In his first year at the helm, Gia Kvaratskhelia hopes to repeat Janusz Bednarski's success, and bring home an NCAA title his first season.

Irish Extra: New Notre Dame Fencing Boss Knows All the Right Moves

Dec. 15, 2014

When Gia Kvaratskhelia was growing up in the Republic of Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, the government controlled the youth sports academies.

Competition to be accepted was fierce.

At age 11, Kvaratskhelia signed up for basketball. An official at the state-sponsored basketball academy told him when and where to show up for tryouts and to bring his father.

I brought my father, and they looked at him,” Kvaratskhelia said. “He’s 5-foot-9. They rejected me immediately.”

A tryout at soccer didn’t work out, either.

Where I come from, everything was super competitive,” Kvaratskhelia said. “Unless you were a physical specimen, it was hard to get into a sport.”

Eager to participate in a competitive sport, Kvaratskhelia decided to give fencing a try.

The first time, the very first practice, I realized fencing could be something special,” Kvaratskhelia said.

Fencing turned out to be special for Kvaratskhelia, and Kvaratskhelia turned out to be special for fencing. He honed his craft at the sport in his native country. Combining dedication, hard work and his talent, Kvaratskhelia flourished at fencing. He would go on to represent his nation in the top levels of competition and carve out a remarkable legacy as a coach.

Fencing became even more special for Kvaratskhelia when he recently was named the head fencing coach for the legendary Notre Dame program, which boasts eight team national titles. Kvaratskhelia succeeds Janusz Bednarski, who led the Irish to three national titles.

Kvaratskhelia takes over an Irish program he has been part of since 2007 as an assistant coach.

University of Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said it was evident the best choice to keep the Irish fencers competing at an elite level was already wearing blue and gold.

The good news is, I didn’t have to conduct a national search to find the best coach in the country to replace (Janusz),” Swarbrick said in announcing Kvaratskhelia’s hiring as the head coach. “This program is in such great shape.

The last thing I would want to do is change the culture or the focus or the orientation of the program. I would have, I wouldn’t have hesitated to, if I didn’t think we had the very best coach in the country to lead you. It’s important to me for you to understand, that even if I had done an extensive national search and interviewed a million people, I still would have come to this result, because this is the best person to lead this program to its next national championship.”

Kvaratskhelia fell in love with the complexities of fencing, instinct and calculations, physical prowess and mental toughness, a symphony of lethal maneuvers.

It is ballet with swords,” Kvaratskhelia said of fencing. “It is based on medieval sword fighting. It has to be brutal, yet it’s elegant, which comes from thousands of years of repetition.”

Fencing has all of the elements,” Kvaratskhelia said. “You have to anticipate someone’s move and calculating. You have to be physically fit and have endurance. It’s a combination of all the aspects, the mental, the psychological and the physical. And no matter how gifted you are, you still have to put in years and years and years of preparation.”

Specializing in foil, Kvaratskhelia already has helped Notre Dame athletes achieve world-class excellence. The Irish have filled the maximum number of foil spots allowed in the NCAA Championship each season in Kvaratskhelia’s tenure as an assistant in charge of foil. No other school in the nation tops Notre Dame in terms of success in any weapons class at the national championships, and Kvaratskhelia has helped develop five NCAA individual national champions since 2010–Lee Kiefer in 2014 and 2013, Gerek Meinhardt in 2014 and 2010 and Ariel DeSmet in 2011.

Kvaratskhelia’s vision is to take the world-class Irish program and improve it through the addition of technology as a preparation tool.

Fencing is evolving,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We have to find new ventures, new ways. With the modern technology, I want to implement film studies a lot more, like football does. I want to record the practices. I want to show film of our opponents. That has not been done enough.

The University gives us all of the opportunities for that,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We will use all of the opportunities that Notre Dame gives us to help our athletes–the athletic trainers, the strength and conditioning coaches, the psychologists. There are a lot of things we can do to enhance the program.”

Meinhardt said Kvaratskhelia understands the scope of the challenge to be Notre Dame’s head coach and believes he is more than capable of keeping the Irish tradition of champions alive.

Gia is definitely the perfect fit for the Notre Dame program,” Meinhardt said. “He’s such a great guy and a great coach. He worked for a long time with Janusz, who is also a great coach and won us several championships. Gia is a wonderful person who exemplifies what Notre Dame’s values are, what it means to be part of the school.

Gia is a great motivator. He pushes us hard in practice, but he knows what we need. If we need rest that day, he’s not going to push us over the limit. He’s great about understanding each fencer’s individual needs. Whether someone is stressed out over finals week or has a bunch of individual tournaments where they’re travelling abroad, he’s good about listening to what a fencer’s need is.”

Kvaratskhelia first got into coaching as a substitute for another coach, shortly after he emigrated from the Republic of Georgia to the United States.

I fell in love with working with kids that first time I coached,” Kvaratskhelia said. “I never felt so strong about anything before. I fell in love with the process of teaching.”

Kvaratskhelia plans to use the support Notre Dame offers, the facilities and the tradition of excellence established by previous coaches to continue a program that has produced not only national championships, but also Olympic Games champions.

This is the world to me,” Kvaratskhelia said of being named the head coach of the Notre Dame fencing program. “It means everything. It is a dream come true, for every coach, but especially for someone who has worked here for the last nine years. I think I can grasp the magnitude of the moment and appreciate everything this University and this program could offer.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent