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Former Irish fencer returns as team director

| Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The senior members of the 2011 national championship squad, Notre Dame’s last title-winner, have all graduated and gone their separate ways, but one member of the team has found his way back to the world of fencing in a new role.

Alex Buell, 2011 national champion and 2012 graduate from the Mendoza College of Business, now works for the fencing team as its director of operations. In the years since his last meet, he has taken on an active role in the team’s administration, and he said he sees the fencing team’s presence on campus and in the national fencing community evolving with each passing day.

“When I came into [Notre Dame] I was interested in getting into professional sports,” Buell said. “[I] really thought it would be to get through Mendoza and work with the NFL. … But it was really my experience on the fencing team all four years, especially that championship year, that made me reconsider.”

And while Buell did serve as an intern with the NFL’s Chicago Bears during his senior year, he found the variety unique to collegiate athletics too much to resist.

“Pro sports, on a macro level, you’re just doing that sport,” he said. “In college sports, there are opportunities to work with other sports.

“At the same time, the big deciding factor for me was the higher purpose that college athletics serve. I’m thoroughly convinced that, especially in today’s landscape where there are ongoing discussions about the role of sports in a college education. To me, I think it’s a no-brainer. I think athletics are some of the most transformational experiences a student can have in college. That’s what really brought me back.”

Buell said that his transition from the strip to the office was actually easier than he expected.

“It’s probably one of the easiest transitions out there,” he said. “It’s a very unique opportunity to work with the coaching staff that coached me.”

When Buell arrived as Director of Operations at the beginning of last season, the fencing program stood at a crossroads. A move from the Midwest Fencing Conference to the ACC loomed. Working with the other staff to help facilitate that transition has comprised a large body of Buell’s work. Buell said the move represented a great opportunity to grow the sport both on campus and nationally.

“In terms of the power five conferences, there are only eight schools that sponsor fencing,” he said. “Four of them are now in the ACC. For us, heading into the ACC championship, there is a lot of potential on the horizon to bring fencing to other schools and new audiences who just know ACC sports.”

Buell said the team shared a vision spearheaded by now-retired coach Janusz Bednarski — to grow the brand of fencing through the Notre Dame identity.

“It’s our vision as a program,” Buell said. “It’s something that when I was hired, our previous coach Janusz was big on — finding ways to expand the sport and make it better, potential ways to change the NCAA format and make it more fan-friendly.

“[Our coaching staff] is very willing to try new things. For example, last season we added monogram patches to our uniforms. We have patches on both arms to try and increase visibility. We want people to be able to [say] ‘That fencer is from Notre Dame.’”

Ultimately, Buell said he is excited by the growth of the fencing brand on Notre Dame’s campus.

“We had 414 people come out to a meet last year,” he said. “And then that was broken when we had 698. This year, our meet was conservatively between 500-600. Those numbers are not heard of in fencing.”

Buell said he knows fencing could be a tough sell for new audiences, but he is confident in the power of Notre Dame’s identity and its ability to introduce new audiences to a new sport.

“This is a very difficult sport,” he said. “It has a steep learning curve to watch it. But people understand things like Notre Dame versus Penn State. It is a disservice to the sport if we don’t try to leverage that.”

The Irish resume their season Saturday when they travel to New York for a meet against St. John’s.

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