FEATURE

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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Foilists Sherif Farrag ’09CC and Erinn Smart ’02BC.

Freedom! Kogler was now the fencing coach at Wayne State University, replacing his old friend, the Hungarian master Istvan Danosi.

After winning the men’s NCAA crown at Wayne State, Kogler joined Columbia in 1983 as head coach of the women’s team. That same year, he was named men’s and women’s head coach for the U.S. national team. At Columbia, Kogler and men’s head coach George Kolombatovich formed a partnership as co–head coaches that would last 28 years. Kolombatovich’s chief focus was recruitment and administration, while Kogler was the man on the strip, behind the mask, the first PhD in sports psychology to coach in the United States, the European Zen-Meister with his visualization and biofeedback and relaxation techniques, his mantras, his writing assignments, his pressure drills for big national events. Under Kogler’s sword, Columbia women and men won 25 Ivy League championships and five NCAA team titles, and produced 13 NCAA champions and 14 individual Division I national champions, in all weapons.

En garde!

Our fencer lowers her mask and faces her opponent, her weapon aimed as if at the North Star in a smooth line from her forearm. Kogler has trained her well. He embodies his teaching, he knows adversity, and so perhaps she wasn’t surprised, after hearing the news this spring that her 78-year-old coach was retiring from Columbia, that Kogler had parried any final touch. The maestro will continue to train top fencers for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and to pursue, with international cooperation, his scientific research into psychological preparation and the identification of athletic talent. 

Kogler with (from left) épéeist Steve Trevor ’86CC, sabreur Bob Cottingham ’88CC, and foilist Caitlin Bilodeau ’87CC.Kogler’s transition was the occasion of an ingathering this summer in photographer Lois Greenfield’s studio for Columbia Magazine. There, a few of Kogler’s standouts, past and present, spoke joyfully of their guru. They called him disciplined, meticulous, intense, amazing, good-hearted, good-natured, the best coach ever, someone you wanted to emulate. “The most invaluable thing he taught me was to face my fears,” said Keeth Smart ’10BUS, team silver medalist at the 2008 Olympics. Columbia University Athletics Hall of Famer Caitlin Bilodeau ’87CC, a two-time Olympian and four-time national champion who, like Kogler, is also enshrined in the United States Fencing Association Hall of Fame, said, “His direction, his personality, his way of engaging you — the whole aura of who he is — inspires you to want to be the best, and to believe you can be.”

Prêt!

Our fencer is ready. Her blade catches the light as the spectators lean forward in their chairs. But she is not in this world. She is inside a moment. She knows that she must take the game, take everything, as Kogler says, one touch at a time. It’s 14–14, but for our fencer, the score is always 0–0.

Allez!

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