Sept. 10, 2004
As summer arrived, the Steelwood Athletic Training Facility sat quiet. Home to the Ohio State fencing team, the customary sounds of clashing metal and chatter between teammates and coaches were over for another season. The 2003-04 season, however, was no ordinary fencing season at Ohio State. After back-to-back years finishing fourth in the country at the NCAA championships, the Buckeyes brought home the 2004 national title in March. It was the team’s first national championship.
Head coach Vladimir Nazlymov, having just led Ohio State to the pinnacle in his fifth season, sat down in the conference room at the facility and opened the blinds to the large window that overlooks his team’s practice chamber.
“For five years we had been patient and worked hard,” Nazlymov said. “We have used the formula and figured out our opponent. If we want to be the best, we have to know our opponents. You have to determine how he or she feels in that bout and then determine what kind of action they’ll use. When you know their characteristics, you can figure out how to beat them.”
The formula? Does winning the national championship require some type of magic potion? No, not exactly-it is better than that. It is real.
“I’ll show you,” Nazlymov says, then shuffles back to his office. He emerges a minute later with leather-bound notebook that looks decades old and better suited for something Harry Potter might have found in the restricted section of the library at Hogwarts.
He opens up the notebook and begins flipping through the faded pages. Hand-written notes line the margins of pages that years ago passed through what must have been an old typewriter even then. One thing is for certain, though, the entire manuscript is written in Russian – Nazlymov’s native tongue. A former Soviet Army Colonel, Nazlymov was a 10-time world champion and head coach of the elite Russian fencing squad from 1986-90. The International Fencing Federation twice named him the world’s greatest fencer.
The same formula that took him to legendary status in the former USSR now has transformed Ohio State into the king of collegiate fencing, dethroning such perennial powers as Notre Dame, Stanford, St. John’s and Princeton.
“The year before, we were very close,” Nazlymov said of the team’s impressive but unsatisfying fourth-place finish in 2003. “For the last four years we had been preparing and had been in the Top 12. We were talented enough but just weren’t quite ready. We didn’t win it (in 2003), but the experience was exactly what we needed.”
“The 2003 season was a big lesson,” Alexandra Shklar, who finished eighth in the nation in epee in the national championship run, said. “It was so painful to come so close to winning but to not do it. Even our freshmen who weren’t with us the year before could feel it through us.”
At least one freshman did not need to be told of the team’s anxiety over its fourth-place finish in 2003.
“I could feel the tension from the year before,” Boaz Ellis, a freshman who would go on to claim the national title in foil, said. “I was very confident in our team and I felt like we were going to win it.”
“A year ago we had the tools to win the championship,” Shklar said. “But last year we had the psychological tools, too.”
For those that read Russian, the psychological tools must jump off the pages of Nazlymov’s notebook. For those that do not, however, he makes his message crystal clear even if his English is broken. As if he is out on the 2-foot by 40-foot aluminum strip, he jabs his fist across the table as he makes his point.
“Game is not here,” he says and symbolically puts his weapon down, then lifts his finger to his head and taps his temple. “Game is here.”
Perhaps it just took a little time before his pupils fully bought into Nazlymov’s plan.
“We had a strong team in 2003, but we might not have had the preparation,” senior Louise Bond-Williams said. “Last year coach prepared us and we went into the championships believing we could win it. The coaches knew exactly what to say to us that would give us that confidence before we go fence.”
Assisted by coaches Gia Abashidze, Terrence Lasker and Alexander Smerdin, Nazlymov has a dynasty in the making at Ohio State. The domestic and international connections he and his staff bring to the program are sure to keep the Buckeyes at or near the top of the NCAA scene every year.
“We have the program in place that will make us powerful,” Nazlymov said. “We want to be, and expect to be, at the level that even if we have a bad day, we’ll finish in the Top 3 in the nation. If we have a normal day, we’ll be national champions. And if we have a good day, we’ll crush the competition.”
The Buckeyes did just that in 2004, collecting 194 points at the national championships to out-score second-place Penn State by 34 points. Ohio State’s point total is the second-highest team total in the five years the NCAA has contested events in the six weapons.
The goals Nazlymov has set for his program do not stop at the NCAA level, however. Just as he racked up international awards, including medals at the 1968, 1976 and 1980 Olympics, he plans to produce fencers that will do the same for the United States.
“We want our program to be at such a high level that it will become not just a collegiate power, but an Olympic program,” Nazlymov said. “America’s last Olympic fencing medal was in 1984 and the previous medal to that was in 1960. Our country has the tools it takes to win. Now we must do it.”
One of Nazlymov’s current fencers, Jason Rogers, was a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team that competed in Athens, Greece, while Bond-Williams was on Great Britain’s fencing squad. As Nazlymov continues to build his program in Columbus, the number of Olympians he produces is sure to grow, as will the number of NCAA champions. At the 2004 NCAA Championships, sophomore Adam Crompton claimed the men’s sabre national title, joining Ellis as an NCAA gold medalist.
Winning national championships, both team and individual, is a direct result of Nazlymov’s system. As he administers that plan, Nazlymov looks for what each individual fencer needs to hear or see to reach their potential.
“His power to read people, to know what they need or how they’ll respond, is amazing,” senior Colin Parker, who posted a 45-3 record last season, said. “We call him ‘Naztradamus.'”
“Our coaches helped us so much,” Shklar said. “They had to do a lot of extra work with us beyond fencing, especially with our emotions, because we went through a lot of ups and downs last season. They were almost like counselors to us during the season. Sometimes our confidence lacked, but our coaches’ confidence never lacked. They had 100 percent confidence in us.”
There are specific reasons for Nazlymov’s confidence.
“Our conditioning is excellent, both tactically and psychologically,” Nazlymov said. “Then you have to motivate kids and get them to know why they can win.”
He pauses and gazes out into the training quarters. Except for a single flood light the room is dark. Perhaps by no coincidence, it illuminates a painting of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi that Nazlymov had painted on the wall with the entire text of Lombardi’s “What it Takes to be Number One” mantra below it.
“It is hard to win first place,” Nazlymov said. “But it is harder to stay first because everyone wants to beat us now.”
Fortunately for Buckeye fans, the odds are good Ohio State will remain among the nation’s elite fencing teams. After all, the man leading the Scarlet and Gray knows a thing or two about what it takes to be No. 1.