Noie: From South Bend to Tokyo, Notre Dame fencing program remains a force

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame will have 11 previous and current fencers from four countries represented at the Tokyo Olympics.

Four hours a night.

Five tops.

Maybe.

Get to this point in the calendar and most Notre Dame head coaches and their staffs (sorry, hoops, too many weekend AAU tournaments going on to miss) grab a chance at one final get-away before another school year starts.

Veteran fencing coach Gia Kvaratskhelia (type that on deadline without a misspelling), was no exception. Last week, Kvaratskhelia (pronounced KVA-ra-SKELL-ee-uh) was preparing to depart for a two-week trip to his homeland, the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Following a 15-hour journey over 6,000 miles, he’d reconnect with family. He’d see friends he hadn’t seen in a long time.

He’d settle in on a comfortable chair or a couch with some snacks and … watch television. Seriously.

Kvaratskhelia is big on the Olympics. He likes track and field. He loves swimming. If Lilly King or Katie Ledecky are in the pool going for another gold medal, Kvaratskhelia is all in. He won't miss a race.

“Swimming is my thing, besides fencing,” Kvaratskhelia said with a laugh.

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Above any sport, fencing takes Olympics precedent for Kvaratskhelia over the next week. That’s because when it comes to fencing, Notre Dame is good. Beyond NCAA championship good — and the Irish won the 2021 national championship and have won three titles during Kvaratskhelia’s time as head coach (since 2014). The recruiting pitch for fencers is simple — come to Notre Dame, get a world-class education, challenge for a national championship and shoot for a spot on your country’s Olympic team.

Pretty good option, right?

There are college kids past and present and here and there representing their schools in Tokyo. Then, there’s Notre Dame, which likely stands alone. When competition commenced Saturday at Makuhari Messe Event Hall, Notre Dame was represented with 11 past or current fencers from four countries – eight from the United States and one each from Hong Kong, Poland and Singapore.

Kvaratskhelia

They’re among the 22 current or former Notre Dame athletes at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“It’s an enormous source of pride,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick said.

Eleven fencers competing across eight days of competition means Kvaratskhelia will have to do some serious juggling. When does epeeist Kelley Hurley compete in her fourth Olympics? How about Gerek Meinhardt and his fourth in foil? When does Nick Itkin make his Olympic debut in foil? Kvaratskhelia wants to watch all of them, on the television, on the laptop, live or delayed. However he can, he plans to tune in. Even if that means battling beyond a need for sleep for a few days. If there’s an Irish fencer past or present competing in epee or foil or sabre, the Irish head coach will be watching.

“The time difference will be a lot easier,” Kvaratskhelia said of the four hours between Georgia and Japan as opposed to the 13-hour difference to South Bend. “It’s the summer and I can go on about four hours of sleep as long as I can see our athletes, and Team USA of course.”

The fencing competition runs through Aug. 1.

What’s Kvaratskhelia’s reaction to sending so many participants to one Olympics? Pride. Joy. Amazement. Bewilderment. A little of everything. One minute, he asks himself if it’s all really real. The next, he kind of nods like, yeah, this is what they do at Notre Dame. They graduate champions. And Olympians.

“There’s excitement and jubilation that it’s happening and those amazing athletes have the opportunities to showcase their talents and abilities,” Kvaratskhelia said. “I’m more excited than anything. It’s such an unordinary situation.”

How did it happen? Not even Kvaratskhelia knows.

“Sometimes when it rains,” he said, “it pours.”

Winning an NCAA national championship, as Notre Dame did here in 2017, is a close second to participating in the Olympics for the Irish fencing program.

A staple of success

Surreal is the one word that kept surfacing when Kvaratskhelia talked of the success of the Notre Dame fencing program. Not long after he arrived in 2007, Notre Dame sent three fencers to Beijing in 2008. It may have well been three dozen.

“We,” Kvaratskhelia said, “were over the moon.”

Notre Dame was just getting started. Four years later, at the 2012 Games in London, Notre Dame sent five fencers. Same for 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. As the program continued to sustain success, more Irish found their way to the national stage to represent their respective countries. If Notre Dame could send five in 2016, what would 2020 (pre-pandemic, of course) hold?

“I said then that if we could get close to five, I would’ve been incredibly proud and excited,” Kvaratskhelia said. “But then the numbers started adding up and we got to 11. Eleven is just absolutely astonishing. It’s mind-boggling.

“I’m just soaking it up.”

And staying away. When the fencers are on campus and attending classes and going to daily practices and competing, Kvaratskhelia is their coach. He’ll tutor them in the different disciplines. He’ll counsel them. He’ll offer constructive criticism and praise when warranted. But when they’re on the Olympic stage, Kvaratskhelia may as well be a fan in the stands — or on the couch.

“I do try to stay away from their hair until they get back to campus,” he said. “They have so many people texting them, they don’t need me bugging them. They know we love them and we’ll see them when they return.

“They’re everything to us.”

That includes former Notre Dame sabre standout Mariel Zagunis, as transcendent as anyone who’s ever hit the strip. Athletes often feel fortunate to represent their country in one Olympics. Two is crazy. Three? Come on. When the 36-year-old Zagunis competes in Tokyo, it will be her fifth Olympics. She won gold in 2004 in Athens. She won gold again in 2008. She carried the U.S. flag in 2012.

Aug 13, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Mariel Zagunis (USA) reacts after defeating  Rossella Gregorio  during the women's sabre team bronze medal match in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 3. Zagunis is competing in her fifth Olympics this month in Tokyo. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

”It,” Swarbrick said, ‘doesn’t get any better than that.”

That Zagunis is back in 2021 is ridiculous. A Fab Five, for sure.

“She’s a generational athlete,” Kvaratskhelia said. “Generational. Once in 100 years. She just has this grit and tenacity and passion and love for the sport. That kind of talent cannot be held back. I’m glad I’m able to witness her greatness.”

Greatness may await a Notre Dame fencer or two in Tokyo. Three will return for the fall semester, where the goal of the program remains the same — chase for another national championship. The next goal for many will be the 2024 Games in Los Angeles.

Maybe then, Notre Dame will have as many fencers in the Olympics as there are letters in the head coach’s last name —13.

But it’s not just Olympics or else for college fencers. Kvaratskhelia and his staff have found a nice balance between the two. Come to Notre Dame, compete at a high level, and the Olympics can be reached.

“One does not exclude the other” said Kvaratskhelia, who pointed out that of the 11 Olympians, eight have won or been runners-up for NCAA titles. “If you can hit the top three in the NCAA, you’re good enough to be an Olympian for your country.”

Prior to immigrating to the United States in 1994, Kvaratskhelia pursued graduate studies in journalism in Georgia. How, he was asked at the end of a 20-minute phone conversation, would he like the headline to read when it comes to Notre Dame fencers at the Tokyo Games?

He paused for a second, then two, then spoke.

“I would say, just that the fencers are able to represent Notre Dame with pride,” said Kvaratskhelia, a U.S. citizen since 2004. “Something like that.”

Exactly like that.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI