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The Best Fencing Referee in the World – A Conversation with Natalia Zhuravleva

Natalia Zhuravleva - World #1 Fencing Referee

We usually think of the accomplishments in fencing as something that is for fencers, but referees are chasing their own achievement as well. The most accomplished referees are those who are striving to always be better than they are, who are working hard to make the sport better. One of the referee shining stars right now is Natalia Zhuravleva, the best fencing referee in the world. 

It’s not lightly that we call her the best fencing referee in the world – Natalia was awarded this honor by the International Fencing Federation. She is a remarkable individual who deserves this highest accolade, and the reason why she was chosen is clear to anyone who speaks to her at any length. I was lucky enough to interview this truly amazing referee about what is important for fencers, the development of referees, and the direction of our sport. We all have a lot to learn from this powerful woman who is not just calling the shots, but who is teaching us all how to call them for ourselves. 

An Interview with Natalia Zhuravleva

Natalia Zhuravleva refereeing at Olympic Games in Rio 2016
Natalia Zhuravleva at Rio Olympic Games

Igor: Natalia, thank you for taking the time to talk. We’ve had several interviews with prominent fencers on our blog, but never with an international referee. You are one of the best fencing referees in the world, and that’s not just me saying that – the International Fencing Federation (FIE) has recognized you as World’s #1 Fencing Referee.

Natalia Zhuravleva: First place was a complete surprise to me! In fact, there are many excellent referees that I know. For example Gheorghe Florin Sebastian, who has judged more finals and semifinals than I have. I was sure he would win this title, since I was losing to him in the number of finals held. 

IG: Since you cannot judge the fencers of your country, I wish for you to direct  as little as possible in the World Championships and Olympics finals. 

NZ: I also always say to our team: “I can ref in Russia too. Fence, my friends, fence! “

IG: What criteria do you think were decisive? 

NZ: It’s hard for me to answer. I know there is an evaluation form, and there are a lot of criteria. In addition to understanding phrases, understanding the bout, communicating with athletes and coaches, there is much more. Well, why did they choose me as number one? I don’t even know. Two years ago I was third, then second, and this year I was first. Probably because the athletes and the coaches trust me.

One year we were at the World Championship among military personnel, and since I work in the army I come to these events as a referee. There was one Italian epee fencer and their coach Angelo Mazzoni there. This Italian tells me: “I know you. You are not afraid to change phrases if you are mistaken.” Then I remembered why he said that. It was at the World Championships in Leipzig, judging for first place with Florin, and I made a mistake in the finals of the team competition. I looked at the video, saw that I was mistaken with my call, and calmly changed it. I’m never shy about it, it’s okay. It’s not okay to give the wrong call just because you’re afraid of harming your image.

When I just started to be a referee, Ilgar Mamedov taught me not to be afraid to fix a mistake. He was a member of the referee  committee when I first got to work at the World Championships in Belfast, Ireland. It was probably already the fifth day of competition, and I guess I was tired.  In the meeting for the top  four came Egypt vs. France in women’s foil, there was a very difficult fight. It was the ninth lag. France led when I called a simultaneous attack. I was asked for a “video review”. Ilgar Mamedov was sitting there for the video viewing. He presses the video button and says, “What do you see?” “Right to left,” I answer. To this he says: “That’s right, go ahead.” I started to panic inside seeing the next phrase, because I suddenly stopped understanding what was happening on the strip. I got nervous. Again a controversial phrase, and again a video. Ilgar looks at me: “What happened in the ninth bout?” I look at him, and I guess panic and confusion fogged my eyes. He told me, “Calm down! Look! ” I looked, “Right-to-left”. He says, “Come on!” And there were four of them in a bout, 4 phrases that I needed to verify or change! Ilgar began to become intense towards me. He said “Where are you?! If we changed the phrase to the correct one, then there was no mistake!” I have remembered this for the rest of my life. If you give the correct final phrase, you were not mistaken. The motto of any person responsible for the fate of people should be that they have to be fresh and attentive, cheerful and focused, working honestly and without mistakes.

This is my job, and someone else’s life depends on it. I’m not afraid of it. It is very difficult with children, for them this mistake can grow into some kind of life tragedy. They will turn around and say, “Enough! Referees are fools, ” and they will leave the sport. I always remember that. I myself am from Kazakhstan, and I often had to fight with referees who made wrong calls, simply because I was from Kazakhstan. Often, when I was fencing and two lights were on, a touch was awarded against me. I remember that very well. Therefore, I said that I would not do that. Yes, I could be wrong. This is what the Italian fencer was recalling. I saw a mistake and changed. I didn’t influence any course of events. It seems to me that this is where my strength lies – in a sense of justice and in the absence of fear to admit my mistakes.

One family, eight Olympic Games

One family – 8 Olympic Games. Natalia Zhuravleva with her mom Valentina Ermakova and sisters Tatiana and Evgenia

IG: A referee’s decision can turn someone’s life completely upside down. 

NZ: Yes, one referee’s decision can turn life in one direction or another. It can make a person a symbol of the sport of his time, or ruin a career. I knew and understood this all my life.

I want to clarify this. I am a representative of a family that has been involved in sports all my life. Recently, on all the channels of Russian television, nostalgic moments of the Moscow Olympics were shown. They celebrated its 40th anniversary, and I, too, plunged into childhood memories. My dad was an honored trainer of the USSR in Greco-Roman wrestling, Viktor Ermakov. His personal student, Anatoly Bykov, won everything that could be won in sports, including two Olympiads. My mom (Svetlana Ermakova), was a volleyball player, played for the national team of Kazakhstan. My older sister (Tatyana Ermakova) is a fencer and I am a fencer. My younger sister (Evgeniya Ermakova) is a swimmer, a participant in three Olympic Games, as well as being a six-time European Champion, a nine-time USSR Champion, and the first participant from the USSR to make it to the first final in World Championship in the fifty and one hundred meter freestyles. 

When my father flew to the Olympics in Montreal in 1976, he was escorted by the entire family. When he returned with a gold medal, the whole city was meeting them at the ladder of the airplane. There is even a photograph somewhere in the stock photography of the USSR. I was seven years old, and these memories remained some of the most vivid!

When we all got home together, we took out our family’s silver vase. As a child, it seemed huge to me. Dad carefully removed the ribbon from the Olympic medal, put the medal in this vase, poured champagne and and they drank according to tradition, so that the medal would not be the last. When you have Olympic champions at home, it leaves an imprint on your entire life. 

The whole family lived in sports. I thought in terms of sports, I equated my life with mom and dad. I am a representative of a family that has eight Olympic Games as part of its history. Dad’s two Olympiads, one older sister’s Olympiad, three younger sister’s Olympiads, and here is  my Olympiad, a referee in Rio and also a Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. We all know the price of victory.

Natalia Zhuravleva: “If someone did not get to the Olympics, it is not because of me”

IG: You said that a mistake can affect an athlete’s life. Therefore, I was waiting for a continuation, something like “because of me, the person did not go to the Olympics.”

NZ: Maybe some inner feeling helps me. When I was just starting to judge, there were many people who tried to put pressure on me, especially at the international level. This is understandable. Plus I’m a woman, plus a new referee. Now it’s much easier for me than it was then. I cannot say that because of me someone did not go to the Olympics. They lost on their own, not because of me. 

When I was judging at the last zonal selection in Africa, and only the winner gets to the Olympics, one epee fencer from Cote d’Ivoire fenced with an Egyptian for first place, and she led by four touches. But in the last 20 seconds she received four touches and lost the bout on priority. Then her mask flew to the VIP-podium across the entire hall. So I took out a black card and gave it to her. She, of course, was removed from the competition, and was disqualified from the African Championships because she had a black card.

Representatives from Cote d’Ivoire followed me for two days. They went to challenge my decisions in the directorate, but they were told that I did everything right. That is, this is an example when a person did not go to the Olympics, but not because of me, but she herself lost that fight.

Competition for children should be a holiday

Natalia Zhuravleva explains to a young fencer why throwing a mask is a black card offence
Natalia Zhuravleva explains to a young fencer why throwing a mask is a black card offence

IGOR: You shared how important it is to be delicate, especially with children.

NATALIA: Yes, you have to be especially delicate with children. I once had a conversation at the Russian Senior Championship with one of our foil fencers – Roman Kuts. I asked him, “What will you do if I made the wrong call?” He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and said “Well, what will I do? I will go and get two or three clean touches.” 

Adults understand that anything can happen to them. This cannot be explained to a small child. After I visited Summer Nationals in America, I wondered why there is no special approach to children. The referees are extremely strict, and very quick to give penalty cards. I don’t know how your children survive in America with such stress. You have to be patient with children and remember that this is the very beginning of their fencing path. Everything is ahead of them.

I once had such an experience. In Russian we have the U15 Championship for children. There are usually a lot of participants, more than two hundred and fifty kids. I judged the first pool and parsed the phrase. Suddenly the boy lifted his mask and said, “Why the touch to me?” I said, “Because you missed in the first attack, second move gives priority to the attack from him, and you counter-attacked.” He looked at me and said, “How so? I missed, and then we started together, so simultaneous!” I tried to explain everything to him, but I felt very strange. This boy left the strip in full confidence that this evil, stupid referee does not know how to judge at all. And then I had a conversation with the coaches, and I said, “You made a disservice to your children. You are too lazy to make out phrases in training, therefore, he looks at me as if I’m from another planet and does not understand the call.” I am sure that if the coaches would analyze difficult phrases to the end, and the referees would support this with explanations with patience during children’s competitions, it would be much easier for children to grow up and feel confident on the piste.

I remember another story of a mask throwing. In one bout a little boy fenced the bout really well, but at the end he lost and threw his mask across the whole hall. Here, my reaction was already different than during African Zonals. I called him, asked him to bring me the mask and clearly explained why this was unsportsmanship behaviour and why it is punishable by exclusion from further competition. Then I called the coach, and also said this. But not because I wanted to show myself to be superior to someone, but because the coach must have explained many times in the gym that this should not be done. When the referee officially tells them this, such a story will be remembered for a lifetime. Therefore, I called him over and said in a stern voice that he had just earned a black card for this and that reason.Since then wherever this boy sees me in a competition, he always comes running, always greets me. Do not just be tough with children, they need to be supported and taught.

I think, and I say this to all our referees, that you are not the main ones here. The main ones are the athletes and coaches, because this is their job. The fact that you were assigned to evaluate their work does not mean that you are a star here. When I conduct seminars, I tell the referees to remember this. When I was invited by the Italians to conduct a seminar, my last words were, “If there are no referees, the competition will still be held. But if there are no athletes, then the referees are not needed. This is what you must clearly understand. The younger the participants, the more it is necessary to talk, explain and tell. “

After all, the competition should be a holiday. The child should remember that this is a holiday, not a torment. In general, the competition is a HOLIDAY! 

Natalia Zhuravleva at Youth Olympic Games finals - Buenos Aires 2018

There was one more telling story, I remember it and even my heart aches. It was the Cadet and Junior World Championship in Moscow and I started to ref the women’s foil. We are on the strip, have given the protocols. We come together in our groups and start looking at the equipment. Then this little girl, eleven or twelve, who stands up only as tall as my waist, comes up to me. She is holding three foils, her lame is buttoned tightly, her mask is tightly pressed into her, and her eyes look frightened. She was from Malaysia or Indonesia. I can read it in her eyes, “The referee will devour me now.” I say to her, “Check control.” Looking up at me with eyes full of horror, she clearly does not understand me and I don’t understand her language either. I had to check her before the bout. I repeat my request, not knowing, by her culture, by the way it is customary in her country , whether I can touch her or not. I try to explain to her again, smiling sweetly, bent over her, please. I look, her eyes are already filled with tears.

We haven’t even started fencing yet! I ran my eyes along the sidelines and saw a woman standing in a suit with logos that look like girl’s. I started waving at her andmotioned her to come here. I asked her if she spoke English and she said yes. “Could you explain to her that I need to look at the markings.” She translated everything for the girl, and the girl unbuttoned her jacket for inspection. I said to the woman with a smile, “Please, tell her that I’m not going to eat her.” She smiled, explained something to the girl, looked at me, nodded her head and smiled. This is how the misunderstanding ended peacefully. 

Because for children a competition should be a happening, a celebration, I never start a clock when I call a fencer to the strip. I remember on my first Cadet and Junior World Championship in Ireland, there was this Cadet girl from Venezuela who were supposed to fence against a girl from Romania. We were calling her for 15 minutes over the PA, to no avail. This is the Cadet World Championship, mind you! After 15 minutes she comes, I give her a yellow card for being late on strip, she fences, loses, but unhooks happy – she had fenced her bout! 

Yes, you can of course go strictly to the rules. I believe that the referee’s task is not to scare the child, but to make the child understand that this is a holiday. And so that the child  would like to come again and again.

Truth on the strip

NZ: I want people not to be afraid of me as a referee and to know that if there is a normal phrase, this referee will count it. There are phrases that I give, then suddenly I realize that I was mistaken. Sometimes famous athletes like Foconi and Cassaro can calmly respond and move on. They do not start stamping their feet, knocking with swords indignantly. There is such a nuance.

IG: That is, athletes who wave at your mistakes and continue on? Like Roman Kuts .

NATALIA: Yes, there are. But sometimes you have to be able to stand up for yourself. That was the situation, in a World Cup bout of Cassaro- Massialas where I was wrong and I gave in favor of Massialas. The score was 14-13, Cassaro was leading, and he shouted “Video! Video!” I went to the video and saw perfectly that I was wrong. I said so.  Cassaro rushed towards me to kiss me, then I barely stopped him and he felt that it got all the media’s attention and got these photos.There are such funny pictures. That was the moment. If there is an obvious mistake and I see that I was mistaken, why should I stubbornly stand my ground? I am for the truth.

Andrea Cassara is happy after Natalia Zhuravleva corrected her call following a video review

I was also very delighted with the honest attitude of the bout between  Massialas and Cassaro in one World Cup, where they fenced for top 4. The bout was very tense. At some point, as soon as  there was a dirty phrase, one of them raised a finger, confirming the touch to them. It amazed me then. I felt like they could handle it without a referee. I just wanted to ask,“Guys, it’s okay that I’m standing here. Maybe you could self ref now? ” 

IG: This is just your theory – if there is no referee, the athletes will be able to judge themselves.

NZ: Yes! I sort of parse the phrase, and they raise their fingers, as if helping me 

IG: Have there been any major scandals in your career?

NZ: The loudest I had was in Cancun, after which they wrote a complaint against me. It was a women’s foil,  Kiefer-Volpi fenced for first place. Score 14-14, two lights are on. Per regulation, I went to the video. In the bout itself, I felt the phrase was from left to right in favor of Kiefer. This was my decision. In the video view, the second referee saw the same. The phrase was complicated and a colleague suggested to call it simultaneous. I refused. I was ready to defend my truth! 

All of Italy jumped from the stands. Such a scandal had begun! Horror! Trilini came towards me and screamed, but I stood firm on my vision and decision and the scandal ended. At some point, an Italian judge came up to me and said that this was the mistake of the Italian athletes.  Many people later told me that it was necessary to give not what I believed in, but a simultaneous attack to avoid problems. I believe that an international judge must defend their honest vision of the phrase and remain principled. Then everyone will know that you are an honest professional.

When the Italians invited me to their seminar, we analyzed phrases a lot, and it was an amazing school for me. In Italy, there is an amazing Referee Commission system built like the FIE Commission – that is, a specific person is responsible for each weapon. The analysis of phrases goes immediately before everyone at the seminar. More than fifty foil referees were at the seminar. One of the discussed phrases was from this bout between Kiefer and Volpi. The host stood up and said, “This is an attack from the left. Do you understand why?” Italians are always working on the mistakes of their leading athletes. They showed us all the difficult bouts and phrases. They told us who, where, and at what internal competitions and what mistakes the athletes made. They worked out phrases and mistakes so that there would be no problems at the international level. I think this is the ultimate training of referees. Then these refs work competently at the domestic championships.

Thoughts on America fencing

Natalia Zhuravleva fixes hair of American foil fencer Lee Keifer

IGOR: Information should flow from top to bottom: as judged at the world level, at seniors, the same should be judged by juniors and cadets. Such training of judges would greatly help American fencing. 

NZ: In America, the refereeing system is separate from coaches and athletes. On the one hand, this is good, because it does not affect refereeing. On the other hand, one cannot exist without the other. Ilgar Mamedov, the head coach of the Russian national team and vice-president of the Russian Federation Fencing, is not formally related to refereeing. He does everything to make sure the coaches of the national team always have a clear and up to date understanding of the refereeing. For example, once at the Cup of Russia, Mamedov noticed one systematic error in refereeing. He immediately gathered all the referees. He has a tremendous gift, the ability to explain things clearly. He deeply feels foil phrases and knows how to explain complex things in an accessible way. I’ve used many of his methods to explain  complex things in an accessible way to young referees. 

IG: You touched on American refereeing, which is still growing in quality. But a good thing is that there are no political games, in my opinion.

NZ: The absence of political games is your huge plus. But speaking about American refereeing, one of the problems, in my opinion, is that in America there are referees who are absolutely not from fencing. 

It is also clear that you lack well-organized and coordinated workshops to improve the professional knowledge of fencing referees. We in Russia regularly conduct such courses and seminars. For example, recently we held a series of referee seminars before the children’s championship in Russia. You need to teach people. The Fencing Federation of Uzbekistan invited me to participate in a series of seminars since March, when the quarantine began, and invited people from other countries. You should have seen how seminar participants, athletes and coaches from Uzbekistan, are now sorting out phrases! Brilliantly! Such nuances are already noticed! I also share my thoughts, such as how I look, what I see, where to pay attention, the position of the legs, arms, shoulders, entry, exit, etc. Referees need to keep this in mind. And now we have more competent referees! I am very pleased! Now in Uzbekistan, foil refereeing will be of better quality. Also in Russia.

IG: Do you prepare video editing, cut phrases from somewhere?

NZ: We started with what I had from my previous lectures. The coaches then provided materials that they would like to watch and discuss. Then the athletes shared their videos. The best referees in the world and the strongest fencers talked about themselves and shared secrets. It was very interesting and informative. In general, it turned out very well. I am preparing more videos so that people can recognize patterns and understand phrases. This is how it is necessary to raise the general level of refereeing, when the best referees in the world and athletes are all ready to share knowledge for the growth of refereeing in the country and in the world. So simple, so difficult, and so necessary.

IG: Why do you call the American competition the toughest in your life?

NZ: I mean Summer Nationals, where you have many ages, and there are an incredible number of participants at all ages. We have such difficult competitions in Russia, for children, but we have the same age there – up to 15 years, for all types of weapons. You have a huge hall with Y10, Y12, Y14, cadets, juniors, seniors, division 1, division 2, division 3, division 1a, veterans, and teams. It is difficult physically and mentally.

But this needs to be done. It tempers judges, especially the young judges. Big events like the Summer Nationals or the Olympics make you grow.

IG: Natalia, you have had a huge rise to become the number one fencing referee in the world. What are your dreams and plans for the future?

NZ: I dream that the Tokyo Olympics will take place after all. I dream of getting to the 2024 Olympics in Paris. I’m not going to stop, at least not yet!

IG: Natalia, thank you so much for such an interesting and intense conversation! 

This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Natalia was so generous with her time and her incredible insight into fencing refereeing. It is published with her approval on this blog.

We at AFM are so grateful to the remarkable Natalia Zhuravleva. Her refreshingly honest answers and openness about what it takes to referee from the highest level to the lowest is wonderful for anyone involved in fencing at any level. Thank you Natalia!

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1 Comment

  1. R

    Natalia said: “Summer Nationals in America, I wondered why there is no special approach to children. The referees are extremely strict, and very quick to give penalty cards. I don’t know how your children survive in America with such stress.” We’re strict to prepare them for adult competition, otherwise they would expect leniency.

    Natalia said “…the boy lifted his mask and said, ‘Why the touch to me?’ I said, ‘Because you missed in the first attack, second move gives priority to the attack from him, and you counter-attacked.’ He looked at me and said, ‘How so? I missed, and then we started together, so simultaneous!’ That’s how we ref foil. Saber passes priority.

    Natalia said “In one bout a little boy fenced the bout really well, but at the end he lost and threw his mask across the whole hall. ..I called him, asked him to bring me the mask and clearly explained why this was unsportsmanship behaviour and why it is punishable by exclusion from further competition. Then I called the coach, and also said this.” I almost do the same – telling the fencer to pick up his mask and motion the coach over. That’s when I ask “What did you do? What’s the penalty?” If the fencer is very young and has been otherwise in control, I’ll tell him to apologize to his opponent, his opponent’s coach and his coach – though I don’t card.

    Natalia said “you lack well-organized and coordinated workshops to improve the professional knowledge of fencing referees.” Since Arianna Klinkov’s excellent ’08 Summer Nationals video workshop,I’ve been waiting for a similarly quality one. There was an Attack-in-Prep seminar last season that left most of us more confused than at its start.

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