Fencing coach rides donkey with dignity

Somewhere on the seventh floor of Payne Whitney Gymnasium, beneath piles of sabres and gloves, sits the desk of fencing head coach Henry Harutunian.

Only the desk’s general form can be made out beneath papers, broken fencing gear, old rosters, promotional packets and the occasional trophy. The clutter, accrued over nearly 35 years of coaching, spills from the overwhelmed cabinets and boxes onto the floor and climbs the walls. Harutunian’s office is a three–dimensional collage.

On Tuesday morning, like another piece of lost fencing gear, Harutunian sat in the middle of it all, indistinguishable from the milieu around him were he not shouting about a donkey.

“Screw the world — whatever!” said Harutunian, making a sweeping hand gesture. “You need to keep your dignity riding the donkey!”

Harutunian was trying to explain an Armenian proverb. Through his choppy English, the plot is hard to distinguish, but its punch line is clear: If you are stuck on a donkey instead of a horse, ride with pride.

It may seem odd for a man like Harutunian, who has dedicated his life to the art of fencing, to compare the sport he loves to a donkey. At nearly 72, with more than half a century of fencing experience, numerous coaching accolades and a smattering of successful pupils, it is clear that Harutunian owes a lot and has given a lot to the sport.

The force behind both Yale’s fencing teams and the founder of the women’s fencing program, Harutunian has made a career out of turning football players and track and field stars into All-American fencers. He operates on the theory that good fencing translates into a good life.

“Coach Harutunian is a legend,” Associate Director of Varsity Sports Colleen Lim said. “He has developed so many world-class fencers and so many world-class people.”

After three decades at Yale, Harutunian’s influence spreads over multiple generations. This summer Harutunian watched Sada Jacobson ’06, the daughter of his first All-American fencer, David Jacobson ’74, win the bronze medal at the Athens Olympic Games. Although Harutunian has attended his share of Olympics — he was a U.S. Olympic coach in 1984 — this year he viewed the Games on television.

Sitting behind his desk on the seventh floor of the gym, where he arrives around 5 a.m. every morning, Harutunian has a fairly intimidating presence. The volume of his voice can rise unexpectedly when he is trying to convey a point. The movements of his hands are the calculated swaths of a fencer.

Meanwhile, on the walls all around him are the mementos of his long coaching career: photographs and posters of former and current athletes. Many of these alumni still call and drop by for visits, when Harutunian — who rarely drinks — will pull a bottle of alcohol from one of the cabinets and take a “symbolic” shot with them.

“They’re unbelievable,” Harutunian said of his former athletes, who take him to tennis matches in New York and house him in their homes when he is traveling.

In fact, Harutunian’s entire career at Yale is due, in part, to an early student. In 1966, Harutunian moved to the United States from Armenia and, with no English language experience, began teaching conversational Russian at Harvard. There, he met a Yale graduate who persuaded him to apply for the job of fencing coach at Yale.

Harutunian procured an interview and visited the seventh floor of Payne Whitney Gym. It was love at first sight.

“I looked down from the balcony and saw what a beautiful place [it was] for fencing,” Harutunian recalled. “I closed my eyes and said, ‘God, please give me a chance to work here.’”

Four years later, in 1970, his wish came true when he took over the role of men’s head coach. In 1974, after women matriculated at Yale, Harutunian helped Yale become the first Ivy to introduce women’s fencing as a varsity sport. On top of coaching two teams, he makes himself available to his athletes at most times of the day year-round and regularly teaches beginning fencing classes for the Athletic department.

But Harutunian’s path to Yale may never have happened were it not for the donkey proverb.

As a schoolboy in Armenia, Harutunian was first attracted to fencing by romance literature like “The Three Musketeers,” with its “ladies, blades and honor.” When he finally learned to fence, however, the young Harutunian became disillusioned. The white fencing suits and masks and the blood–free quality of the sport were not at all what he had expected.

“I was so disappointed,” Harutunian said. “You can’t see blood, you can’t see the face of the other person.”

Luckily, remembering the donkey proverb, Harutunian chose to stick with the sport — to ride with pride. And to his pleasure, he soon found that the donkey was not a bad ride after all. Fencing, he discovered, was all about grace, agility and speed.

“I am very thankful I found the sport,” he says. “The more you know, the more you love it.”

After 34 years at Yale, Harutunian has practically become part of architecture of the seventh floor. At an age well past when many men retire, he looks 15 years younger than he really is and shows no signs of slowing.

“He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met,” women’s captain Erica Korb ’05 said. “He’s got more energy than about 30 college students. I have no idea how he does it.”

Harutunian credits fencing with his vigor. A lifelong sport, clean lifestyle, and coaching, he said, are the keys to youth.

“No matter how much older you get,” he said, “you feel the same as your students.”

Fencing head coach Henry Harutunian — whose office in Payne Whitney has served him for 34 years — helped Yale become the first Ivy to introduce a women’s fencing program. The 72-year old tour de force shows no sign of slowing down when it comes to the sport he loves.
Alexander White
Fencing head coach Henry Harutunian — whose office in Payne Whitney has served him for 34 years — helped Yale become the first Ivy to introduce a women’s fencing program. The 72-year old tour de force shows no sign of slowing down when it comes to the sport he loves.

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