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FENCING: Dominant epeeist looks to cap career

Eric Retter | Thursday, February 24, 2005

It’s lonely at the top. Michal Sobieraj knows, and he would like to have that solitude again this spring after the NCAA finals. Sobieraj, the senior epeeist and elder statesman of the squad, is ready to cap off his already impressive career on a high note. “It would be nice to get an individual ring,” he said.An NCAA individual title would be the final piece in the growing trophy case of his collegiate career. In addition to winning a national team championship as part of the 2002-2003 team and placing 3rd and 2nd in the NCAA the last two seasons, Sobieraj has been named an All-American in each of the last three years. With a strong showing in the upcoming NCAA finals he is poised to join an elite group of only 21 Notre Dame student athletes who have received that honor four times, a club that includes eight fencers. Because of his previous experience in the National Finals, Sobieraj feels more prepared for this year’s championships. “I think [the previous experience] helps, actually,” he said. “I had troubles the first time, but now I can know what to expect.”Sobieraj also has many international accolades under his belt. He is a defending champion of the North American Cup, and he is currently a member of the national team in his native Poland, having served as a part of the squad that placed 4th in the 2003 World Championships and is being considered to be part of the country’s Olympic contingent in 2008. “He’s a high class athlete. He’s a top international fencer, and, naturally, by his record he’s a star,” Irish head coach Janusz Bednarski said.Because of his success and experience, Sobieraj is seen as both a leader and a go-to-guy in pressure situations.”He is the person who creates the situations for everybody. Because of his abilities, they put him in a hard position, force him to be observed by everybody. He, by his class, is used by others to [shoulder lots] of the responsibility,” Bednarski said.However, Sobieraj does not back away from his roles as captain.”I think I can provide some help, some advice to the guys on the team, especially technical things,” he said. “I can show people how to win and how to prepare for bouts.”The importance of preparation is something Sobieraj began to realize early in his fencing career. “At first [when I started fencing], I didn’t realize that psychology played as big a role in fencing [as it does]. You have to be mentally prepared to figure out opponents, and they call it physical chess,” he said.Sobieraj first began playing this brand of chess at the age of 12 in his hometown of Krakow, Poland, following his mother’s suggestion.”My mom was the chief of the fencing club [in Krakow] and she told me there was a fencing club in my hometown and that I should try it. I tried it, and stayed for the next 10 years,” he said.Over the course of those years, Sobieraj became so successful in part because he began mastering the mental aspects of the sport. Bednarski said he is impressed with his fencer’s competitive IQ.”He’s smart in bouting, using his intellectual side to read opponents by quick analyzing,” he said.This intellectual side is another facet of himself that Sobieraj has cultivated. He has an appreciation of literature, primarily that of Europe and Poland, and is especially fond of the work of writers such as Dostoevsky and Joseph Heller.”I read a lot and enjoy reading,” Soberiaj said.Beyond its prestigious fencing program, Notre Dame attracted Sobieraj because of its academic reputation. “I have gotten a very good education, and I think I have learned a lot. That’s the reason I came here, and hopefully, it will pay off and be useful in the future,” he said.In the course of their time together, Bednarski has seen Sobieraj’s academic advancement firsthand.”He came as an athlete, and he became an educated person,” Bednarski said.Sobieraj plans to use that education to possibly pursue an MBA and enter the business world at home in Krakow.”I want to stay in Poland,” he said. “Four years away from home is kind of a lot for me.”However, Bednarski is confident that his star is not quite ready to focus on what comes after Notre Dame fencing.”I hope he will use the chance to get a gold medal [in the NCAA finals],” Bednarski said. “He’s one of the best fencers in the NCAA and he should try this year to get the medal he didn’t get [the last 3 years]. Let’s hope he has the drive to do this.”