A glance at the Olympic fencing roster would tell anyone that New York is a hub for the best fencers in the United States. But while one influential member of the fencing community has spent much of his journey in New York, his story begins in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Since head coach Michael Aufrichtig took the reins in 2011, Columbia has earned three national championships, in 2015, 2016, and 2019. The men’s team reeled off six consecutive Ivy League titles from 2014 to 2019, with the women’s team securing five, including the 2020 Ancient Eight crown. Aufrichtig himself has picked up back-to-back Ivy League Coach of the Year awards. Yet he wasn’t trained at one of New York’s prestigious clubs like many in the fencing community. Instead, he first discovered the sport in high school, where he had the choice between gymnastics and fencing for his physical education credit.
Aufrichtig wasn’t planning on fencing beyond gym class, but that changed when he saw one of his high school coaches fencing épée electrically. He had only previously fenced foil, and he had never hooked up to the electrical equipment that can track fencers’ touches. From that moment on, Aufrichtig was sold, but continuing the sport wouldn’t be easy.
“First of all, it was cool. Second of all, you’re telling me if I hit the person first, I score?” Aufrichtig said, referencing the difference in rules between épée and foil. “I was like, okay, I want to do that.”
Shreveport is home to around 190,000 people; it is “not a hotbed of fencing,” according to Bruce Jugan, a former competitor of Aufrichtig’s who now referees the Ivy League Championships. There were few high-level coaches in Louisiana, but it was in Shreveport that Aufrichtig met a friend and mentor who would go on to also play a role in Columbia’s powerhouse program.
Wesley McKinney was an assistant coach at Aufrichtig’s high school, freshly graduated from college and looking to improve his fencing as well. The pair bought books and videos on fencing to discover new techniques and maneuvers. But since the Shreveport team wasn’t touring, McKinney said, “it gets really boring, because you have the same teachers, so you’re fencing the same style. It’s a very boring thing.” To expand their experience, Aufrichtig and McKinney began to travel outside of Louisiana.
When it was time for Aufrichtig to choose a college, he wanted a place that would combine two of his passions: fencing and Wall Street, where he dreamed of working after college. That place was New York University’s Stern School of Business.
NYU provided Aufrichtig with a multitude of fencing opportunities he had never experienced before. Now, with access to the New York Athletic Club training program and a spot on a competitive college team, he improved quickly. In September of his first-year, Aufrichtig could not crack the top 32 at the Junior Olympics. By February, he was in the top eight.
Though he qualified twice for the NCAA Championships, Aufrichtig never won; NYU’s best outcome was a seventh-place finish in 1994, his senior year. As captain, Aufrichtig earned the most valuable player award for his team.
After graduation, Aufrichtig worked at Kintera, Inc. and Advanced Solutions International. He went on to serve as chairman of the New York Athletic Club fencing program for five years before taking over the Columbia team. In 2014, he was voted elite coach director for USA Fencing.
When Aufrichtig applied for the head coaching position at Columbia, he presented board members with a plan that both impressed and surprised them. It included the Lions’ rise to being competitive for an NCAA title in just four years.
Three years later, with Aufrichtig as head coach, the men’s team shared the Ivy League Championship title with Harvard. Down 13-11 to the Crimson with three matches to play, the Lions narrowly won 5-4, 5-4, 5-4 to claim a share of the 2014 trophy. Aufrichtig calls them “the great three touches that changed the Columbia fencing program forever,” and they are memorialized in a TEDx Talk he gave in 2014.
The following year, both the men’s and women’s teams won Ivies at home before going on to win the NCAA Championships. It was a striking trajectory for a team that had finished outside the top five in the past four years.
Since then, Aufrichtig has continued to construct a program based on hard work and personalization, using the term “flexible structure” to refer to his coaching style. Though it may sound like an oxymoron, it has won the Lions three national championships under Aufrichtig’s watch. This strategy includes general practices and a team-oriented philosophy but also individualized training plans. Practices vary but often include speed and agility training, footwork, and simulation drills.
But Aufrichtig’s program has another edge over other top schools: location. More than half of the Olympic fencing team, Aufrichtig said, will come from within a 20-minute subway ride away from Columbia. It’s something the Lions take full advantage of through private lessons.
However, the Columbia program is truly rooted in teamwork, a tenet that has been decades in the making.
When Aufrichtig and McKinney were starting out, McKinney said, “Because we were teaching each other how to fence, we became a family. Whereas fencing is not a team sport, it turned into a team sport for us because we were all that we had.”
“You need people to be pushing you,” McKinney continued. “That’s why Columbia’s great, because you have these great fencers now that push each other.”
Part of what sets Aufrichtig’s program apart is its depth. According to senior épéeist Gianna Vierheller, while some coaches choose to focus on their four starters for each weapon, Aufrichtig prefers to use a full roster. Vierheller, who called the designated-starter system “exhausting,” said, “Mike is smart. He wants everyone to be prepared to come in at any time. He wants everyone to experience what they can.”
This strategy, along with Aufrichtig’s encouragement, has helped create a team where individual fencers will choose to forgo bouts that could earn them All-Ivy berth so other teammates may fence. Although the fencer might lose out on the individual honor, they are helping their teammates gain experience so the Lions can remain competitive for future team titles.
To have a team where nationally- and often, internationally-ranked athletes are willing to give up individual accolades to support teammates is special on its own. But it’s not all teamwork and titles for Aufrichtig. Perhaps the most challenging part of his job is deciding who gets to board the bus for the regional and national meets. Teams that compete exceptionally well at Regionals often qualify more than 12 fencers for Nationals but are only permitted to take a dozen: two men and two women for each of the three weapons. When Columbia over-qualifies, Aufrichtig locks himself in his office, perusing stats and speaking to team members.
“Many cases I feel like I could throw a dart at the board and whoever two it lands on will do well,” Aufrichtig said.
No matter who ends up competing on the national stage, whenever the Light Blue secures a team title, Aufrichtig said, “Everyone gets a ring. Everyone matters.”
In high school, Vierheller said she thought she did not want to live in or attend school in New York. But after being pushed to visit Columbia by her father, she did—and met with Aufrichtig.
“A lot of coaches, especially in fencing, are hard to talk to, and they kind of just talk at you instead of talking to you. He’s very different. He’s very charismatic and business-minded,” Vierheller said. “He has some form of close relationship with everyone on the team, one way or another.”
Now serving as an assistant volunteer coach for the Light Blue, McKinney recalled Aufrichtig’s very first meeting with the team, at a time when national championship rings were closer to a dream than a reality.
“He said, ‘Within four years, you’ll have the chance to compete to win the national title,’” McKinney said. “They thought he was insane.” Yet three years later, the Lions were atop the podium at the NCAA Championships, men’s and women’s Ivy titles also in hand.
Senior staff writer Mackenzie George can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kenziegeorge22.