For local fencing community, whiff of scandal sparks shock — and jokes
Scandal is a frequent visitor to the high-stakes world of college football and basketball, where coaches with outsized personalities roam the sidelines and winning generates millions of dollars for schools.
But fencing — that quaint, age-old endeavor of donning armor, a sword, and quietly prodding away at an opponent — has been a stranger to controversy.
“Fencing has an elegant, upscale feel,” said David Seuss, 69, a three-time world fencing champion who trains in Watertown. “We’re not supposed to be down in the mud.”
But following the report of an unusual home sale involving longtime Harvard University fencing coach Peter Brand and the father of a prospective fencer, the sport suddenly finds itself under a national spotlight.
According to a Globe report, Brand in 2016 sold his Needham home to Jie Zhao, a Maryland businessman, for a price well above its assessed value of $549,300. At the time, Zhao’s younger son was a high-school fencer — and following the sale, would eventually be admitted to Harvard, where he would join the fencing team.
As news of the unusual sale garnered national headlines last week, Harvard announced it would be conducting an independent investigation, while school officials said last week that the university’s athletic personnel would soon be subject to training in how to handle potential conflicts of interest.
Across the Boston metro area, meanwhile, the story had become the talk of the local fencing world.
“That’s all the fencing gossip right now,” assured Gianina Didonato, 18, as she prepared for a Friday night class at Bay State Fencers in Somerville.
Many, of course, have expressed shock at the situation, particularly those who have worked — or crossed paths with — Brand over the years. And one by one Friday, coaches and fencers at multiple area club shook their heads at the news that had injected a sudden notoriety into a sport that rarely finds its way into the mainstream.
L. Stacy Eddy, the owner of Bay State Fencers, called the situation “unfortunate.” At the Fencing Academy of Boston, head coach and owner Vitaliy Nazarenko — a former assistant coach at Harvard under Brand — said the story serves as evidence that coaches should have term limits.
While you hear about these kinds of things happening, added Daniel Hondor, owner of Olympia Fencing Center in Cambridge, “you don’t expect it to happen in your yard.”
Indeed, for a fringe sport that has long boasted a cerebral reputation — it is commonly referred to as “physical chess” — the whiff of scandal represents something of uncharted territory.
“I think fencing felt very privileged for a while,” said Eddy, who said he’d known Brand since he took the Harvard coaching job. “We just didn’t have bad things happening.”
Others, though, had little trouble finding humor in the situation.
Gathered before a class at Bay State Fencers, a group of mostly teenagers seemed to be enjoying their unassuming sport’s temporary notoriety.
“I think everyone reading the paper at Harvard was probably like, ‘What? Harvard has a fencing team?’ ” joked Emilio Bankier, 14.
Added local fencer Robert Harris, whose daughter, Emma, is a sophomore member of the Penn women’s fencing team: “Any attention whatsoever for the sport is good.”
According to USA Fencing, an estimated 50,000-plus individuals compete annually in the sport across the country, from youth athletes to those in their 60s and 70s. Boston boasts a particularly robust scene, with about 20 fencing clubs scattered throughout the metro area, as well as a number of high school programs.
In an earlier interview with the Globe, Zhao, the Maryland businessman whose purchase of the Harvard coach’s home jump started the story, described fencing as a sport for “nerdy boys” — an analysis that, while seemingly harsh, wasn’t exactly disputed by local fencers.
The sport tends to attract intellectuals, according to many local competitors, as well as those uninterested in more mainstream endeavors like football, baseball, and soccer. It’s a sport in which the ability to predict moves is tantamount to success — and where a smarter opponent will often beat a physically superior one.
It’s also a way to live out childhood fantasies.
“We all imagine ourselves as pirates and knights and warrior princesses,” said Seuss, who took up fencing after he was kicked out of a yoga class for attempting to institute a student ranking system. “You put on armor and you pick up a sword and you hit the other person on the head.”
As the Harvard inquiry plays out, meanwhile, Seuss — an alum of the school — rejected the notion that fencing as a whole should suffer.
“I think it’s a Harvard problem,” he said. “Fencing is the innocent bystander here.”
As for whether it might leave a permanent black mark on the sport?
“I think it’ll blow over,” said Keith Mukai-Vandingstee, a 30-year-old fencer training at Bay State Fencers. “The fencing community will live on.”