FENCING | 40 years later, fencing coach still beloved

fencing
Photo by David Blumenthal.

Sorting through fencing coach Henry Harutunian’s desk would be the dream of any budding archaeologist. A collection of 25 foils, the swords piled high, are almost historic artifacts — a testament to years and years of turning scared, callow freshman into tough, lean fencers. Looking at the mass of fencing material in front of him, Harutunian shrugged and downplayed the number of years he has been the coach for both the Yale men’s and women’s team.

Yale Daily News Archives
Yale Daily News Archives
Yale Daily News Archives

“I could care less,” he said in his trademark Armenian accent. “40 years, every year more and more the same thing. I want to get the job done.”

Harutunian’s ties to Yale stretch decades back and 160 members of the Yale Fencing community gathered in the Lanman Center on October 9 to pay tribute to his four decades of “getting the job done.”

The co-presidents of the Yale Fencing Association (YFA), Steve Blum ’74 and Elizabeth Merritt ’81, were in attendance, as were dozens of Harutunian’s former pupils. Les Fagan ’71, Valerie Asher ’82, Peter Devine ’00 and Sada Jacobson ’06 all made remarks in honor of a man who seemed to have taken the fencing world by storm.

Before winning four NCAA titles at Yale, Coach Harutunian held a number of previous coaching jobs across the world, including working for the Republic of Armenia, the Soviet Union and Brandeis University.

Howard Daniel ’66 will never forget the first time he met Henry Harutunian — and it had nothing to do with fencing. Harutunian was a native conversation language teacher in Russian for graduates and undergraduates at Harvard University. After Daniel and Harutunian formed something of a friendship, the teacher and the student decided to one day switch roles.

“One day after class, Henry asked if I’d teach him to drive,” Daniel said in an email. “Little did I understand that fencers — or at least supercharged ones like Henry — are in a class all their own when undertaking new challenges involving hand-eye-and-foot coordination.”

Harutunian found numerous legal and illegal gaps in the normally inhospitable Boston traffic, as any spatially aware fencer would. The entire experience was also conducted in Russian, a relatively new language for Daniel, making it even more stressful. But for Daniel, it became clear that Harutunian had no doubt of his place behind the wheel.

“To my amazement and everlasting gratitude, he never did have to parry, though it often seemed a near thing,” Daniel said. “The white-knuckle experience was mine alone, however. Nothing could shake Henry’s supreme confidence.”

It was clear to Daniel that Henry’s fencing talents were being underemployed at that moment and could be better used at Daniel’s alma mater.

“[Harutunian] had been an Olympic fencing coach in the USSR and could be doing much greater things in our country,” Daniel said. “I also knew that at the time the Yale fencing team was doing rather poorly. It occurred to me that I would be doing both Henry and Yale a favor by putting them in touch with each other.”

Still, he said he could not have forseen the longevity of Harutunian’s time at Yale.

On October 9 many of Harutunian’s pupils tried to tangibly measure Coach Harutunian’s contributions to the sport of fencing. In addition to having compiled a 507–194 record during four decades of work, Harutunian has a resume of accomplishments in the world of fencing to match his storied career here at Yale. He was the former United States Olympic Team Coach (1984), two-time coach at the Pan-Am games (1979, 1983), and an original member of the U.S. National Team coaching staff, all while cocahing at Yale. The world fencing community gave him its highest attainable honor — induction into the World Fencing Hall of Fame.

“Henry searches for talent at a world-famous university that offers plenty of scholars but no scholarships,” said Steve Blum ’74, who gave the induction speech last year. “And yet, season after season, Yale surprises. They win when people say they won’t.”

Perhaps more valuable to Harutunian and more of a tribute to his impact on Yale’s fencing program than wins and losses were four decades of pupils at last Saturday’s banquet coming from twelve different time zones and all walks of life. Some of those who could not be present still sent prose and poetry testimonials recounting everything from Harutunian’s unique speaking style, known as “Coachism,” to his love for Vietnamese hot sauce. They extolled Harutunian’s ability to coach, whether his pupils be Olympians or newcomers.

“Unlike some other coaches, he doesn’t try to force his fencers into a standard model of what proper fencing should look like,” men’s fencing captain Jon Holbrook ’12 said. “Instead, he lets us play to our strengths and develop our own styles.”

Harutunian said he was honored to be surrounded by a devoted cadre of pupils, but felt they were going through too much trouble for him.

“Some people leave their kids at home,” he said. “I worry about [their kids]. I don’t want them to risk their safety.”

Harutunian’s genuine concern for his fencers’ well being has become legendary.

“One practice I remember [he] wore a worried expression, finally cornering me to ask, ‘Jess, are you smoking?’” Jessica Yu ’87 said in her written tribute to her coach. “[Harutunian] had seen a box of candy cigarettes in my bag … [He] always paid attention to the details, [and] I don’t know if that is what has made [him] such a successful coach, but surely it has made [him] a most beloved and memorable one.”

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