Penn State Fencing’s Quiet Dynasty
In the basement of the White Building, tucked away behind a narrow hallway below the gym and across the hall from the rifle team’s shooting range, is where you’ll find the Penn State fencing room. Outside the splintering wooden double doors plastered with team posters is a small trophy case, stock full of second and third place trophies. The 13 important ones are on display at the All-Sports Museum.
Above the trophy case hangs a poster board that reads “16-time NCAA Champions,” (including three prior to the introduction of NCAA team co-ed championships in 1990) with a sticker posted over the number, a sign of how frequently that number increases. In this nondescript room, away from the hustle and bustle of campus, with the smell of sweat hanging in the air from the nearby locker rooms, practices the winningest program in NCAA history.
Coach Wieslaw “Wes” Glon emerges from the room to fetch a cup of water. Inside, the team is deciding captains for the upcoming season after finishing second at the NCAA Championships in March. After claiming their record-extending 16th title in 2014, the Nittany Lions fell just short of Columbia, finishing as the runner-up for the 12th time — another record. And that was with one hand tied behind their backs. With only 11 of a possible 12 qualifiers, Penn State still came up just 10 points shy of the title, edging out other top schools with a full compliment of fencers like Notre Dame.
“Did you see what Ohio State posted on Facebook?” asks one fencer that just emerged from down the hall to meet Glon, putting his arm around the coach’s shoulder as they walk back together to the practice room. “‘Top five nationally the last 14 years.’ Are we the only team that gets upset when we don’t win?”
Coach Glon offers a slight smile, his gray mustache slowly ruffling at the corners of his mouth. Some might think the team’s confidence borders on cockiness, but he knows better. Serving on the coaching staff for the last 30 years, he understands the winning attitude that’s turned the fencing team into Penn State’s quiet dynasty.
The reason why Penn State fencing is the most successful college program in the nation can be attributed to many factors that all programs seek to maximize: recruiting, coaching, and team chemistry. Some programs may excel at one or two of these areas, but Penn State’s secret relies on mastery of all three.
“It’s a combination,” said junior saber Kaito Streets, who captured the individual title in 2014. “You have academics, you have our fencing program, you have the environment. Whereas other schools, you only have one, or just two, not the whole package.”
For those who’ve enrolled at University Park to fence, the choice was easy. The grandeur of the program sparkles almost as brightly as the 16 first-place trophies or the championship ring on Glon’s finger. The promise of practicing with and competing against world-champion caliber fencers day in and day out is something that lures the best from around the world to a college town in the middle of rural Pennsylvania.
On Penn State’s roster this season alone, a total of four fencers from the men’s and women’s team will compete for their home country at the Junior World Championships, representing the USA, Mexico, and China.
“You want to surround yourself with the best fencers,” Streets said. “If you want to win as a team, you’ve got to surround yourself with better people. You can’t win if you surround yourself with mediocre people who are beginners.”
That feeling extends to recruiting, which forms the nucleus of a winning program. Glon said securing a solid group of freshman puts you in a position to be at the top for the next four years. For the upperclassmen, it’s exciting. While you might think seeing incoming recruits with championship pedigree on the junior circuit could lead to the fear of an established fencer losing his or her spot in regionals or the NCAA qualifiers, the team embraces newcomers with open arms.
“We’re always excited when we hear about a talented kid coming to the team,” sophomore Oskar Tang from Stockholm, Sweden said. “We’re not like ‘oh, shit.’ It’s more like, ‘yes, we got that guy. He’s going to be great for the team, he’s going to work hard, and we’re going to win.’”
Securing talent is half the battle, but it’s quite another thing to maximize that skill. Before taking over for Emmanuil Kaidanov after his controversial firing in 2013, Glon served on the coaching staff for 30 seasons. When choosing a school, he said fencers value a strong program to be successful both nationally and internationally, seeking quality coaches and opponents.
“When I came, it was a building process,” said Glon, who was hired as the full-time coach after leading the Nittany Lions to another title in 2014. “And then, I was the coach for the national junior team, at camps, world cups. That’s how I got to know Coach [Emmanuil] Kaidanov. As we were leading the national teams, [the recruits] did see our body of work.”
A quiet, unassuming presence, Glon’s body of work is impressive. Prior to getting his coaching start with the Austrian National Team in Vienna after moving from his homeland of Warsaw, Poland in 1981, he was an accomplished fencer in his own right. As a member of the Polish National Team, he won Poland’s highest fencing honors in saber six times between 1975 and 1981, and was a bronze medalist at the 1979 World University Games in Mexico City. He would later immigrate to the United States in 1983 and served for two years as the assistant men’s coach at William & Mary College, where he worked with the saber team. He then joined Penn State’s staff as an assistant coach in 1985.
During his time with the Blue and White, Glon has also coached many U.S. national teams, including teams for the Junior and Senior World Championships (1989-1998), the Pan American Games (1991), and the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games. In 2013, he was named Team Captain for both the Men’s and Women’s National Teams.
Glon also happens to be one of the top fencing officials in the world, with the highest international referee rating for all three weapons. He is involved with the United States Fencing Association and has served for the last four years on its Board of Directors as Elite Coach Director.
After viewing his rather staggering list of accomplishments, it’s not hard to see why any talented young fencer would want to spend the next four years under his tutelage. Glon mentioned legendary basketball coaches Bob Knight at Indiana and Dean Smith at North Carolina as examples of just how essential coaching is to maintaining a strong program. After both coaches left their respective schools, the teams would struggle to regain their previous levels of performance.
By putting in years of work helping build a program to national prominence, Glon is now having top recruits knock on his door. He said some fencers will even forgo scholarships at other schools to enroll at Penn State, “rather than be a big fish in a small pond.”
“Now, it’s actually easier recruiting,” Glon joked. “They want to come. They want to be here. The success is doing the recruiting for us.”
While coaching and talent often get the credit for building a strong program, it’s easy to forget how big of a role team chemistry can play. At Penn State, the word “family” is not taken lightly as some public relations stunt or recruiting campaign. The team actually believes in one another, and has proven it through its preparation.
Take, for example, the most recent national championship. With one fewer qualifier than allowed, the team still came within a few matches of upending Columbia.
“We all had the mindset of winning the competition,” said Andrew Mackiewicz, who captured the individual saber title as a true freshman. “It’s never been done, to win with 11, but we all felt it was possible. If we qualified 12, the mutual feeling is that we could have easily won.”
Even just one season into his Penn State career, Mackiewicz has seen firsthand how much different the team culture in Happy Valley is compared to the competition, with emphasis on supporting one another in order to become champions. Streets mentioned that many other schools don’t train together, instead splitting off into different schedules. At Penn State, all fencers practice in the same room together, motivating one another.
“Having the support of your team, knowing that they’re behind your back, it’s a great feeling,” Mackiewicz said. “At a lot of other universities, a bunch of their athletes are for themselves. They seek goals they see themselves achieving, instead of the goal of the entire team. It makes us different because we’re one team. We have one goal, which is to win NCAA’s. We’ll help each other to the end, no matter what.”
That feeling of camaraderie is echoed across the walls of the fencing room, ricocheting through the brightly lit basement hallways onto the team bus, through Coach Glon’s tiny office in the back of the rifle room, and back through those splintering wooden doors.
“In here, we’re all friends. There’s really that family feeling,” said senior David David Gomez-Tanamachi, who claimed the top spot at the 2015 Penn State Garret Open. “I’ve heard at other schools you get compensated on how you do, based on a formula. It’s almost like they treat you as not really a person, but more like a worker. But in here, it’s always felt as though we are all like a family, and all here for each other. And that’s a really nice feeling.”
The strong sense of family is no accident. When the team is on the road, Glon has the fencers eat together at the same restaurant, where the use of mobile phones is strictly prohibited. On the bus, he limits the amount of time they spend watching movies, removed from the outside world.
“It’s one of our philosophies to be like a big family,” Glon said. “I’d rather they interact with each other, learn about each other. Because you have some kids who are very shy and the others would never know them were it not for the trips and dinners together.”
Glon also takes the opportunity when the team is together for dinner to have the fencers dress up. Though awkward at first, it promotes a sense of professionalism and team bonding that the program seeks to achieve.
“They see each other all the time with the sweats sweating. Here, they feel like a celebration,” he said. “In the beginning, the freshman wonder why they have to dress up. But at the end, they like it.”
Not to mention, it’s a pretty nifty recruiting tactic.
“A lot of parents of high school kids who are looking for college find out about this and say, ‘Whoa, I like this. I like the discipline,’” Glon said. “They have family away from family, home away from home.”
Even after practice is over, Glon said many of the fencers form up and head to the dining hall together, waiting for each other in the hallway.
“They become a group of friends,” he said. “Other teams, they have a different philosophy. They finish practice and they go different directions. They don’t bond together. They never perform as a team. They think they’re a team, but many times they have a lot of individuals, and we beat them because we fight for each other.”
What’s next for the program and its coach? Keeping the status quo. A big believer in the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra, Glon will be heading back to the drawing board to analyze the final results from the NCAA championships to see where to improve next season. But after falling just short this season for a program that believes “second place is the first loser,” you can rest assured that the team will be motivated come this time next year.
“I think I will never get bored of winning,” Glon said with a chuckle. “We will keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years — putting the bar high.”
Image: Jen Hudson