big influence. There will be a domino effect on everything. What can we do proactively?
DA – I think you’re right about what has driven certain parts of our fencing population, the two sports that gave a student trying to get into an elite institution a competitive advantage – fencing and crew. Those were the two sports that admissions officers looked at as a competitive advantage. I don’t think that is going to change, from the standpoint of the admissions officers looking at those sports.
I don’t think that it’s going to change from the fact that people will not come to our sport for certain reasons. I think what’s going to change is that the demand for sports is either going to go up because we’ve been caged in and we’re looking for something that’s going to allow us to re-enter into society, or it’s going to go down because of the economic impact or because people are not going to feel safe to get back into the things that they did.
I think the biggest thing is going to be that fringe and that margin parent that is going to look at is this as a good investment. Does my child really like this? Are they really passionate about the sport? Or am I just putting my money into something that I think is going to be an investment in them being able to go to school.
We have to focus right now on the people that are fencing for the love and the passion of the sport. We have to make sure that we are making fencing more accessible to a wider group of people. One of the things that I don’t think we’ve done a good job of is what I would say democratizing. Right now, if you don’t have a certain level of income and resources, unless you’re fortunate to have access to a Peter Westbrook kind of program, fencing is financially out of your reach. I think we have to do a little bit better job of that. What I saw when I was coming up as a young fencer was like Maestro Santelli, a lot of the great masters, if they saw someone who didn’t have the economic resources but had the passion, the talent, and wanted to do this bad enough, they would find a way to make it possible for them to do it.
IG – That is true before the pandemic started too. A lot of things happened, and definitely the sport grew from being a very very niche school type of sport to something that brings a lot of medals at the Olympics. After Rio, I read that it was the fifth sport of the United States for the top medal count.
DA – I think that, first and foremost it’s interesting and it goes back to what we were talking about from our colleges. We’ve developed a pipeline, and we’ve got to continue to develop that pipeline. I think what’s most important now, and this is where I think the upside of COVID-19 is currently, is with what they’ve been doing with the video and the online classes. The coaches are actually collaborating now. I think if we can keep that collaboration, really focus on the best practices, of engaging the students that we already have, and then using that to expand and bring in more students will be very beneficial.
This whole video online piece is I think will potentially allow us to have even more relevance and reach even more people. Because it takes the boundaries of distance and space away, which we would have never done before because we didn’t have time to do that. Now we’re able to do that and we see it works. I’ve talked to some clubs and coaches who say online will always be a part of their model. Especially the ones who have international programs where they’re traveling, they can still work with an athlete when they’re on the road, on either strategy or technique, or other things.
I think the other thing that’s going to be really critical is we have to do more marketing and we have to make our clubs more present and accessible to a wider population. I think we’re going to go through a balancing period right now where we don’t know how many of your existing students are going to come back. That’s the biggest question. Is it going to be everybody that comes back? As an organization, what we have to do is figure out how we can get more visibility and be more relevant. As parents try to return to sports, what are the “safe” sports, we want to continue, and we want to be one of the safe sports.
IG – Fencing has an incredible reason to be a safe sport. There is no contact. There are a lot of things that inherently built into the sport characteristics to be a very safe sport in this. There are so many benefits of the sport. I think it’s a good time to get the word out because people will start to look at new ways to engage with their kids.
DA – You are preaching to the choir. As you know, that’s been my business before I became president. I’m so passionate about this, the promotion and the marketing. Let’s not talk about what didn’t happen, let’s talk about what can happen. The one thing that we have to to realize now in the COVID-19 world is that marketing and promotion are key, because if we don’t do that, we can’t support the clubs in maintaining and growing and getting to that next level.
IG – There are a lot of things that we’ve discussed here. I think what is important for all of us is the future… Another thing that we need to think about, which as a president you might have a big influence, is immigration. One of the major forces that fuels the growth of the sport in the United States is these coaches. This talent, knowledge, structure . . .
DA – Entrepreneurship . . .
IG – and philosophy, exactly. All of this.
DA – I think it’s going to be important as long as we can show that it’s going to be a viable business opportunity for them to contribute to the growth of our sport and we don’t have enough coaches here and we can prove that as we have been able to, I think that we will have an ability to continue immigration in a way that we have been able to. USA Fencing has been very good at encouraging those in charge of immigration to support our candidates because we’ve been able to make the case that it’s good for our sport and we can keep doing that.
IG – Thank you so much for such a wonderful conversation. The last question is about the whole fencing community. We want people to see the light at the end of this, so what can you say to fencers out there who are striving to keep up and continue in the difficult months of their training?
DA – To the entire fencing community, both domestically and internationally, I just want to say as president of USA Fencing, Vice President of the International Fencing Federation, and the head coach at The Ohio State University – we’re going through a really challenging time with COVID-19. We’ve not been able to get to our clubs. We’ve not been able to practice our sport the way that we would like to. This too shall pass. We’ve been through tough times before and we will get through this. Your sport will be waiting for you when you come back. We’ve learned a lot of lessons as we’ve come through this, so let’s learn those lessons well. Let’s pull ourselves together. I’m looking forward to seeing you all back on the piste, and I can’t wait to see us all back fencing again. Take good care of yourselves, try to stay in shape the best you can. If you’ve got a virtual lesson, make sure you practice on it. Take care of your families. Be safe and be healthy. Thank you.
This interview has been edited down for time and readability, as Don was kind enough to give us a great deal of information. It is published with his approval on this blog.