This November, the Yale fencing team signed Haibin Wang, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and former head coach of China’s national team, to a three-year contract as an assistant coach.
After coaching foilist Lei Sheng to a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics, Wang is now working closely with Yale’s foil and epee fencers. Wang’s hiring was made possible after a $3 million donation from former Yale fencing captain Carl Knobloch ’51, who passed away on Nov. 22, established a new endowed assistant coach position for the men’s and women’s teams.
“[Wang is] very well-known and a good coach, and he’s been representing China,” head coach Henry Harutunian said. “I admire him because he holds himself with respect.”
Wang is one of 152 members of the International Fencing Federation’s Hall of Fame and is also part of the federation’s 11-member coaches council. With his addition to the Yale staff, the Bulldog fencing program now boasts three coaches with Olympic pedigrees. Harutunian coached the United States Olympic team in 1984, and assistant coach Galya Pundyk was a member of the gold-medal-winning 2008 Ukrainian women’s sabre team.
With Wang coaching foil and epee and Pundyk coaching sabre, Yale’s fencers are receiving more individual attention to supplement the guidance of Harutunian, who has coached the team since 1970. According to Wei-Tai Kwok ’85, a former Yale fencing captain currently serving on the Yale Fencing Association board, Harutunian previously single-handedly coached all three weapons for both the men’s and women’s teams, repair equipment and maintain the team’s facilities for several decades.
Over the last few months, Wang has led the team in daily footwork drills and improved the team’s conditioning and agility. Foilist Ella Belina ’18 said Wang has helped her make incremental improvements to her technique.
“He gives a lot of constructive criticism and helps us to break down our larger goals,” she said. “For instance, he’s been helping me get a more powerful lunge, and breaking that into smaller and more-achievable steps.”
Wang joined the Chinese national team in 1990 and fenced in the 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics, capturing silver medals in team men’s foil fencing in Sydney and Athens. Following the end of his competitive career, Wang assumed the role of head coach and led the Chinese national foil team to appearances at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics as well as back-to-back world championship victories in 2010 and 2011.
Wang first came to Yale in 2014 when his wife, Yan Wang, was a visiting scholar in psychiatry at the School of Medicine. While in New Haven, he met Harutunian and was introduced to the fencing team. Wang quickly became involved with the program, volunteering his time to help coach and guide the athletes for a season.
“I was very positive about Haibin the very first time around,” Harutunian said. “He told me he wanted to volunteer and he could’ve chosen to spend time relaxing, but he came consistently to practice every time.”
Without a work visa, however, Wang was unable to officially become a part of Yale’s staff and returned to China for the better part of 2016. While back in his home country, Wang worked with Kwok and the Yale administration to obtain a green card. Finally, this past November, Wang was granted permanent residence in the United States and was added to the Bulldogs’ coaching staff.
“I think it’s an incredible stroke of good fortune for Yale students to have Haibin Wang make his new home at Payne Whitney Gym,” Kwok said. “I expect he’ll be able to offer Yale fencers insights into the very latest mental, physical, technical and tactical approaches of today’s top fencers.”
Harutunian also stressed the need to give Wang time to build the program to match his vision, and see where the team and its athletes are in two to three years. While the new coach has spent a lot of time guiding professional fencers, teaching college athletes presents a new challenge for him. Though the fundamentals of fencing remain the same, Wang said he has had learn to communicate with students and adjust to different techniques and rules as a college coach.
“This year, I want to start building steps for the future and help the students,” Wang said. “I hope that a couple years will be good enough to create some big steps, but I would love to be here for the long run.”
The women’s fencing team has not won an Ivy League championship since 2002, while the men’s drought extends back to 1996.