Nov. 13, 2000

The Notre Dame fencing program has produced more than its share of individual and team champions, but the 2000-01 squad boasts what could prove to be one of the top one-two punches in the program’s 64-year history.

Junior sabreman Gabor Szelle and sophomore foilist Ozren Debic return to lead Notre Dame in 2001, after dominating efforts last season that placed them near the top of collegiate fencing.

Szelle-who placed second at the 1999 NCAA Championship-combined with Debic at the 2000 NCAAs to become just the fourth set of Notre Dame teammates ever to finish first or second at the same NCAA competition. Szelle captured the sabre title while Debic finished as runner-up in foil, with freshman Jan Viviani taking third in epee to help the runner-up Irish nearly catch Penn State in the men’s and women’s combined competition.

In its storied history, the Irish have produced a trio of top-three NCAA finishers just once-in 1978, when Mike Sullivan (sabre) and Bjorn Vaggo (epee) captured individual titles while Pat Gerard was foil runner-up.

In 2001, Notre Dame returns all three of its top-three finishers from last year’s NCAA competition, producing an unprecedented happening in the history of Irish fencing (only Gerard and Sullivan returned in ’79).

“With Gabor, Ozren and Jan leading the way, of course that puts the team in great position to compete for the NCAA title,” says Yves Auriol, now in his fifth year as head coach of both Irish teams after serving the previous 10 seasons as head coach of the women’s program.

“First of all, you are a leader out there on the fencing strip, and those three are great leaders for our team.”

Notre Dame’s fencing triumvirate hails from wide-reaching backgrounds, with Szelle a product of Hungary’s rich fencing tradition while Debic honed his craft in Croatia, a limited fencing community that includes roughly 100 competitors nationwide. Viviani-who resides in Haworth, N.J.-was born in New York City and has trained at the highly-regarded New York Athletic Club.

Debic’s journey through the fencing subculture has seen him transform from an athletically-gifted 10-year-old who had yet to discover fencing into one of the world’s most highly-regarded young foilists.

“One day when I was 11, I just wandered into the fencing gym, across the street from my house,” recalls Debic.

“Fencing is not a very big sport in Croatia and I didn’t have the chance to compete on a higher level until I started going to World Cups when I was 15. That was a great challenge because you’d be fencing against bigger, older guys and that helped me develop my skills.”

Debic’s skills made an immediate impression on Auriol, who first came in contact with the promising foilist due to a recommendation by former Irish assistant coach and Croatian native Igor Stefanic.

“Ozren is very unusual due to his physical abilities. He is the fastest fencer I’ve seen in 15 years at Notre Dame. He has a great future ahead of him,” says Auriol.

Like most foreign students, Debic experienced a rough first semester at Notre Dame but his strong grasp of English-which he’s been studying since the second grade-and his love for sports have helped him mesh into the student body.

“I was very surprised by all the sports facilities and how everybody here plays some kind of sport,” says Debic.

“In Europe, it’s either athletes or people who don’t do sports. But here the sports are everywhere.”

Auriol-who also has witnessed Szelle’s strong all-around sporting skills-points out that “most fencers can just fence but Ozren and Gabor are tremendous athletes in many sports.”

Debic’s observations about Notre Dame and American life provide a refreshing perspective, although he contends that “if there’s any country that you learn about through movies, it’s America.” Some of his more interesting observations:

o On collegiate fencing: “I had to learn to pace myself because I would fence very hard in every match at a tournament and would tire at the end. I also had to get used to the concept of team fencing because you feel bad when you don’t fence well and it hurts the team.”

o On the “big” nature of Notre Dame: “Everything seems so big and you can’t do anything without a car, so it’s good that the campus is self-contained. In Europe, you have close-knit cities and lots of public transportation. Here, everything is spread out and every house has its own porch. It makes the whole thing seem 10 times bigger.”

o On football: “I watch it on TV but still don’t know the game. You can’t hide from it. You see how crazy people will be, with the tailgating and pep rallies. You could compare it with soccer in Europe but this is a whole weekend thing.”

With Debic, Szelle and Viviani headlining a talented and deep men’s squad, Notre Dame likewise could show strides on the women’s side. The Irish women return an unprecedented four All-Americans, a strong sophomore group comprised of epeeists Anna Carnick and Meagan Call, Liza Boutzikaris (foil) and Natalia Mazur, who placed 10th at the NCAAs to cap the debut season of women’s sabre competition.

“We should be stronger in the women’s sabre, with the addition of two strong freshmen in Destaine Milo and Jessie Filkins, and our biggest challenge will be in the foil after losing Magda Krol, who was a four-time All-American for us,” says Auriol, who has watched Notre Dame finish as the runner-up to Penn State in each of the past five NCAA Championships.

“Every year we have strengths and weaknesses, but this team has a lot of the elements that it takes to be a national champion.”