Talking Fencing and Coronavirus with Michael Aufrichtig, Head Fencing Coach at Columbia University

AFM recently had the amazing opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Michael Aufrichtig, the head coach of the Columbia University fencing team. He lives and coaches in New York City, which is of course the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Through our interview, we were able to talk about training during the coronavirus pandemic, how competitive fencing is going to be potentially affected by all of this, and to gain some insight into the uncertainty for fencers who are pursuing their college fencing dream during a global crisis.

We cannot say enough how honored we were to be able to get this insight from one of the top fencing coaches in the United States. If you are not familiar with Michael, then after you read this interview we highly recommend that you watch his TED talk about his innovative coaching style, which is incredibly unusual in fencing. He is nothing short of a titan in the collegiate sport today, and his insight is invaluable to all fencers.

Thank you Michael for your time and your insight! It is of a great help to the fencing community in this time of uncertainty.

(When the Zoom call opens, Michael is sitting in what appears to be the fencing training facility at Columbia University.)

Igor – Our first thought was that we couldn’t believe that you went to the gym, but of course you’re not there.

Michael Aufrichtig – I’ve been speaking to a lot of the team recently, you know we’ve been having some meetings and they’ll say “Oh coach, wow, they let you into the Dodge Fitness Center?!” I’m like “Nah, I actually learned how to use this Zoom thing.” It’s much better than the back of my wall. Also what’s great about the virtual backgrounds is that my son and my wife could be walking in the back there and you don’t see them.

Irina – That is really good. First of all, we want to ask about how your family is doing, given where you live. Because it’s really difficult now, challenging.

MA – So I’m right up by Columbia.  It’s not as bad as being the heart of the city, obviously. There’s some space, there’s Riverside Park. But I will say that most of the people that I’m speaking to that are not in the city, when they look at the TV or online it’s like the end of the world here. For me, if you walk outside it’s not as bad. However, I do feel bad for all who are being affected.  It is so sad to see the numbers going up every day.

IR – But it’s good and you feel good, and everything is ok right?

MA – Oh of course. I’m an optimist but I’m always thinking. I’m speaking to a lot of fencing coaches and I’m speaking to a lot of people who are like “Yeah, I can’t wait for like two or three weeks and we’re gonna be back at it.” I’m telling you right now it’s going to be a long time, unfortunately.  I know the dream scenario would be sometime in July. I’m hoping we get to go back in the fall to school.

IR – I agree with you.

MA – With regards to colleges, and I’ll speak about Columbia, as of now school has moved to online learning. Everybody moved out and there’s only a small population that could not get back to their homes. Of the seven hundred and fifty student athletes at Columbia, there’s only a few on campus and not many from the entire student body. Right now they’re deciding if they’re going to have summer school or not. That’s the next decision. In (a few weeks) from now we’ll get a decision on whether we’ll be able to have our summer camps.

IG – From the perspective of planning, it’s extremely speculative to host a camp because I think from the perspective of families and fencers and their parents it will be very frightening to send their child somewhere this summer.

MA – Yes, I agree, although I am still receiving emails from the people not from New York, but maybe different rural areas in the United States where it’s not affecting them as much. They’re saying “Coach we just wanna know if you’re going to have your camp.” Of course we want them to happen but we have no control over it.  If it happens, it happens.

IR – Right.

IG – So it’s going to be very challenging. You know I wrote in general about how it can drastically change the state of fencing in the United States

MA – Absolutely.

IG – Because it’s not like something short.

IR – It will be a long way for recovery.

IG – I think in general it will be challenging, I think as an overall fencing community we need to start thinking about what preventive steps we can do . .

IR – . . . for better recovery.

IG – I think that overall we can see currently there are no opponents or rival clubs. From my perspective it’s everybody in the same situation, and the more we survive together as a fencing community, the more actions we do together, then eventually it will benefit every one of us.

MA – I agree with you one hundred percent.

IR – Igor is absolutely right, we want the fencing community to come together now. I am optimistic that people will stay together in general. All we need now is sympathy and kindness to each other. All these stories of kind hearts and help to elderly people, to community, to people around, that is what will save us all.

MA – I’ll tell you something, my last two weeks I’ve called my scramble weeks. Now the last two weeks has been business as usual.  I am meeting with members of our team, speaking with potential recruits, reaching out to our alumni and speaking to a lot of fencing clubs that I’ve worked with before. I’ve reached out to different coaches that I know in New York to see how they are doing. Like I said, in some coaches’ minds they’re like “I can’t wait to get back in three weeks.” I don’t want to be the bummer, but I’m hoping for three months. This could be worse. I don’t want to scare anybody. I’ll tell you that at least in the New York community of clubs, Tim Morehouse has probably been the most innovative here. They went straight to an online model, just like you wrote in your blog. Online footwork, online training. Now I see even more clubs going online and this is great.  One of the things that I’m saying right now is that we usually don’t have time to do things like video analysis, so that’s another area we can focus on during this time to grow in our sport.

If this were a bad hurricane season and we had to stay in for two or three weeks, it’d be no problem. But we’re really in the unknown. Some of the things that I’m doing, I’m thinking just like you guys – how can we keep the community together? Hey, how can we get your club online for an hour? Maybe discuss topics like handling pressure among coaches. Talk to coaches about the college recruitment process. Let’s talk about something. Slowly, I’m starting to do that. I’m one hundred percent with you guys in that we need to stick together. At least in the short term if we can keep some excitement, we’re cultivating our clients with a long term vision to keep our fencers motivated to stick with it.

MA – I also just want to say one thing. I really respect everything that The Academy of Fencing Masters have been writing. Because I say a lot of things, and then I’ll say something and three weeks later you’ll write about it. I’m like “wow, this group, they really get it.” So it’s a pleasure just speaking to you guys in general right now.

IR – Well thank you.

IG – I like the idea that you read our blog. Thank you for that. I think right now we have quite a big microphone for our community, and when I say our community, I mean especially the USA fencing community, to talk. I think one of the things that you just mentioned a few minutes ago is how we can cultivate the excitement. So let’s be realistic. One of the things that creates the burn for fencers is colleges. You know this better than anybody else. That’s kind of a huge thing.

MA – Yes.

IG – So the most important thing is a very obvious one. Juniors, high school juniors, are screwed up in a sense. Because prior to this, if life would have been normal, they would have just had a chance to get National Points as juniors. If life would be normal they would go to April NAC. They would go to Summer Nationals. They would start to interview and discuss with coaches at Summer Nationals. I think that the best case scenario which we can hope for is that they will postpone it by a month, say the middle of August timeframe. That’s the absolute best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that it will be canceled altogether. They had the one day cancellation in Dallas, but it was kids and so they succeeded to bring them back in November, those four or five events that were affected. This is a significantly bigger picture. Then the things that we care about is Division 1, Cadet, and Juniors and their ability to get into college. Then, when I look at the calendar there is an October NAC which already features Division 1 and Cadet, there is a November NAC with features Cadet and Juniors, so by that time, let’s say the middle of October is the first time where junior high schoolers will need to meet the coaches, and so there is very little time. So the game changes and the question that I have for you probably don’t have answers because we don’t have answers yet because we are all in the same limbo.

The question is, what should be the new rules of engagement? Because life will go on, nobody will cancel the NCAA.

MA – Hopefully not. (laughing)

IG – Well nobody will cancel the NHL or the NBA. (laughing)

MA – I hear your question, one hundred percent. I’m saying the best case scenario is that we’re back in the fall. Meaning Columbia University and all the universities, and athletics can continue with maybe some precautions. Worst case scenario as I’m really counting on our scientists, is we lose an entire year, which would completely make things really crazy. Meaning that we might have school but there won’t be athletics.  Things are changing daily and everyone has their thoughts.  When it comes to the reality right now, the NCAA made a recruiting dead period through May 31st where no coaches can travel and do home visits. That was to keep within the social distancing and the safety and health of everybody. However, coaches are on zoom meetings. That’s part of the reason I’ve got my background. As of two years ago, we can contact juniors through email, phone, video chat, and as of one year ago we’ve actually been able to meet with juniors off campus. That’s something completely new.

Normally, most of the solidifications of the commitments for recruiting, which we now call academic supports, happen after the junior year like you said at Summer Nationals because at this time, they have a transcript with freshman, sophomore, and junior grades. Most people have taken their SAT or ACT, and then we can turn that into admission for a pre read to let us know if we’re allowed to provide academic support or not.

Now, with no Division 1 Nationals, which I was planning on meeting a few fencers, with no Junior World Championships, which I was planning on meeting a few fencers, and potentially no Summer Nationals, the new way of engagement is almost like the old way I would say. Reaching out to coach by email, which is probably the best way to start.  Next will be phone and video conferences.

Every coach recruits differently, but I really feel that everybody is going to be on the same exception that we’re going through tough times, there’s that asterisk next to your transcript and here it is. Who knows what will happen and maybe it’s in a little bit of an early stage as to how it’s going to work, but what we have been told is that recruiting is normal, same standards, same everything.

IG – Your talk about this really revolutionized the way that people approach fencing. I remember when you just had began being head coach at Columbia and I read an article or heard an interview with you where you described the statistical method, and back then it was kind of mind blowing. Now it’s kind of ordinary. What happens when the paradigm shifts? What are things that you look for and when you start looking for these things in a fencer? What they should develop in their approach in their attitude, should they change something to become the ideal candidate for recruitment?

MA – I will say this, that I feel every coach has a different philosophy but there are some philosophies that most coaches will feel the same about. There is a whole new wave of new coaches, especially in the last ten years. At one point I was the new guy, but this is the end of my ninth season where if you look at the Ivy League right now they’re energetic, they’re younger, they’re enthusiastic, they’re trying new things. You know, my TED Talk back in 2014 was paying attention to details and being open to new ideas. Now we have all of these coaches trying new things and doing new things, but I feel that we all would rather recruit somebody who’s hungry, who wants to learn. Someone who’s coachable. What I mean by coachable is open-minded, who, and you hear this a lot, has a strong work ethic, and then has the talent. Everyone wants talent. I feel if you ask any coach, a lot of those words would overlap.  I did some statistical analysis when I first became a coach because I was trying to figure out how to build a championship program through recruiting.   Most coaches that I have spoken to and have dealt with love to have somebody that is a team player, that is coachable, and that is hungry.

The people who are successful have (certain) qualities. Number one, they love fencing. And I think this is probably in any fencing program, they just love fencing. They love challenges. Fencing is the hardest sport in the world. You go into a tournament, there’s one winner and two hundred and ninety-nine losers. It’s a very difficult sport, but we all have different stepping stones. We all have different things that we’re trying to accomplish. We learn, we observe, we analyze, we adjust. Another quality is being excited about a challenge, rather than trying to find a shortcut to get around it. Really accepting it and doing the best you can with a challenge.

The heart of the question is what are we looking for, and I think the hard working, the hungry, and of course the talent. Now when it comes to where they ranked and everything like that, every coach has different opinions.

IG – The more you talk, the more questions I have. I know that there are a lot of strict rules in the NCAA and I would err on the side of caution.

MA – Well the beauty is that coaches can speak to NCAA coaches any time but what we can talk about is different depending on the year of the potential student athlete. You know, that’s the interesting thing.  I always encourage coaches to reach out. Once again, different coaches are more proactive than others,  When you have that diamond, you have that person that you really believe in. You believe that they’ll be a good fit, for any school, it might be Columbia, it might be Cornell. I say definitely reach out and be proactive. It might be something as simple as an email saying “Hey, I just want to shoot over this name.” Next time I see you I’ll share some thoughts, you know at an NAC or something like that.

Club Coaches are doing a service for the NCAA coaches by reaching out.  Rather than the coaches having to look through it all. Many recruits have been found that way. There are many good fencers out there. You know, sometimes even we overlook someone that could be a great fit.

IR – Did you have any more questions Igor?

IG – I do have more questions, but I could keep on going and going. Thank you very much for your time Michael!

IR – Thank you so much, this has been amazing. I just wanted if possible for you Michael, to say your few final thoughts to the community about what is going on right now. Thank you so much again for your time and your insight.

MA – My name is Michael Aufrichtig and I’m the head coach of the Columbia University fencing program, and we’re based here in New York City where we are called the epicenter of the coronavirus. I know there’s many other areas out there that are suffering just as bad as us. It is a new world that we’re living in right now, and here I am on a zoom meeting and this is pretty much my life with my team right now. I’ve connected with a lot of members of the Columbia fencing team and right now what are we focusing on? We’re focusing on conditioning. Now is the time to focus on conditioning.  We’re also focusing on footwork. We’re doing a lot of video analysis of footage we have from past world championships. Some people might be thinking “well, you know nobody is training.” We’re thinking now is the time to train. (*)

I encourage everyone to know that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t know when it will be right now. Now is the time to actually focus on things that maybe you didn’t have a chance to focus on. Another thing that I’m telling our student athletes is “hey, get some sleep. A lot of times you’re not getting your sleep, now’s the time to get your sleep. That’s going to be good for everything.

Hang in there. Fencing was established hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and a coronavirus is not going to take us out. Wishing success to everyone.

(*) Footnote –  In light of the recent NCAA decision, there can be no virtual skill instruction whatsoever. All that can be shared are strength and conditioning programs to be completed on their own. Also, all must be understood to be voluntary and initiated at the student athlete request only. 

This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Michael was gracious enough to give us a lot of information. It is published with his approval on this blog.

AFM is incredibly thankful to Michael Aufrichtig for giving us some of his time to share this wisdom about everything that is going on right now in fencing, and also about how we can move forward as a fencing community.