Fencing With a Maestro
Legendary fencing coach Aladar Kogler, a sports psychologist, has trained dozens of Columbians in the game’s finer points. But first he had to teach himself how to survive.by Paul Hond Published Summer 2011
At the referee’s command, our fencer lowers her weapon and steps off the fencing strip. She just blew the winning point. Now it’s 14–14. What if she loses? What will it mean for her ranking? Her Olympic hopes? Oh, and her paper on Milton — was that due this week or next?
She has 15 seconds to eliminate these thoughts — all thoughts — and enter what her coach, Dr. Aladar Kogler, calls the flow state, that place of full integration of mind and body, what athletes and performers call the zone, what artists and scientists call inspiration, what believers call ecstasy. She draws a breath and exhales...the negative thoughts go out...she reminds herself of past triumphs, of her coach’s emphasis on playfulness and enjoyment, his belief that improvement is more critical than victory. Some coaches prowl the sideline, yelling, “Wake up!” Not Kogler. He radiates calm and confidence. Earlier, during a break, he had gone over to our rattled fencer and silently patted her shoulder.
Later, she will have to write a detailed report of her bout. What was she feeling? What went wrong or right? What was her state of mind? Coach Kogler wants to know.
She will see him soon, at her next lesson. There, underground in Dodge Fitness Center, she will encounter him — the nimble, sprightly, ageless Aladar, so light on his feet that he seems to glide. With his sinewy frame and hollowed cheeks, one might take him for a ballet master, or the patriarch of a family of aerialists. At lessons he wears burgundy velour sweatpants and a black protective jacket. He’ll meet our fencer on the strip and commence the day’s drills. Repetition, so that the body remembers what the mind must abandon. Technique must be automatic. If you think, you are not in the moment. A squeak of sneakers, the tap and clink of clashing metal, melodies in the invisible phrases scribbled on air by the dancing blade-points, but our fencer, focused, will hear nothing as she thrusts her weapon at Aladar’s heart.
Like many fencers, she came to Columbia for Maestro Kogler. She was from Ohio, Massachusetts, Brooklyn, Texas, California, upstate New York. She had met him at a fencing camp, at a tournament, had transferred from another school to train with him. He had noticed her, too, had seen weaknesses that he could turn into strengths, strengths that he could turn into coups de grâce on a world stage. He would open her channels. Technique wasn’t enough. They called it physical chess for a reason: Here were tactics and penetration on a mortal level. (“Physical speed chess” in the words of 2008 NCAA men’s sabre champ Jeff Spear ’10CC.) And here was Kogler, fencing Hall of Famer, courtly citizen of eight Olympic villages, who understood the sport better than anyone. Most fencing coaches were specialists, but Kogler, driven to extremes in his youth, was master of all three weapons — foil, sabre, and épée, each with its own rules and techniques. I had to be the best, he often said, and he meant it.