Jan. 14, 2016
By Lizzie Mikes
`Lights, Camera, Action!’ is a saying well known throughout the entertainment industry. It’s a three-step process to set the scene, get in character and put on a performance.
`Ready, En Garde, Fence’ is a similar phrase in the sport of fencing; it readies two combatants to face each other, and fight for a title. University of Notre Dame fencing head coach Guiorgie “Gia” Kvaratskhelia has spent the better part of the last decade in varying roles with the Fighting Irish, prepping and encouraging to develop into an elite, collegiate fencing program. The 2015-16 campaign marks his second year as head coach.
Kvaratskhelia’s introduction as Notre Dame’s head fencing coach in December 2014 came as no surprise to those close to the program. Maureen McNamara, Notre Dame assistant athletics director and the program’s sport administrator, points to the respect he has garnered within the fencing profession that made the choice a very easy one when former head coach Janusz Bednarski retired.
“I wasn’t involved with bringing him (Kvaratskhelia) to Notre Dame as an assistant coach, so I can’t take credit for that,” says McNamara. “In terms of why he was brought in was due in part to his phenomenal reputation not only nationwide, but worldwide. When Janusz [Bednarski] retired, Gia emerged as the only logical candidate we considered. We looked around the world in terms of what our options were, and he surpassed everyone, far and away, without a doubt.”
Kvaratskhelia began fencing at the age of 13 in his homeland of the Republic of Georgia. He enjoyed an an impressive 13-year foil career before coming to the United States at the age of 25.
When he immigrated in 1994, Kvaratskhelia set up shop in Salina, Kansas, and began training a small group of pupils at the Kanza Fencing Club (formerly called the Coyote Fencing Club). The club started with only five fencers. However, by 2005, thanks to Kvaratskhelia’s efforts, the gym boasted 30 active competitors, many of them nationally renowned on the USFA circuit.
When asked why he became a coach, Kvaratskhelia merely chuckles then credits genetics.
“I think the biggest factor for me becoming a coach was genetics,” he says. “Approximately 80 percent of my relatives from my mother’s side, from my great-grandfather on down through my grandmothers, their siblings, my uncles, aunts, they are all teachers. I think somehow this encoded on me and drew me to be around the teaching environment. It’s less intellectual than being a professor, but I still consider myself to be a teacher at heart. I love every time I step on the floor to explain a concept to someone, and being able to help them progress to the next level in their training.”
Kvaratskhelia moved on from Kansas and Kanza, and up to the position of assistant coach for the Fighting Irish in 2007. His impact on the men’s and women’s foil squads was immediate and long-lasting, as the Irish have qualified the maximum of four foilists each year for the NCAA championship, with 33 of the 36 total appearances resulting in All-America honors.
“Gia has a reputation for his technical skills, as well as his personal skills,” says McNamara. “So students and their parents are immediately blown away and impressed with his one-on-one interactions and his ability to connect with the students. He attracts every type of kid and every personality that wants to win national championships.”
Kvaratskhelia, however, doesn’t take credit for the success of his student-athletes. Although he may be world-renowned and a tenacious recruiter, Kvaratskhelia doesn’t have to make a hard sell to get kids to come to Notre Dame.
“The secret is to get them to take a visit,” Kvaratskhelia says. “I won’t say we have a 100 percent success rate in regards to those that take a visit here and eventually end up coming her. Some of them arrive skeptical of Notre Dame, but that perception quickly changes. We don’t have to sell much; we just have to show them the true face of Notre Dame. Even when they’re 18 and 19 years old, students want to be included and want to be a part of something great. Notre Dame represents the great.”
The `great’ that Kvaratskhelia speaks of can, in fact, be traced back to the fencing program itself – at least academically speaking. Former head coach Mike DeCicco, a 1949 graduate of the University and a student-athlete himself, founded what is today known as the Office of Academic Services for Student-Athletes, a department that focuses on ensuring the success of student-athletes while they are here at Notre Dame.
“Here at the University, we have a history of how we develop the athletes. Besides developing the athlete, we also focus on how we shape them into human beings — the body, spirit soul, as well as the heart and mind,” says Kvaratskhelia. “Notre Dame builds hearts and minds and I think it’s important we start from there, before even touching the aspect of athletics. We focus on building the individual, not just the athlete. That is what sets Notre Dame apart from other schools.
Kvaratskhelia isn’t alone in his endeavors to build hearts and minds, as he is quick to credit his assistant coaches Cedric Loiseau (epee) and Samir Ibrahimov (sabre), in addition to director of operations Alex Buell, in helping him achieve his goals and aspirations with the fencing program.
“I have an incredible staff that supports me,” Kvaratskhelia says. “Cedric, Samir, Alex and everyone surrounding this program has been so incredibly supportive. That support reduces the pressure and the challenges we face. Everyone around the program contributes to make the whole better. We have a divide and conquer mentality, in that everyone on staff has their set of responsibilities.
“I believe that everyone can step up and perform their duties as they need to. We give each other all the freedom to improvise and do what we feel is right in their role. Cedric helps with recruiting, and Samir does a lot of personnel work, taking care of the kids and keeping everyone balanced. Alex takes care of all the other problems that crop up – we call him Doctor Alex – so I think giving everyone the freedom to be creative in their own processes has been wise.”
What the Irish have been working towards the last two years is a return to greatness — adding another national championship trophy, something that hasn’t happened since 2011.
“I don’t have to reinvent the wheel with this team; after working closely with Janusz for so many years, he, and Coach [Yves] Auriol and Coach DeCicco had an incredible program implemented for our team, an incredible system, which got us to so many national championships,” says Kvaratskhelia. “All I want to do is make it a little edgier; implement video analysis, add in a matrix of sport science and nutrition, so that will give us a little bit of an advantage over others. In the big scheme of things, however, we are still moving in the same direction we always have – and that is to win national championships.”
Despite being tabbed the 2015 Atlantic Coast Conference Men’s Coach of the Year, 2013 Midwest Fencing Conference Varsity Coach of the Year, the 2010-11 U.S. Fencing Coach of the Year and the 2002 U.S. Fencing Association National Development Coach of the Year, Kvaratskhelia remains extremely humble and gracious.
“Gia is one of the most humble people I know,” McNamara says. “He is a competitor, but he’s extremely kind-hearted. He loves the University and is an excellent ambassador.”
And as much as he has gained, Kvaratskhelia has given back much more to Notre Dame, especially to the fencers under his tutelage. His philosophy of positive reinforcement is very different, especially in a sport that embraces and encourages yelling — both as a coaching tactic and a form of celebration.
“What got me to where I am today is the idea of positive motivation; the idea that positive reinforcement stays with an athlete longer,” Kvaratskhelia says. “I am against the yelling and screaming; I focus on empowering the athletes to be the best they can be, and showing them what they can become, whether we’re talking athletically or academically.
“While we’re implementing this way of thinking, we’re seeing results in that I have athletes that give 100 percent every day. So we’re trying to build up the whole team through this process of empowerment, to continue the success we’ve seen in foil in recent years.”
“Gia is putting his stamp on the program; he expects to win national championships every year; he’s a ferocious competitor,” says McNamara. “He surrounds himself with excellent people, who share his high standards. He demands a lot of the kids, but they always know that he cares about them as people first. He has all of the ingredients to win national championships, but also offers these kids an opportunity to become great competitors and great people, in any area they choose to pursue after graduation.”