Lessons of Coach Guide Fencer's Life
story by Christian M. Chensvold '93
image by Matt Brown
It's been 10 years since graduation, but last November I made it to the annual fencing tournament, where the Titans sharpen their skills on out-of-shape alumni. The gym was new, the team was gangly, yet one thing had not changed. Heizaburo Okawa, now in his 26th year as coach, is as wise and enigmatic as ever.
I was a passionate but undisciplined fencer in 1991 when Okawa brought me to Fullerton on a scholarship. During the next two years I performed drills over and over, never fully pleasing him.
When I won the '93 conference championship, I felt I had rewarded him for the time he had invested in me, but I know I can never repay him for the life lessons he taught me.
It always fascinated us team members how someone so stoic during competition could be so boisterous over pizza afterwards. Equally amazing was how Okawa, when a competitor, put such emphasis on fundamentals during training, and yet was so audacious during matches.
Coach used to humble us with tales of his six-hour-, six-day-a-week training schedule, which included a thousand repetitions of slashing his saber, Zorro-style, through a series of parries. Likewise, tales of his competitive determination were bits of sacred lore, passed from upperclassmen to freshmen.
Like the time Coach was fencing for the gold medal in the Japanese national championships. Down to the final point, the referee yelled, "Fence!" Coach ran at his opponent and pretended to trip. Knowing his opponent would try to hit him as he fell, Coach parried and riposted (for the non-fencer, that's deflected and thrusted, with a sharp, swift movement), winning the match in a surprise move. "You've got to make the fall look really good," he would say.
In my last tournament for Cal State Fullerton, I entered the Western Regional Championships finals seeded 8th, which meant I had to fence the first seed, who was the national champion. I needed 10 points to win. "Can you quickly teach me 10 dirty tricks?" I jokingly asked Coach.
"You don't need 10, only one," he replied.
I scratched my head, wondering if this was a Buddhist riddle. "You mean
I just keep doing it over and over?"Coach rolled his eyes. Then he explained
how he won a match by running a superior opponent up and down the strip,
neither one scoring a point, for the duration of the match. Then, with 10
seconds left, he did his secret move and won the match, 1-0.
Work hard, but also innovate. Of all the things Coach taught me, this lesson
had the most impact: Think creatively, and you can find a solution to anything.
My first day at practice I was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a fencer in an impossible, yoga-like contortion. That day I discovered the picture was of Heizaburo Okawa, from a famous photo of him hitting his superior opponent while twisted
upside-down and backwards, in his secret move.
No one had thought of that move before, nor has duplicated it since.