The retirements of fencing head coach George Kolombatovich and associate coach Aladar Kogler, who had been at Columbia for 33 and 28 years respectively, left the Columbia Athletic Department with the challenging task of finding a replacement to mark the beginning of a new era for Columbia fencing. The nationwide search has concluded, and the Lions have named Michael Aufrichtig as the new head coach of the men’s and women’s fencing teams.
Aufrichtig officially begins his tenure on July 15th.
“It’s a dream job come true,” Aufrichtig said. “I’m very excited. I am very enthusiastic about the upcoming season and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Columbia’s fencing program is one of the most prestigious in the country, leading to over 50 applications for the open position.
Aufrichtig, who has no prior collegiate coaching experience, is an unusual choice for a well-established program. He brings a record of success on the strip, rather than from the bench, to the team, as he was an epee fencer and captain for downtown rival NYU. However, the Columbia athletics department has opted for his potential and promise over a more experienced coach.
Aufrichtig has been involved with the sport of fencing since he began at his high school in Shreveport, Louisiana 25 years ago. After graduating from NYU, where he fenced epee as team captain, he represented the New York Athletic Club and fenced competitively for around 10 years with aspirations of making the U.S. Olympic team.
For the past five years, Aufrichtig has been the chairman of the New York Athletic Club’s Fencing program, which is widely regarded as one of the top clubs in the nation. He will keep his position at NYAC while serving as head coach at Columbia.
Junior epee fencer Lydia Kopecky has known Aufrichtig since she was in high school. Kopecky, who finished 7th at the 2011 NCAA Championships, believes that Aufrichtig has been key to the NYAC program’s recent success.
“He’s been so amazing for the New York Athletic Club running it and being the chairperson there,” she said. “He’s really propelled the program there so far forward, and he’s gotten a lot of attention for it.”
NYAC seems to have benefited from Aufrichtig’s leadership. In 2010, NYAC qualified seven members for the World Championships (more than other program), and in 2011 the NYAC won five national championships, three silver medals and two bronze medals.
Many of the skills Aufrichtig used at the NYAC—managing coaching staffs, budgets, practice times, travel arrangements and recruiting—are essential to effectively lead and manage a major collegiate program.
“We really need someone who has strong administrative skills, someone who can really organize and push us forward,” Kopecky said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve been in a rut, but we haven’t moved forward at all in the past two years. We just need someone who is going to be a strong recruiter [and] someone who is going to put a little more fire into our fencing team.”
Kopecky believes that Aufrichtig has the ability to fill the void and propel the program forward.
“Michael is one of the most amazing people I have ever met,” she said. “He is so good with his words. If you need absolutely anything taken care of, anything negotiated, anything … Michael is the best person to do it. He really knows how to work people to get the most out of them.”
Additionally, Aufrichtig seems to have the connections within the New York fencing community which will help the Light Blue continue to be a top recruiter.
“He has no enemies,” Kopecky said. “In the fencing world, a lot of people have differences. But Michael is universally liked. No one has a problem with him, which is awesome because he will be able to gain the respect of other clubs in New York.”
As a recruiter, Aufrichtig hopes to use the interviewing process so that he can truly understand each athlete’s goals and expectations. Moreover, he wants to ensure that those expectations coincide with his own.
“The expectations of the Columbia fencing team are very high,” Aufrichtig said. “We want to win Ivy League Championships. We want to win NCAA Championships. We need to be able to set those expectations up front so when a student does come to Columbia they know what they are getting into. There will be no false promises.”
Once the athletes begin their college careers, Aufrichtig plans to engineer a plan that works for each individual student-athlete.
He understands the advantage Columbia has because of its location in New York, a powerhouse for fencing in the United States. Most fencers at Columbia train with their own personal coaches within the city, because it in their best interest to do so. Not only are some of the best coaches in the world in New York City, but there are also a tremendous number of talented fencers to train and compete against.
“In the world of fencing you never want to interfere with that relationship [between athlete and coach],” he added. “If you find a good relationship with a coach that works and you are getting the results you can get, you keep that relationship.”
However, he added that he plans to set up training schedules with each athlete’s individual coach. At the NYAC Aufrichtig was able to strike a balance between allowing his fencers the freedom they needed without relaxing any expectations.
“Michael is super expecting of everyone,” Kopecky said. “He works with every sort of fencer at the NYAC. Everyone has different dreams and goals and ways they work to get the most out of them. He listens to that. He’s not a coach who is my way or the highway. He’s very lenient and at the same time he wants results.”
Both the new head coach and current fencers expect to win and win now.
“I come from a winning environment,” Aufrichtig said. “I’m here to win. We’re going to have a good time doing it.”
While one of the best Light Blue fencers, foilist Nzingha Prescod, will not be competing next season as she attempts to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London, most expect the women’s team, which is coming off a second place finish at Ivy League Championships, to only improve as their young fencers mature. The men, who were plagued by lack of depth last season, will be greatly helped by the top-flight recruits they are set to welcome in this fall.
It will be very difficult for Aufrichtig to replicate the winning tradition Columbia maintained till recently under Kolombatovich and Kogler. While the new head coach does not have the collegiate coaching experience some expected from the hire, he seems to have the skills to build an NCAA-winning program.
“While it shook us up because we’re having a coaching change, we are only going to get better,” Kopecky said.
Aufrichtig plans to hire two more assistant coaches but has guaranteed that coach Daria Schneider will be back next season. Schneider, CC ’10, has been very busy herself as she continues her drive to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 for women’s sabre. She won the Division I National Championship in April, finished third at the Gent Sabre World Cup and reached the Round of 32 at the New York Sabre World Cup. Both Columbia’s incoming recruits and new coach will be on display for the first time at the annual Alumni Meet in the fall.
Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that Aufrichtig was stepping down as chairman of NYAC's fencing program. The story has been updated to clarify that Aufrichtig will keep his position of chairman while serving as Columbia's head coach.