COLUMBUS, Ohio — Three years ago the once proud men‘s fencing program at Columbia had just two wins. The Lions finished last in the Ivy League.
So they hired a computer software salesman as head coach.
Michael Aufrichtig joined Columbia in June 2011. Look for him at the national championships and you’ll find him videotaping his team’s bouts and shouting instructions at the same time.
“I don’t work a day in my life, but my wife will tell me I’ve worked harder than I ever have in my life,” he said. “This is fun. This is great.”
What happened? Columbia arrived at this week‘s NCAA Fencing Championships as co-Ivy League champions for the first time since 2008.
Five of its six qualifiers for the NCAA men’s tournament are sophomores and three are in the national championships for the first time.
Brian Ro, one of those sophomores, is in position for a medal in men‘s epee entering the final day of competition Sunday at Ohio State’s French Field House and St. John Arena. He is in third place, trailing Yevgeniy Karyuchenko of St. John’s and Alessio Santoro of Duke. The top four after the fourth and fifth rounds advance to the semifinals.
Columbia is in seventh place in the team standings, which is a far cry from just a few years ago when the Lions didn‘t field a full team, never mind a strong team at the national championships.
The Lions even rose to No. 1 in the CollegeFencing360.com coaches’ national rankings earlier this year and is currently No. 2.
“This year I felt the team is a lot closer,” Ro said. “We’re not just teammates, we’re actually really close friends. And I think that’s been the key to our success. We’ve been able to be on that level. It’s a pleasure to be competing with these guys.”
The new excitement in the program has his fencers believing there is a national championship in their future. Not this year, but soon.
“This year I felt like I have a chance to do really well,” said Adam Mathieu, a sophomore who competes in foil. “And next year I believe we can take the entire championship.”
“We’re all going to get better,” Ro said. “We’ve been training really hard. We’ll continue to do so. We also have a lot of great recruits coming in. They’ll be a great addition to our team. I’m really excited.”
Aufrichtig strongly believes in giving his fencers encouragement and responsibility.
“I want to treat my athletes like champions, the way I always wanted to be treated,” said Aufrichtig, who fenced collegiate at New York University.
“I think the most important thing is he [Aufrichtig] really believes in us,” said William Spear, a junior who is team captain. “So even if we have a bad day or we’re not competing at our finest, he’s still there behind us 100 percent. For me that’s what been pulling us through this.”
In addition to Ro, Spear and Mathieu, the other Columbia fencers in the men’s tournament at the national championships are Harrison Bergman, Jake Hoyle and Geoffrey Loss. All are sophomores. With 10 wins out of 15 matches Saturday, Loss is also in medal contention entering Sunday’s final rounds.
Jackie Dubrovich got the Lions started well at the nationals by winning the bronze medal Friday in women’s foil.
While Aufrichtig switched careers in 2011 to take on his first college coaching position at Columbia, he is not an unknown in fencing circles.
He was director of the fencing program at the New York Athletic Club and was an epee team coach at the 2009 World Championships. Among those who have trained in the NYAC fencing program were Courtney and Kelley Hurley, and Maya Lawrence, who won a team bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Still, when it came down to an Ivy League championship, Aufrichtig just couldn’t watch as Ro and Bergman, both tied with their opponents at 4-4 and competing at the same time on different competition strips, scored points to defeat Harvard for a share of the title.
“I shut my eyes and prayed to God,” Aufrichtig said. “Then I heard screaming. I looked up and it was Columbia jumping up and down. I guess we won!”