Founded by a Soviet-trained fencer, the Virginia Academy of Fencing boasts of the schools where it says students have landed. Its website includes a long list of prestigious institutions and a pitch: “If you are interested in being recruited onto the fencing team for any of these universities, please let us know.”
Jie “Jack” Zhao, a businessman and father of two Harvard fencers ensnared in a university investigation into his dealings with the Crimson fencing coach, seems to have taken the academy up on this offer and much more.
Zhao’s company literally bought the academy’s 40,000-square-foot building and property, valued at roughly $6 million. He gave $1 million to academy founder Alexandre Ryjik’s fencing foundation. He flew Ryjik business class to international tournaments.
“I’m really into this fencing stuff,” Zhao told the Globe last month.
For his part, Ryjik introduced Zhao to Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand. Brand not only recruited Ryjik’s son, but also both of Zhao’s sons, according to Zhao.
Harvard is already investigating the dealings between Brand and Zhao, amid questions about whether Zhao’s younger son had an unfair advantage in getting into Harvard.
The inquiry began after the Globe revealed Zhao bought Brand’s Needham home for $440,200 over its assessed value while Zhao’s younger son was a high school junior. The transaction may have violated Harvard’s conflict-of-interest policy.
But before Zhao’s 2016 house purchase, his extensive support for Ryjik raised questions among some in the elite world of fencing.
Ryjik saw Zhao as a “walking ATM machine,” said Jim Murray, a former coach at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. “Ryjik thought this was Daddy Warbucks who had discovered fencing.”
Zhao did not respond to messages, but his attorney, William D. Weinreb, said Zhao did not give anyone money to help his sons get into Harvard.
Ryjik did not respond to requests for comment, including a note left at his home in Virginia. His attorney, Evan T. Barr, said Ryjik is a highly respected, widely admired figure in the fencing community, and has trained thousands of fencers over the past 25 years.
“Many of his students have gone on to have stellar collegiate careers as scholar-athletes, including [Zhao’s older son],” Barr said. “He is proud of the fact that students in his programs have always achieved their remarkable success on the merits, through hard work, academic excellence, and dedication to the sport.”
But the unfolding drama has cast an unflattering light on the sport of fencing and drawn attention to the lengths that some wealthy parents go to help their children catch the eye of admissions officers at hard-to-crack universities.
Ryjik’s academy, adorned with flags of the world and suits of armor, boasts of its success in getting fencers into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and more.
In 2015, academy coach Russ Wilson told The Washington Post that some parents bring their children in for lessons because “they know that a lot of the best schools in the country also have fencing teams. . . . It’s definitely a hook to get into a top school.”
Ryjik told Virginia Living magazine in 2017 that admissions helped drive interest in the sport.
Zhao said a friend introduced him to the sport about 15 years ago. He sent his sons to train at Ryjik’s academy thereafter. “Nerdy boys and we want them to be athletes, right?” he said.
As his sons grew in the sport, Zhao was flying them, along with Ryjik, to international fencing tournaments.
During his 2013 divorce, Ryjik sought to line up a buyer for his ex-wife’s stake in Freedom Enterprises, the limited liability company that owns the fencing academy building, according to attorney Mark Sandground Sr., who represented Ryjik’s now-ex-wife.
Enter Zhao’s company, iTalk Global Communications Inc., which bills itself as the number one Internet telecom provider to global overseas Chinese and Korean consumers.
iTalk bought Freedom Enterprises outright, paying the full appraised amount in 2015, according to William A. Burge, general counsel for iTalk. He declined to disclose the price, but county records show the building and land were worth about $6.2 million at the time. Burge said the Virginia Academy of Fencing merely leases space in the building.
“We didn’t buy a fencing club or anything like that,” Burge said. “We bought some dirt and a building. Period.”
Because it was a private business transaction, county records don’t list the purchase price.
Burge, who is based in iTalk’s Austin office, said he never met Ryjik, and couldn’t comment on the relationship between Ryjik and Zhao.
“I don’t know Jack’s personal business,” Burge said. “That’s nothing for me to know about.”
Burge said the company saw an opportunity to make a good return on its investment, better than a money market account offered.
Sandground, the attorney for Ryjik’s ex-wife, told the Globe that Ryjik had been seeking a businessman to buy her stake in Freedom Enterprises, which she co-owned with Ryjik. Sandground didn’t remember the businessman’s name, but recalled he was Asian.
“That was the money guy behind it,” Sandground said. “He helped finance it and helped it grow.”
In addition to founding the fencing academy, Ryjik also serves as president of the National Fencing Foundation of Washington, D.C., a nonprofit dedicated to “developing personal character, academic achievement and athletic excellence through the world of fencing.” It too greatly benefited from Zhao’s largesse.
Zhao has said that in 2013, he made a $1 million personal donation to the nonprofit. The gift was transformative, boosting the organization’s assets more than tenfold. It was also uncommon. The nonprofit received zero donations in the two subsequent years, tax filings show.
The year after Zhao’s gift — the same year his older son entered Harvard — the nonprofit disbursed $100,000 to Brand’s newly created personal foundation, according to tax filings from both entities.
Zhao has said that there’s no connection, and that he had no control over or knowledge of that grant, implicitly or explicitly.
Zhao has said he resigned from the board of Ryjik’s fencing foundation shortly after making the $1 million donation, an assertion confirmed by board member Phil Sbarbaro, along with emails from the time.
Still, the fencing foundation listed Zhao as vice president on its 2013, 2014, and 2015 tax filings — something Sbarbaro has said was a mistake.
As the Globe has reported, filings show that the Peter Brand Foundation took in only two donations: $29,000 from Brand and his wife, Jacqueline Phillips, and the $100,000 from the National Fencing Foundation. The Brand foundation paid Phillips, its president, $22,000 in compensation in 2014. In the two subsequent years, it spent almost all of the rest of its money on travel and conferences, legal and accounting fees, and donations to three other nonprofits.
Brand and Phillips did not respond to e-mails, and she didn’t respond to a message left on her phone.
The couple dissolved the foundation in 2016. Brand remains employed by Harvard while the school’s investigation continues.
A Harvard spokeswoman declined to discuss the status of the investigation or disclose the name of the law firm the university has hired to conduct the probe.
Harvard has emphasized that its admissions policies are rigorous. Each recruited athlete is interviewed by an admissions officer or alumnus, school officials have said, and the final decision on admission for everyone, including athletes, is made by a 40-person committee.
Still, coaches play a role in the admissions process, flagging favored recruits for the committee, according to officials.
Zhao, who, along with his wife, made a life income gift or bequest to Harvard’s public health school, said his children had no unfair advantage getting into Harvard.
Weinreb, Zhao’s lawyer, said Zhao donated the $1 million to Ryjik’s fencing foundation, supporting a sport he loves. He made the donation after coming into a great deal of money in December 2012 from the sale of his business, Weinreb said.
“He had no ulterior motive for making that contribution,” Weinreb said. “And he did not give anyone any money to help his sons get into Harvard. They earned their spots at Harvard entirely on their own merit.”
Following Globe inquiries last month, Zhao flew to Boston from Virginia, saying he wanted to sit down and look the reporter in the eye.
In several interviews, both at the Hilton hotel at Logan Airport and by phone, Zhao said his sons were excellent fencers with stellar academic records. Plus, he noted, their mother has multiple Harvard graduate degrees.
“It’s a no-brainer, I don’t have to do anything,” Zhao said.
His older son graduated from Harvard last year and was a captain on the fencing team; the younger one is a sophomore and is also active on the team.
Zhao has said he purchased Brand’s Needham house as an investment and because he felt bad Brand had to commute about 12 miles to Harvard Square. Zhao, however, never lived in the house, and sold it 17 months after he bought it for a $324,500 loss.