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
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Our young fencer had heard the stories. How Kogler was born in 1933 to an upper-class family in Hungary, where fencing, a modification of dueling created to stem the blood-tide of many a gored nobleman, had reached its highest development. It was the Kogler family sport. But after World War II, the northern part of Hungary was annexed by communist Czechoslovakia, and the Koglers, marked as bourgeois capitalist aristocrats, were yanked from their home at gunpoint at 2 a.m. and sent into exile.

No plumbing, no electricity, no work permit. Kogler’s father had a heart attack and died. His mother suffered paralysis in her face. His older brother escaped to the West and was labeled a spy. Aladar, 13, broken and miserable, fled to Hungary as a refugee to attend school. He had thoughts of suicide. To heal himself he explored a foreign philosophy that was introduced to Hungary in 1936 by Selvarajan Yesudian of India. Yoga, it was called, and Kogler sought out every book on it he could find. But in 1947, Hungary turned communist, and yoga, with its Hindu-spiritual currents, was banned. Aladar was sent back to what was now Slovakia. As a class enemy, he was expelled from school, and so he decided to earn his working-class credentials — and any hope for an education — by volunteering in the most dangerous coal mine in Moravia. This furthered his project of self-discipline. Control the thought and you control the emotion. Aladar, soot-streaked, was allowed to finish his studies privately, and was admitted to the Institute of Physical Education and Sport in Prague as a gymnast and diver.

Left: Épéeist Magnus Ferguson ’14CC. Center: Sabreur Jeff Spear, NCAA champion, 2008; two-time IFA champion. Right: Foilist Sherif Farrag ’09CC.

Then the Soviets figured it out. During the Cold War, Olympic medals were a means to demonstrate the superiority of one’s political system, and fencing, that emblem of the aristocracy, provided a chance to win many medals. Three weapons, men and women, individual and team, and with all those skilled Hungarians — one can imagine the excitement in the Central Sports Committee. Kogler, a highly accomplished fencer, had been obliged until then to keep his powers a secret. Now, under a regime that poured science and rubles into its athletes, his ability became his passport.

But, alas, as Kogler prepared to compete in East Germany, the KGB discovered his family connections — his brother a spy — and he was barred from international competition. Imagine: a potential world champion who cannot compete. The injustice did not shake him. He had learned to control his emotions. He would, he was told, be allowed to coach, and it was then that he made his decision. If I cannot be the best athlete, I want to be the best coach in the world

Kogler was appointed head coach of the Czechoslovakian national team, and trained 39 national champions in Austria and Czechoslovakia. He got his PhD in sports psychology from Charles University in Prague. If I put everything into sport, I will survive. His success brought him certain privileges, as he had hoped it would. After the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Kogler, back in Slovakia, was permitted to travel 60 kilometers across the border to Vienna to coach the Austrian team, an arrangement that brought valuable Western currency to the Czechs. 

In 1981, Kogler and his wife and son defected to Austria. They were placed in a refugee camp. Kogler’s goal was to get to America, where a job awaited him once he got his papers. Then, on a summer day, Kogler was paid a visit by the Austrian secret police, who informed him that the Czechs were plotting to steal him back. The Koglers were put in a car and driven from the camp to a village in the Alps. Ten days later, Kogler was in Detroit.

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