Feb. 12, 2007
By Kevin Homan, OSU Lantern Staff Writer
The cut was deep. Really deep. Blood streamed from the laceration, leaving his right eye in serious jeopardy. An errant swing by a friend’s sword was all it took. In one quick second, an 11-year-old’s introduction to fencing went very wrong. After several surgeries to repair the damage, his future in the sport was up in the air. How silly the notion.
Fifty years later, Ohio State fencing coach Vladimir Nazlymov sits in the Steelwood Training Facility conference room, speaking of his life, a journey that brought him to the States. His thick Russian accent remains, along with the determination he has to make OSU an Olympic-caliber program, the same vigor that brought him back from near blindness.
“After (the accident), my mom didn’t want me to fence,” Nazlymov said. “But my dad helped me and gave me permission.”
The sport of fencing has Nazlymov’s dad to thank.
Competing for the Soviet Union, Nazlymov was a three-time Olympic medalist and captained the team from 1970-80. He also won 10 world championships and was twice named the world’s top fencer by the International Fencing Federation.
As a coach, he led the USSR National Team to a gold medal at the 1986 World Championships and silver at the 1988 Olympics. But even with the success, he struggled to live up to the lofty expectations.
“If we got the silver medal, it was a terrible time,” Nazlymov said. “They don’t care about silver medals.”
His route to the United States came ironically enough, through Penn State, now a main rival of the Buckeyes.
“At the end of 1991, I moved to the U.S. to be with my son who wanted to study at Penn State,” Nazlymov said.
Upon moving, he was presented with two coaching contracts: One with the U.S. National Team in New York City and one with an inner-city school district in Kansas City. Nazlymov saw the glaring void of youth programs in the U.S. and decided he wanted to build something, rather than deal with what he calls, the “politics that surround every national team.” “I chose to start from nothing,” Nazlymov said. “This was a grassroots program, developed in the inner-city for kids who had nobody that cared. At first, I was shocked and couldn’t do much.”
What transpired in the seven years that followed is nothing short of remarkable. According to Nazlymov, before he arrived, 70 percent of the kids in the school system didn’t graduate high school. In his program, every kid went to college. He turned the school system upside down.
Just ask Terrence Lasker, an assistant at OSU, who met Nazlymov as a freshman in high school.
“Within three years of him being there, our fencing club was nationally known,” Lasker said. “In 1995, the entire under-20 U.S. National Team was from Vladimir’s Kansas City program.”
Lasker witnessed Nazlymov build the program by himself, and provide facilities for a team, that for the first couple years, practiced in a cramped storage room. But more than that, it’s the respect Nazlymov garners from the fencing world that amazes Lasker.
“Over the 15 years I’ve known him, he’s never seized to amaze me,” Lasker said. “I know first hand how well respected he is around the world just from the stories I hear and what other coaches tell me. He is truly world renowned.”
For Nazlymov, his first interactions with Lasker had a very simple purpose.
“He taught me English, and I taught him fencing,” he said, admitting he struggled with communication for much of his early years in Kansas City.
In 1999, Nazlymov received a call from assistant athletic director Archie Griffin who wanted to fly him to Columbus and see if he was interested in the OSU coaching job.
He agreed to visit for one day and after a campus tour was convinced of what could become at OSU.
“I saw huge potential,” Nazlymov said. “There were great facilities, a great medical staff. I saw the potential for a professional program, an Olympic-caliber program.”
He accepted the job and OSU fencing has never been the same. Griffin along with then-athletic director Andy Geiger had big dreams for the program, starting with the construction of the Steelwood Training Facility, now home of the fencing, wrestling and gymnastics teams.
“(Griffin) said, `Can you be a top 3 program?'” Nazlymov said. “I said yeah, how much time do you need? He said, `3 to 4 years,’ but I’m not sure if he really thought we’d be there.”
Nazlymov made good on his promise, and in his fifth season, he led the Buckeyes to the 2003-04 national championship. He has enjoyed five consecutive years in the top-4 and coming into this season held an overall record of 270-73 (.783). The OSU program is a national powerhouse, winning three consecutive Midwest Championships and producing several All-Americans.
Nazlymov’s goal of OSU as an Olympic-feeder program is quickly becoming a reality as evidenced in recent years. The program produced two participants in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Jason Rogers (USA) and Louise Bond Williams (England). There are many more hopefuls for the 2008 Games.
Lasker followed the 61-year-old Nazlymov to OSU to continue learning from him while training for the 2000 Olympics.
“After training, he pulled me on as a volunteer assistant,” Lasker said. “Now, it’s an honor to be on his staff, but I feel like I’ll always be his student.”
More have followed.
Two current Buckeye fencers, sophomore Mikhail Momtselidze and senior Syvenna Siebert, also moved from Kansas City to Columbus to remain close to their coach. Both moved prior to their junior year of high school and fenced at local clubs before joining their coach at OSU.
“I moved because I knew I wanted to keep fencing and I knew he was the best coach,” Momtselidze said. “He’s a great guy…someone to look up to as a coach and in life.”
But beyond the numbers and achievements, it’s the impact that Nazlymov has had on his students that he’s most proud of.
“Education is the number one priority for me,” he said. “That, and what kind of message am I sending to the kids? If the kids study well, they will feel good. If they feel good, the parents will also feel good. I just want to motivate and challenge them anyway I can.”
The team is taking the message to heart. According to Nazlymov, 22 members of last year’s team were Scholar Athletes.
“He’s a great motivator,” Momtselidze said. “He wants the best for all of his students.”
The world is taking notice. In recent years, he has been wooed by offers from Russia; very lucrative offers from a country that wants its coaching legend to return. But Nazlymov is committed. To the students he recruits and to a vision of excellence for the OSU program.
“When we recruit, we make a promise to the student,” Nazlymov said. “We’re in the middle of building something great here, and I want to be a part of it.”
Nazlymov beams when talking of his time in the U.S. and in Columbus. But for him, the journey at OSU has just begun.
“I want three titles in three years,” Nazlymov said, referring to the national championships. “We’ve built a good college program but we must continue that success if we want to turn it into an Olympic program.”
That success is in large part because of Nazlymov. The iconic figure is seeing his dreams come to fruition.
Much deeper than the wound that almost derailed his journey before it began, is his legacy. His impact is deep. Really deep.
Kevin Homan is a Lantern staff writer and can be reached for comment at email@example.com
Kevin Homan is a staff writer for The Lanter, Ohio State’s student newspaper.