With the 2022 NCAA fencing championships taking place right here at Notre Dame, our community is reminded that our team is a force to be reckoned with. Composed of fencers from all over the world, the team is one of the most diverse and talented groups on campus.
In recognition of Notre Dame’s fencing tradition, this week’s edition of From the Archives explores both the victories and the shortcomings of this prestigious program. Even in the midst of differing experiences and opinions of the Notre Dame fencing team, it is safe to say that it has brought a centuries-old sport to the forefront of an American college campus.
From Athens to South Bend: A freshman fencer’s journey
On Aug. 17, 2004, Mariel Zagunis won the sabre fencing gold medal at the Olympics in Athens, mere weeks before starting classes as a freshman at Notre Dame. She was the first U.S. fencer at the time to medal since 1984 and the first to win a gold medal since 1904.
When Zagunis scored the winning point, her U.S. teammates rushed onto the strip and celebrated by lifting her up into the air. “I’m glad they could get on stage and celebrate with me like that,” Zagunis remarked.
After deferring her enrollment at Notre Dame a year due to her rigorous fencing regime, Zagunis started her time at Notre Dame shortly after returning from the Olympics. She was thrown headfirst into academics, as she had to make up four days of missed classes — though surely, those absences were excused.
“I haven’t gone to school or class for over a year, but I’m ready to get out there and ready to learn,” Zagunis commented.
Some anticipated the transition from sports stardom to normal student to be difficult for Zagunis, including Irish coach Janusz Bednarski. “Time is divided between studies and fencing. The team has a goal to win. Now she has to step into the other field. It will not be easy. I think it will be a challenge,” Bednarski speculated.
Zagunis recognized this need for adjustment, and was determined to carry her propensity for hard work over to her academics. She went on to win three more Olympic medals, and was the flag bearer at the 2012 London Olympics Parade of Nations. As exemplified by Zagunis, student athletes at Notre Dame strive towards excellence both in their sports arenas and their classrooms.
Though the talent of athletes is often celebrated, sometimes it is valued over personhood by programs that are set on winning. In our next section, we look into the case of Jubba Beshin, who felt exploited by the fencing team during his time at Notre Dame.
Jubba Beshin’s toughest opponent
In 1990, sophomore Jubba Beshin shocked the college fencing world by winning the individual men’s epee competition at the NCAA championships.
Beshin entered the event with little expectations. He skipped his freshman season, so this was his first year competing. And Notre Dame’s epee squad was considered to be weak overall.
However, Beshin vindicated himself and his squad, defeating 16 fencers en route to an individual victory.
“Since I was such an underdog, a lot of people were on my side,” Beshin said. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
But two years after this triumphant tournament, Beshin, no longer on the fencing team, wrote a scathing letter to the editor in The Observer.
“In my opinion, the fencing program at the University of Notre Dame is a scandalous one,” Beshin wrote.
What had driven Beshin from victory to vitriol?
On March 25, 1992, Observer sports writer Jonathan Jensen (‘95) seemingly blamed Beshin for Notre Dame’s fourth place finish in the national championships. Jensen wondered “what could have been if former national champion Jubba Beshin would not have taken the year off to concentrate on academics.”
Beshin set the record straight. While he skipped his freshman season to improve his grades, academics had not caused his absence this year. Instead, Beshin indicted Notre Dame for repeatedly refusing to grant him a scholarship.
Beshin had requested scholarship support each of his three years on the fencing team. He was denied every time. Coaches claimed there was no money available, but Beshin saw other fencers receiving funds.
“I felt exploited and manipulated,” Beshin wrote. “Yet there was nothing I could do.”
His national championship win did not help, nor did his sustained success the next season. Without a scholarship, Beshin’s parents were forced to take out loans to support him. By his junior year, Beshin himself was working two jobs, causing him to miss practice. His coaches used this to further justify not giving a scholarship.
“I guess it never occurred to the coaches that if I had a scholarship, I would not have had to work and miss practice,” Beshin wrote.
Tired of his coaches’ conduct, Beshin quit the fencing team in fall 1991.
Beshin lamented the loss of his personal passion. He also claimed that his experience was not unique.
“There is a history of others who feel the same way I do and who have endured similar ordeals,” Beshin wrote. “We were used for our talents, only to be discarded.”
Beyond the obvious injustice, Beshin’s story highlights the academic and economic obligations facing student athletes along with their sporting responsibilities. This is especially pertinent to Notre Dame, with its high-level Division I sports but high scholastic standards and an even higher price tag.
Consideration of their off-the-field obligations should magnify the already impressive accomplishments of student athletes. But we should also consider these additional duties in disappointing times. If a student athlete misses a practice, a game, or even a season, maybe it’s not their fault; maybe it’s just life.
National championships of an invisible sport
March 3, 1976 | Bill Brink | Researched by Uyen Le
In the midst of popular athletic programs, such as football and basketball, the Notre Dame fencing team often flies under the radar. Bill Brink (‘76) noted this phenomenon, when after a 21-0 record, the fencing team was headed to the NCAA championship on March 26 and 27, 1976.
Leading up to 1976, the fencing team had been building momentum, finishing third in the nation in the previous season. Coach Mike DeCicco observed that Notre Dame was not known for its fencing tradition, until it hosted the NCAA championships in 1970.
DeCicco commented that not a lot of top fencers “knew fencing had a good program here. Since , we’ve been getting quality athletes.”
Despite this upward trajectory, fencing did not gain traction among sports fans at Notre Dame. “People don’t exactly beat down the doors of the ACC to watch it,” Brink wrote. “They don’t jump off balconies and over stairway banisters. Fencing simply isn’t a spectator sport. Can it be?”
DeCicco claimed that people simply do not know fencing, which is why they are apprehensive to attend the event. “To make fencing a spectator sport requires education,” he insisted. “You have to start with a program of education and exhibition, to enlighten people. People can’t watch a sport with enthusiasm unless they know what it’s all about… It does have excitement and drama if you understand how it works.”
Appealing to a celebrity culture, DeCicco also noted the importance of having a household name, which would draw spectators to the sport. “It’s good to have an excellent fencer on your team, people like to watch excellence. We have to develop a kind of superstar quality so people will take the time to come out and watch it.”
Though Brink was ultimately skeptical that fencing would become a popular sport at Notre Dame, since 1976, has won 11 national championships, and several members and alumni of the program have competed in the Olympics. These accomplishments have brought fencing to the surface of campus consciousness, especially because they are often responsible for keeping the “#1” sign atop Grace Hall lit up with their superior status in the fencing world.
Notre Dame fencing is an indomitable force in the nation, and has also educated the tri-campus community about a rich sporting tradition.