“Well,” said Coach Dan, his mind a study in concentration as he contemplated how to begin his story with the intensity of someone looking for his car keys, “it really began when I met my old fencing coach a few years back.”
“So you used to fence yourself?” asked Gandy.
Coach Dan nodded. “Started in high school, continued in college, which is where I met my coach. We didn’t call him coach, he didn’t like that term.” Coach Dan straightened himself in his chair, stuck his chest out, spoke in hyperbolic gruffness, “I am instructor, not coach. You want coach, play basketball.” He relaxed his body, resumed his normal speaking voice. “Josef Hadik, immigrant from Hungary. Family came here during the Soviet occupation. A lot of our fencing coaches in America come from that area.”
The man in the baseball cap asked why that was. “Well — because we’re Americans. We like to do things our way, think of ourselves as self-made people, so while we’ll admit that our ancestors came from Europe, we go out of our way to dissociate from them whenever we can. Fencing’s like soccer, it has a long tradition in the old world, it doesn’t have a distinctive American origin like our most popular sports. Surre, baseball’s descended from cricket, football from rugby, but we’ve transformed those sports so radically that they look nothing like their European ancestors. That hasn’t happened with fencing — it doesn’t have an American flavor, it seems archaic, traditional, too European for us.
“So we don’t have the tradition for fencing in America that exists in Europe, just like we don’t have a tradition for soccer. And without that tradition, there isn’t that much enthusiasm for the sport. In America, you don’t go into fencing for fame or fortune — it’s like deciding to become a poet. So it’s not the best environment for nurturing fencing coaches.
“But Europe’s a different story. The tradition of fencing may not be as strong as it once was, but it’s very much alive. So there’s a lot of fencing coaches over there, good ones too. And in the eastern countries, when communism rose, a lot of coaches decided to flee, for political reasons. And when communism fell, and state funding for athletics collapsed, a lot more coaches left, for economic reasons.”