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.
IG – How is your life with your family in Japan?
AG – Japan is a comfortable country in every sense, though communication is hard. Work keeps us traveling and that helps. There are the stages of the World Cup, when we meet all of our friends and the like-minded people around the world. That makes it feel a little lighter and not so isolating.
IG – The competitions only take place during certain parts of the year, how is the rest of life?
AG – We are competing around once a month, but before competitions, I sometimes organize training camps. For example, I went to Moscow to train with the men. I regularly go to train in Ukraine. We went to France to train. This is all part of the larger plan of training for the team. As far as family life, it’s generally very pleasant, organized, and interesting. There are times that this lifestyle doesn’t fit together perfectly for the family, but that’s normal. There are the usual difficulties of school and balancing everything else with the children. I often travel, and that can be challenging.
IG – How does that work with the children studying in Japanese, given the language?
AG – My eldest son graduated from school in Japan at the Russian Embassy, in English. Unfortunately, my youngest daughter wasn’t accepted into that program. She studied for three years through an independent correspondence course at this school, but she was never accepted. The family is now back in Ukraine where she’s in fifth grade, and we fly back and forth to see each other. Either they come or I come to do a training camp, sometimes I come on vacation or I meet them at a competition somewhere. We get a couple of months together over the year. I think this will be the way for the next three years, with my daughter studying in the Ukrainian school.
We are looking to reach the next Olympics in three years and then, perhaps, think about something else so that I can reunite with the family.
IG – That is an admirable goal and a great deal of sacrifice for it. That dedication to the work of fencing is evident in your unusual story and your incredible success at this last Olympics. How one young and little-known Ukrainian coach was able to make champions at the Olympic Games given there was practically no fencing at the world level in Japan prior to this is a fascinating story for the fencing community.
Olympic calmness and coaching firmness
IG – Let’s start at the end, with the winning match at the Olympics. Given your goals and hopes, what were your feelings before the decisive battle?
AG – Of course, it was our greatest dream to win a gold medal. Before the Olympics, the Japanese Fencing Federation pressured me and said they wanted a gold medal. I tried to define the goal to be a little more flexible, saying “any medal,” but the committee stood their ground. “No, gold.” I replied that I would be glad to have any medal at the Olympic Games, since we knew that out of the eight strongest teams in the world each can win, and each deserves to win. Therefore, any Olympic medal is a very big success.
I am a very emotional person in general, including in training. I had an unusual calmness on the day of Olympic competition. Even when we lost seven or eight touches to the Americans, for some reason I was still calm. Usually, I’m nervous. I am known to raise my voice and shout. That day, throughout the tournament, I very calmly led the team. The emotions were saved for later, because in the moment I had to concentrate. In the match with the Americans, for some reason I had the feeling that we will beat them. Then, in the match with the French, emotions flooded through me. After our victory over the French team, I exploded completely. I felt the tears come to my eyes and my heart pounded loudly with great joy. This was the only match in which I had big emotions. It felt even more strongly than the first place finish or the narrowing down to two when we won the semi-final. That might be because I let out all of my emotions in the match with the French, before we took on the Koreans and the Russians. From there we were already leaders, and I had complete calmness and control of the situation. It’s with that calmness and concentration that I led the team.
IG – Let’s go back to the match with America. You were losing and, as you said, you were still calm. Watching that match, there was a feeling that the team would lose when you decided to change Minobe to Uyama. Especially knowing that the replacement could not be reversed.
AG – Minobe, of course, was the leader of the team and the favorite of the country, having won the most tournaments in the last five years. Yet for the last two years given the pandemic, he came out a little tired. Without competition to keep him sharp, he’d lost his keen sense of these situations.
Uyama still had the sense of urgency in his fencing. It’s extraordinary given the person that he is. He can catch his opponent and do five or six single touches. Minobe could have done this before, but the last competitions showed us that he could not do it now. Now it went plus one, minus two, plus one, and in some cases it even went to minus three or minus four along the way. It was already there in this last competition.
Each coach had his own opinion about the makeup of the team, and the Federation immediately told me – “You need Kano”, “You need Uyama” – these are two people who should be on the team. The third and fourth fencers, we have to choose. The conditions of the selection from the Federation were such that two people qualified based on their world fencing ranking and the other two were chosen by the coaching staff.
Since Japan qualified for its place in Olympic fencing because it was the host nation and not because of ranking, the conditions for being selected to the team changed. Yamada got in on his ranking, the Federation chose Minobe, and I chose who would have to fence in the individual and who would on participate in the team event. At the time, Kano was the fourth number and Uyama was the third number. I said that Kano would fence in the individual and Uyama would only fence in the team, although I needed both of them in the team. I understood that it was hard to put Minobe in the fourth spot in the team as he had deserved his position in the opening roster. You know, he was the man with the most titles who had won the most medals, so it would be wrong not to include him.
Then I saw that he was not pulling his weight in the team. In the Olympic Village before the competition, I had gathered the team and told them, “I’m changing the lineup. Kano, I will not change regardless of how he’ll fence. Down, up, or zero – it doesn’t matter. Now you have a choice: either Yamada or Minobe. ”
Minobe showed real leadership and agreed with this plan very quickly. He himself knew that he did not feel right. In training, he was losing in sparring. This showed the guys how professional he is, how to work well and fence with integrity. I saw how hard it was for him, how he was suffering in the training for the Olympics. I gave him less of a load in doing this. He said: “No, I will do the full load and what is best for the team.” He needs to be given credit for this.
During the match with the Americans, I saw how he simply was lost. He is a french grip fencer, and a french grip fencer, even when he doesn’t feel how to get a single touch, he must always feel the pace of the match, the distance and at least get a double. I saw that he didn’t even understand where to thrust forward with his sword. I saw it in his eyes. He tried to squeeze all these emotions out of himself and to get the feeling that he would do something in the moment. I could see it. He just lost this feeling. Then the second bout showed the same thing. I think that if the Americans had pressed in further and were not afraid, they would have scored more on him. Even with his lack of focus in that match, they were still somewhat afraid of him and so did not finish him off.
While I watched this, I understood that this was our last chance. I knew that a replacement needed to be done, but I did not know what would happen next. There would be no other chance, and I knew for sure that if Minobe took the last bout it would bring nothing to us.
We needed that victory, the one we had been going for for so long. I had to make a difficult decision as a coach.
Pushing harder and smarter
Another fencer on the team who I really believed in was Uyama. The team owes many victories over the last few years to him. He underwent a complex hand injury and surgery, but I promised him to take him to the Olympic team.
Four months after that difficult surgery, we flew to Kazan for the World Cup. He was number seventeen in the world rankings. If someone hadn’t arrived, it would have been allowed for him to calmly enter at sixteen, skip the pools, fence only DE’s with minimal effort and save his hand. Instead, everybody arrived and he had to fight in earnest for a place! He fenced with a decisive thrust for four fights and won!
At that moment a text came over my phone from a Japanese Fencing Federation’s doctor saying that Uyama urgently needed to withdraw from the competition in order to save his hand. I decided not to give up so easily and told him, “Let’s take a look at your opponent. Maybe he is a a type of a fencer who will not beat your blade? You must try.” It was a left-handed Israeli fencer. I said “No, you have to fight. This guy will not hit you on the blade and he does not have strong parries. Uyama started the fight and led 4:1. I realized that everything was going well and went to help Kano. But in the end, Uyama followed the instructions of the Federation and the doctor, saved his hand and lost. I was extremely unhappy and upset.
After that, there was a long period of no competition due to the pandemic. It was with some difficulty that we made it to the training camp in Ukraine and also to some local competitions. Uyama was worried about his hand and was afraid to go. I had to prepare the team for the Olympics and I insisted. “If you don’t go, you won’t go the Olympic Games.” It was tough, but true.
I understand what he faced. It was difficult because it was possible to injure the hand again. The Ukrainians are tough guys. They strongly beat their opponents’ blades with great force. This is not very good, especially when you have a hand injury. Still, Uyama himself saw that he was getting better in shape. I could see his emotion through it all.
Uyama wanted to fence in the individual competition and asked that I put him in the top three. Uyama is not very offensive fencer. He is a counterattacking fencer. He generally does not take up the offense. If you need to recoup in a match, that quality makes it very difficult. I gave my vote for Kano to be there. I convinced the Federation that Kano was a universal fighter; he fences in defense, in counterattack, in attack, and he is psychologically more ready. Kano finishes fights well. He is capable of anything. I told them how I have been preparing him for this for a long time. After all that, the Federation agreed with me.
With all that going on, Uyama was biding his time. At the meeting on the eve of the team matches, I told him “Yes, you must be ready. Be ready in any situation because we do not know when you’ll be needed. You have to be ready! “Uyama was 100% determined to help the team, and how he helped!
This is the whole story of how Minobe was replaced by Uyama in the match with the Americans. His finest hour came.
IG – Did you think that the match against the Americans would be relatively easy? Did you expect to have to make the replacement?
AG – No, I didn’t think that I would need to make the replacement. As a coach, I understood that this is fencing and that essentially anything can happen, especially in epee. I didn’t think it would be easy for us to pass, though I was always sure we would win. I believe that any normal coach always has a fear that something might go wrong. This is not one-on-one, but a team match. With one fencing well, the other not fencing well, losing his touches, and then that’s it and there is no victory! But still, I had a feeling that everything would come out just fine for us.
“Squeeze the fear out.”
IG – In Japan – France match, you came to a turning point. Until that moment, all the bouts that your team experienced were difficult. Against the Americans you were down in the matches and then pulled out in the last leg. Against the French you started losing, then pulled out in the last bout. After that there were battles with the Koreans and the Russians. It was as if they changed the Japanese team! As if the team that beat the irrefutable favorites, and then itself became the favorite. As though it was undeniably powerful and opponents must be afraid of it. It’s like everything went as smoothly as if you’d been gliding across an ice rink.
A.G. Yes this is true. Uyama fenced well and the team was well-coordinated.
At the very beginning of my work with the team, I told the team this, “Guys, I need your emotions. You have to squeeze the fear out of yourself by being vocal about it. When you get a touch, even a double, you should allow your emotions to flow out!” That was exactly the situation when Uyama came into this bout, this very important and decisive one. I watched how scared he was. He was worried and that pushed him not to succeed. He had some clumsy touches with Hoyle, and his nervousness was evident. Uyama usually fences with confidence, but here I saw how hard it was for him. When he got a touch, he had weak screams “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.” He could not squeeze all that fear out. When he got to the match against the French, he was now in a place that he knew how to handle it more effectively. Everything went better, then better, then better, and finally took off. Kano at that moment was already a leader, although he came up to me later and nobly said “It is because of Uyama’s merit that we won against the Americans, not mine. After all, I finished the last fight against Curtis down two touches. Uyama helped me and pulled out the match.”
IG- That’s right. Uyama won the bout 7:3.
AG – He won four touches, yes. Kano said it was all thanks to Uyama. Well, of course, Kano was a hero too. The decisive bout always rests on the shoulders of the last person. He also held out and won! And with the Frenchman we were behind but we still won at the end. Our team really changed – the guys started to believe in themselves. I said “Well, guys, there is a little bit left. One more round and we have a medal.”
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 2 and Part 3 of our interview. All three are published with Coach Alexander Gorbachuk’s approval on this blog.
AFM is so grateful to Japanese Men’s Epee Team Coach Alexander Gorbachuk for his time and openness. His candid answers and remarkable discipline are both exciting and inspiring. Thank you Coach Gorbachuk!