Jan. 19, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following tribute was written by Pete LaFleur, former assistant sports information director at Notre Dame and currently the editor of CollegeFencing360.com. This tribute originally appeared on that site Jan. 10, 2009, and is re-printed with the author’s permission.
The University of Notre Dame athletics department – and the college fencing community at-large – saw the year 2008 end on a down note, with the passing of former sabre standout Luke La Valle III. A four-year All-American who won the 1998 NCAA men’s sabre title, La Valle died on Dec. 31, following a 21-month battle with lung cancer.
La Valle, a non-smoker, had been in good health prior to his diagnosis and went on to wage an inspiring battle against the disease. His Mass of Christian Burial was held Jan. 5, at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, in his hometown of New York City, and he is laid to rest at Long Island’s Westhampton Cemetery. La Valle is survived by his wife Jennifer, daughter Abby Rose, parents Luke La Valle, Jr., and Nancy, and his younger brothers Michael and David.
The following tribute celebrating La Valle’s life was made possible by the many poignant comments, stories and anecdotes passed on by Luke’s family and friends. Remembrance from his father (Luke, Jr.) and wife Jen have been excerpted from the eulogies that each gave at the funeral Mass, while some other comments come from the New York Times online guestbook (those wishing to read and/or add condolences can do so until early Feb., at http://www.legacy.com/NYTIMES/GB/GuestbookView.aspx?PersonId=122090819). A special thanks to others who forwarded additional thoughts on the life of Luke La Valle.
Contributions may be made in La Valle’s memory to the Lung Cancer Research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (1275 York Avenue New York, NY 10065; 212-639-2000; www.mskcc.org). Information on lung cancer research is available through the Thomas G. Labrecque Foundation website, at www.tglclassic.com.
The Notre Dame men’s and women’s fencing teams will be wearing a Luke La Valle memorial patch during its 2009 competitions. The black-circle logo includes the simple words “Luke” in the color Notre Dame gold, symbolizing “the University Luke loved, the 1998 NCAA sabre title earned, and his warm personality.” The ND fencing program also may dedicate an annual award to La Valle (details TBA).
This tribute feature is structured, for the most part, in reverse chronological order (following an introductory overview) – with La Valle’s postgraduate life chronicled near the top, his Notre Dame days in the middle, and his pre-college life at the end. Section headers are included, to aid in the reading.
The La Valle men – father and three sons – became well-known figures in the New York City fencing circles, during the 1990s. The family patriarch, Luke, Jr., founded the junior fencing program at the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) and was its chairman for many years. His sons began fencing at the NYAC in 1986 (when Luke was 8, Michael 7 and David 6) and the trio was ready for high-end sabre competitions when the 1990s rolled around.
David proved to be the highest-regarded prospect of the three (slightly above Luke), after winning Junior Olympic national titles at the under-15 (’95) and u-17 (’97) levels. He also was a member of several U.S. youth national teams from 1995-97, with Luke serving as an alternate for many of those elite sabre squads.
Two years after Luke had departed for Notre Dame (fall of ’95), Michael began his career at the U.S. Military Academy (a.k.a. “West Point” or “Army”), where he served as the fencing team’s captain and posted several top finishes. David followed one year later, crossing the country for Stanford, where he twice earned All-America honors.
Luke’s collegiate career – which saw his individual success dampened by the pain of four straight NCAA runner-up team finishes for the Irish – was strengthened by the tremendous coaching he had received, both at home and in college (when current ND head coach Janusz Bednarski was the program’s assistant coach for sabre).
“One of the key turning points in Luke’s career was the arrival of Vassil Etropolski as head coach at the NYAC,” says David La Valle, who had a career record of 3-15 when fencing against Luke. “Vassil helped take Luke to the next level and they shared a great coaching relationship.
“Janusz Bednarski then continued to build upon what Luke learned from Vassil. They were a great team and Luke enjoyed Janusz’s coaching and personal relationship with him. Luke continued to be coached by both Vassil and Janusz during those four years, and considered them both responsible for his achievements.”
“Luke’s greatest strength was his ability to focus on the task at hand. He rarely was flustered, even when faced with a seemingly unsurmountable deficit, and was one of the most consistently strong fencers I ever competed against.”
Bednarski – who was able to attend last week’s visitation and funeral services – credited La Valle’s “great family” with helping shape their son into a graceful competitor and engaging presence.
“Luke was an extremely intense fencer, who made up for a smaller frame (5-foot-7, 150 pounds) by bouting within a shorter distance,” says Bednarski. “He had tremendous reaction times, was able toquicky attack into small openings, and was more intelligent on the strip than most of his opponents.”
La Valle’s quest for victories at Notre Dame did not come at the expense of style. “Luke was a tremendous technician and very elegant in his moves,” says Bednarski. “He was not content to ‘win ugly’ and enjoyed using an attractive style. He considered beauty of movement to be a very important part of his fencing.
“On top of all his fencing qualities, Luke always was a leader for our team and had great social intelligence. The most interesting people always wanted to be around him. These, too, are things that I always will remember about him.”
Of the many testimonials submitted about La Valle, one of the most compelling comes from Jerry Barca, who served as the student assistant for fencing in Notre Dame’s Sports Information Office during the late 1990s. Barca admittedly had a limited working knowledge of fencing technique, but he developed a keen understanding of La Valle’s personality – both within the fencing gym and around campus.
“In a sport where it’s hard to have charisma, Luke was a charismatic figure,” says Barca. “He was a happy guy, with a very likable smile and an energetic, vibrant personality. Like many top fencers, he sometimes might come across as being an intense competitor with a chip on his shoulder, but people were not put off by that.
“There was something different about Luke when compared to other top fencers. He had that athletic intensity, but you still wanted to root for him. His presence was captivating and people wanted to be around him.
“Fencing is a sport where you constantly are in a mask, but his personality shone through and you don’t usually see that. Luke La Valle was a cool dude and he brought ‘cool’ to fencing.”
Luke La Valle and Jennifer Spiess (one year his junior) both attended grammar school at St. Ignatius Loyola, in Manhattan. The couple did not begin dating until both had graduated from college and had been back in New York City for a few years. They married on Nov. 11, 2006, and welcomed daughter Abigail Rose into their lives on Aug. 30, 2008 (nearly a year and a half after Luke’s cancer diagnosis).
“When Luke became a dad, I saw a new side of him,” said his loving wife, during her eulogy. “He absolutely adored Abby – she was not even three hours old before he had her watching college football in the hospital. Luke always said that Abby was better than any pain killer.”
According to Jen La Valle, her husband had Abby’s life “planned out already,” complete with summers spent at Lake George and Remsenburg, along with attending school at St. Ignatius, Dominican High School and then Notre Dame.
Luke and Jen La Valle on their wedding day
“He did say that she could go wherever she wanted,” joked Jen. “But while saying that, he was putting ND booties on her and singing the Fight Song.”
La Valle was diagnosed with the worst form of lung cancer (non small cell adeno, carcinoma Stage IV.), in March of 2007. It was extremely rare for a 29-year-old, healthy non-smoker to contract such a serious form of lung cancer and an operation was not an option, due to the fact that the cancer had spread to both lungs, plus the lymph nodes and abdomen.
Faced with daunting odds, La Valle proceeded to wage a courageous and spirited fight against the disease. He conducted extensive research on lung cancer and looked into various treatment options. The La Valle family compiled an in-depth summary of Luke’s status before consulting with cancer centers and oncologists from throughout the world.
“Luke began the battle with his typical determination, fight, perseverance and tenacity,” said his father, Luke La Valle, Jr. “He attacked with all his ability and strength, and had a disciplined focus against a formidable foe.”
Following several rounds of chemotherapy, La Valle’s prognosis had improved. Shortly thereafter, he shared information about his status on a cancer-support website.
“Overall, the statistics are not favorable for those with this cancer, but are based on a sample of adults that average 67 years old,” said La Valle. “After three rounds of chemo, my tumors have shrunk by 30 percent. This is good news, since 85-percent of cases as advanced as mine don’t respond to treatments. This opens up more options and allows the doctors to be more aggressive with some treatments. It’s an ongoing trial and error process, and we just hope for the best.”
La Valle’s valiant battle was aided by a support system that included family, friends, oncologist Dr. Greg Riely, and the staff at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City.
“We used to joke that Luke was the VIP there. Everyone always made him feel so special, and you have no idea what a sense of safety and relief you gave him,” said Jen La Valle, in personally thanking the medical staff during the eulogy for her husband.
“You all made such a difficult time in our lives so much easier. When he went to the hospitals or chemo suites, he really felt how much you all care. He felt like he was with family.”
La Valle’s outstanding team of medical professionals at MSKCC also included Dr. Kathleen Foley, Dr. Nessa Coyle, chemotherapy nurse Patty Albanese and Kim Mertens, R.N. The family likewise passed on their thanks to the staffs at Mass General Hospital and Boston’s Dana Farber Medical Center, for assisting in Luke’s care.
As things turn out, La Valle left a lasting impact on his caregivers.
“I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to take care of Luke,” said Albanese, in the N.Y. Times online guest-book tribute. “He taught me so much about life. I will always think of him when I look at the corner room in the chemo suite.”
La Valle continually proved to be an inspiration to his family, often reminding his wife that “someone out there had it even worse” while also reassuring her that “God gave this to us for a reason – and we will beat it.”
The young couple made their final months together as meaningful as possible.
“Some couples live a lifetime together, without having even close to the amount of love that Luke and I had for each other,” said Jen. “We weresoulmates – I could not have asked for a better friend and husband. Though this cancer cut short our time together, it also brought us closer than I ever thought we could be. We were able to cram a lifetime of experiences and love into our time together.
“We grew old together and did things that old couples do – like finish each other’s sentences; tivo SNL because we could not stay up past midnight on Saturdays; or watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune together, competing to see who was smarter.”
Jen La Valle’s closing remarks at her husband’s funeral Mass referenced the poem “What Cancer Cannot Do.” The poem proclaims that cancer “cannot shatter hope or cripple love; it can’t kill friendship or shut out memories.”
But Jen expounded on those words with her own concise thoughts, entitled “What Cancer Can Do”:
“Cancer can bring people from across the country together to run around Central Park, celebrate in Wicker Park, and raise thousands of dollars for research … can build a lifetime of memories in a 20-month stretch … can make you appreciate every miniscule moment of the day – like when you brush your teeth together when you wake up, or fall asleep holding hands. … can bring a beautiful child into the world a lot sooner than you thought it would. …
“Cancer can make you realize how deeply you love someone – enough to do anything in the world to help them … can make you so close to and so much more in love with someone than ever you thought imaginable (so much that it doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been married for only 25 months, but more like 25 years) … And finally, cancer can bring hundreds of people together to celebrate the life of an amazing man, a man who died too young and who did more in 30 years than most people do in a lifetime.”
WALL STREET SUCCESS
According to Luke, Jr., Notre Dame had been the “perfect place” for Luke, who quickly became a fanatical supporter of all Irish sports teams. As an alumni, he always was sure to return at least once a year for a Notre Dame football home weekend.
Two months after graduating in 1999 with his degree in finance, the Dean’s List student was working in his hometown of New York City, in the asset management division at The Bank of New York (BNY). As an assistant treasurer and portfolio manager for short-term money management, La Valle traded and managed the short end of the yield curve on a $6 billion short-term investment fund. He also had daily responsibilities for investing and negotiation rates for $1 billion in repurchase agreements, and he managed more than $1 billion for some 20 personal and institutional clients.
The eldest La Valle son quickly made a positive impact and quality impression on the leadership at BNY. “I hired Luke … [and] It was one of my better management decisions,” said BNY executive Edward Vonsauers, in the NY Times online guestbook. “His intelligence, enthusiasm and work ethic breathed a new life into our trading desk. He truly was one of a kind.”
Luke’s parents enjoyed having their son back in the area, displaying a “calm, focused and stable adult personality,” according to his father, who in 1993 welcomed his oldest son to his firm, American Capital Management (ACM).
“The good buzz about Luke was spreading around town and periodically got back to me,” says Luke, Jr.,, who praised his son for “innate ability and perspective,” along with a “methodica intellectual process.”
“Luke had a special ability to logically analyze a problem, review the alternative courses of action and select the best option to achieve the objective … and our clients were impressed.”
David Carnahan, an ACM business associate, worked closely with the younger Luke La Valle and repeatedly came away inspired by the firm’s newcomer.
“David said that working with Luke was among the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of his life,” reported the proud father. “Luke became a professional with the tools and understanding of the responsibilities to manage others’ money successfully. David recognized those inherent strengths early in their working relationship and asked Luke to assume the responsibility of his family’s investments if he was not able.
“They became a team and David’s decision-making process took on a new focus, as they discussed and shared investment information and their collective intuition. The investment returns they achieved together were among the best of his 48 years as a portfolio manager and analyst. David believes that Luke was a man who always gave as much or more than he received. Luke truly became a ‘Man For Others.’ “
Dan Yu, a sabre fencer at Notre Dame from 1987-91, developed an instant connection with La Valle, while both were working on Wall Street. Each had attended nearby high schools (La Valle at Regis, Yu at St. Ignatius) before going to college at Notre Dame, albeit nearly a decade apart.
“Luke, though nine years my junior, taught me so much about living life to its fullest. I can only hope to meet the standard that he set,” says Yu. “Luke inspired greatness, laughter, compassion, camaraderie, and especially kindness in everyone he met. Luke’s legacy is in each of us … If we can somehow replicate his perpetually impish grin, quick wit, and magnanimous personality in our own lives and those we know and meet, then Luke really will live on forever.”
Two years into his postgraduate life, La Valle was shaken by the nationwide tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Fortunately, he had been outside of downtown when the World Trade Center’s second tower fell, but he still was caught in the ensuing dust plume and – with a crippled public transportation system – was forced to walk five miles to his apartment.
Earlier that day, minutes before evacuating his office, La Valle had been instant-messaging a close friend who was located in the first tower of the WTC.
“Luke’s friend, like so many people, was trying to figure out what happened,” recalls David La Valle. “Unfortunately, that individual was unable to make it out of the building and passed away. That day certainly had a profound effect on Luke and brought our entire family closer together.”
The middle La Valle brother, Michael, was an active-duty member of the U.S. Army at the time of 9/11 while David was enrolled in ROTC at Stanford and soon followed into active duty. Both brothers served tours in the Middle East – Michael with Operation Enduring Freedom and David in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“You couldn’t find a bigger supporter of our troops overseas than our brother Luke,” recalls David La Valle. “He sent a number of care packages to our units, as well as to the units of other friends and acquaintances that were serving in harm’s way on a regular basis.”
A NOTRE DAME LEGEND
By many measures, La Valle’s collegiate career stacks up alongside the greatest in the storied history of the Notre Dame fencing program (and among all Notre Dame varsity sports). Consider the following:
In 1999, he became one of 12 Notre Dame student-athletes (from all sports) ever to be a four-year All-American. That elite group now includes 27 distinguished individuals, led by 10 men’s fencers – plus seven in women’s fencing, five distance runners (four men, one woman), four women’s soccer players, late-1940s basketball player Kevin O’Shea and current Major League Baseball pitcher Aaron Heilman.
Of the 28 student-athletes referenced above, 12 of them (including La Valle) also have won an NCAA individual title or been named a national player of the year: men’s fencers Mike Sullivan (NCAA sabre champion in ’77 and ’78), Charles Higgs-Coulthard (foil, ’84), La Valle (sabre, ’96) and Michal Sobieraj (epee, ’05); women’s fencers Molly Sullivan (foil, ’86 and ’88), Magda Krol (epee, ’97), Alicja Kryczalo (foil, ’02-’04) and Valerie Providenza (sabre, ’04); soccer midfielder Anne Makinen (2000 Hermann Trophy) and forward Kerri Hanks (2006 and ’08 Hermann Trophy); and the distance-running duo of Oliver Hunter (NCAA cross-country champ, ’42) and Ryan Shay (NCAA 10,000 meters champ; 2001), who died tragically 14 months ago while competing in the 2007 New York Marathon.
The 17 Notre Dame fencers who have been four-year All-Americans include eight who have won an individual NCAA title (at some point in their careers): the five mentioned above, plus sabreist Mike Sullivan (’77 and ’78), foilist Molly Sullivan (’86) and men’s epeeist Michal Sobieraj (’05).
La Valle’s four-year run with the Irish fencing program (1996-99) included a 200-20 career record in regular-season bouts, still good for second-best ever by a Notre Dame men’s fencer. Bill Lester – who joined La Valle to form a potent sabre duo in 1996 and ’97 – sits atop the career wins list, at 213-38 (’94-’97), giving Lester and La Valle an impressive combined career record of 413-58 (223-26 in two seasons together).
Despite his many individual achievements, La Valle’s greatest regret during his college career was never fencing on an NCAA team championship squad. In all four of his years at Notre Dame, the Irish were the NCAA runner-up to their rival Penn State – including an excruciating 1997 battle that saw PSU edge ND by the margin of two bout victories (149-147).
(Note that nearly half of Notre Dame’s four-year All-Americans – 13 of 28, and 12 of the 17 fencers – also have been fortunate to be members of an NCAA championship team: Mike Sullivan in ’77 and ’78; Higgs-Coulthard and fellow foilist Yehuda Kovacs in ’84; Molly Sullivan in ’87; soccer midfielder Holly Manthei in ’95; foilist Jeremy Siek in ’94; men’s foilist Ozren Debic and men’s epeeist Jan Viviani (another NYAC product) in 2003; Kryczalo, fellow foilist Andrea Ament and Sobieraj in ’03 and ’05; and Providenza and fellow sabreist Patrick Ghattas in ’05).
Many of La Valle’s former teammates vividly remember his clear focus on team goals … and the corresponding heartbreak when his Irish squad finished oh-so-close, year-after-year.
“At its core, fencing is an intensely individualistic sport, and Luke obviously was one of the most successful fencers in the program’s history,” says Charles Hayes, a foilist with the Irish from 1997-99 (and one of several former teammates, including his sister Anne, who were able to attend La Valle’s funeral).
“Often times, the best fencers are distant from the rest of the team, because they are so focused on their own performance and achievements. Luke wasn’t one of those people. He would have traded all of his personal accolades for a team national title in a heartbeat. Everybody associated with the team loved Luke. He was a better person than he was a fencer.”
La Valle clearly was one of the nation’s top collegiate fencers, starting with a freshman year that saw him go 64-8 in the regular season and place fourth at the NCAAs. Lester (67-7, in ’96), Siek (66-6, also in ’96) and Sobieraj (65-4, in ’05) are the only Notre Dame men’s fencers ever to post more wins in a regular-season than La Valle’s furious freshman tear. To date, La Valle is the only Notre Dame men’s fencer ever to win more than 56 bouts in his freshman season (Lester and Siek were juniors in ’96, Sobieraj a senior in ’05). Future sabre teammate Gabor Szelle won 56 regular-season bouts, as a freshman in 1999 (still the second-most freshman wins in ND men’s fencing history).
Lester and La Valle tied with the Penn State tandem of Sergei Lilov and Jason Levin, for the most combined sabre wins (34) at the 1996 NCAA Championships. La Valle (18-5 in the round-robin) advanced to the semifinals but finished fourth, behind Princeton’s Maxim Pekarev, PSU’s Lilov and NYU’s Paul Palestis (Levin was fifth and Lester sixth, after going 16-7).
Notre Dame’s eight-fencer contingent at the 1996 NCAAs included four other All-Americans, led by Sara Walsh’s runner-up finish in women’s foil and a third-place from epeeist Claudette de Bruin. But the Nittany Lions racked up 1,500 total points (to ND’s 1,190) and departed the competition at Yale University as the NCAA champion.
The 1996 NCAAs marked the first time that two different Notre Dame freshman fencers – La Valle and Walsh – had reached the medal/semifinal round. Dating back to the early 1970s, when freshmen became eligible, only six Notre Dame fencers (all men) had posted NCAA top-four finishes as freshmen: sabreists Sullivan (3rd, 1976) and Nowosielski (4th, ’88); foilists Higgs-Coulthard (1st, ’84), Kovacs (2nd, ’86) and Noel Young (3rd, ’90); and epeeist Bjorn Vaggo (1st, ’78). Three other men’s fencers – Szelle (2nd, ’99), foilist Ozren Debic (2nd, 2000) and epeeist Jan Viviani (3rd, 2000) – have joined that group, while Walsh now is one of nine Notre Dame women’s fencers ever to finish fourth or higher as freshmen.
The NCAA venue shifted to the Air Force Academy in 1997, but the final result remained the same as Penn State claimed a narrow six-bout win over the runner-up Irish (1,530-1,470). La Valle (15-8) finished fifth, one spot out of the semifinals – but the elite 1997 NCAA men’s sabre field included champion Keeth Smart of St. John’s (a future Olympian and top-ranked fencer in the world), PSU’s Lilov and Walther, and ND’s third-place finisher Lester (21-2).
La Valle and Lester (the ’95 NCAA runner-up) finished second among sabre duos at the 1997 NCAAs, with 36 combined round-robin wins (their 0-4 mark vs. PSU helped provide the final margin). Four of Notre Dame’s eight other fencers also earned All-America status, most notably women’s epee champion Krol, along with women’s foil teammates Walsh (who repeated as runner-up) and Myriah Brown (5th).
Prior to the 1997 season, Notre Dame head coach Yves Auriol had proclaimed that, “With Bill Lester and Luke La Valle, we can go anywhere in sabre.” One year later – following Lester’s graduation – the 1998 sabre squad was preparing for its first season with La Valle as its captain … and the captain nearly led the Irish to that elusive NCAA title.
La Valle – who went 42-3 (.933) in the 1997 regular season – did even better in ’98, posting a 44-3 mark (.936). At the Rutgers Invitational, his 9-0 record helped the Notre Dame men edge both Stanford and St. John’s by a single bout (14-13), with La Valle’s win over Smart serving as the highlight moment.
Notre Dame competed very close to home in the 1998 NCAAs, held across the street at the Angela Athletic Facility, on the campus of Saint Mary’s College. The Irish jumped ahead of Penn State in the four-day competition, but the Nittany Lions chipped away to trail by only three bouts (128-125) entering the final day.
The quick-moving sabre event concluded first, with La Valle earning a semifinal spot by virtue of his third-place finish (17-6). Penn State’s Aaron Steuwe and Michael Takagi still managed to outscore the Irish sabreists (32-29), as ND freshman Andrzej Bednarski (son of the current ND head coach) placed 11th with a 12-11 record.
Notre Dame and Penn State were deadlocked (139-139) entering the final round of the 1998 NCAAs, with six men’s epee bouts and six men’s foil remaining for each team. The Irish epee pair of Carl Jackson and Brian responded by sweeping their bouts (including wins over NCAA champ Mike Gattnar of Harvard), thus countering a similar 6-0 mark by the PSU foilists in the final round. Concurrently, the ND foilists were closing with a 2-4 mark while Penn State epeeist Tom Peng pulled off three 5-4 comebacks to help secure the final two-bout margin (149-147).
The heartbreak felt in those final moments – and the empathetic leadership displayed by a teammate – remain vivid memories for members of the Notre Dame team.
“We were in position to win, if only myself and our other foilist John Tejada had fenced up to par,” says the former ND coach’s son Stephane Auriol, who went on to be La Valle’s off-campus roommate during the 1998-99 academic year (Luke lived in Morrissey Hall the previous three years.
“I lost a couple excruciating bouts on that final day and was extremely bummed out, putting a lot of blame on myself. Luke was the first team member to come over to me and let me know that it wasn’t my fault and that we would get them back. He stressed that it’s a team competition, and that it wasn’t the fault of any one person. It would have been extremely easy for him to blame me or to just let me sit there and wallow in self pity, but he chose to help me through it. This is the type of character Luke showed, day in and day out.”
Lost amidst the sorrow of that day was La Valle’s first-place finish in the men’s sabre medal round, as he became the program’s first men’s fencer to win an NCAA title since 1990 (and first men’s sabreist to do so in 20 years). He had emerged as Notre Dame fencing’s 14th overall NCAA individual champion (men or women), spanning the program’s 50-plus years of competing at the NCAAs.
La Valle, seeded third after the round-robin, was matched up against Columbia’s Patrick Durkan, a fellow product of fencing academy at the N.Y. Athletic Club. After posting a 15-12 semifinal victory, La Valle moved on to the title bout versus Pennsylvania’s Michael Golia, an upset winner over top-seeded Paolo Roselli of Cleveland State. The final bout was a tight one, but La Valle emerged with the 15-11 victory over Golia to finish atop a men’s sabre field that had included the likes of future national-team stars Smart (SJU) and Tim Morehouse (Brandeis), who recently took home the silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games.
All but two of Notre Dame’s 10 entries earned All-America finishes at the 1998 NCAAs, with Walsh (3rd) again reaching the semifinals (as did 4th-place finishers Stone and Nicole Mustilli, both in epee). But it wasn’t quite enough to deny Penn State its fourth straight NCAA team title.
La Valle – who had been named MVP of the ’98 Notre Dame men’s fencing team – had plenty of fight left for his senior year, going 50-6 in the 1999 regular season. Prior to that final year, La Valle had declared: “I’m not here to leave any personal mark. I want to help this team get a team NCAA championship, that’s what we are all here for and this is our last year. I hope we can get it.”
He also proclaimed that the 1999 Irish squad included “probably the best sabre team this school has ever had. The talent goes far deeper than three. It is a great training squad, so everyone is going to get better and this makes me look forward to competing on the strip this year.”
That sabre depth included NCAA Tournament veterans La Valle and Bednarski (who ultimately would be a three-time All-American), plus another future three-time All-American in Szelle (the ’99 NCAA runner-up and 2000 NCAA champion) along with Andre Crompton, an eventual two-time All-American. Before their respective careers were done, those four fencers would combine to earn 12 All-America finishes at the NCAAs. La Valle, Szelle and Crompton ended up being the ’99 men’s sabre squads top-three competitors (Bednarski ended up studying abroad in the ’99 spring semester), with that three-headed monster combining for an eye-popping 146-11 record (.930) in regular-season bouts.
Former Notre Dame fencing coach and Hall of Fame Mike DeCicco – who rates La Valle in the “same class” as fellow sabre legend Mike Sullivan – had retired from coaching after the 1995 season. But he maintained an office adjacent to the fencing gym and watch attentively as La Valle fashioned his stellar four-year career, one characterized by several layers of excellence.
“Luke made tremendous progress at Notre Dame, from being a good to a great sabreman,” says DeCicco. “He built on what he had to begin with, and had the advantage of training with our sabre coach Janusz Bednarski. He also benefits from training in the great team atmosphere of Notre Dame.
“When I look back on those years, Luke truly was a darn good ‘coach on the strip.’ His skills and helpful nature improved just about every one of his teammates. He brought kids along quicker and would have made a great sabre coach – that’s part of his legacy that some people may forget.”
END OF AN ERA
La Valle’s final year with the Irish actually included a big accomplishment in the 1998 fall season, when he won the prestigious Penn State Open. Two months later, following a 50-6 regular season, he was readying to defend his NCAA title before being set back by a thumb injury to his right hand.
The Irish were able to secure seven All-America finishes (from 10 entrants) at the 1999 NCAAs, which were held at Brandeis. Szelle impressively reached the sabre final, but no other Notre Dame fencer placed in the top-four (Walsh and Mustilli both were fifth) – as Penn State walked away with a comfortable 171-139 final margin.
Women’s foilists Walsh and Brown joined La Valle (whose injury dropped him to 11th at the ’99 NCAAs) as the first set of Notre Dame fencing classmates ever to post All-America finishes in each of their four seasons. … But they all had a sense that the personal honors were not close to being enough.
“Our class was part of four straight teams that placed second in the NCAAs,” recalls Walsh. “Luke won the NCAA sabre title in our junior year and I remember talking with after the 1998 team event. He was so upset over the team’s loss, more upset than I. I remember telling him, ‘But you won, Luke. At least you’re an NCAA champion.’ He just shook his head and looked at me — as he often did — gently and kindly, slightly bemused. He said, ‘It’s not the same. I wanted all of us to win.’
“When I recall the 1999 fencing team, I think about a group of people who were always ‘almost winning,’ always on the cusp. In four years, our class had only one NCAA individual champion. But, today, I realize that I’m not disappointed about our pile of silvers. I realize that we’ve all ‘won,’ on account of knowing and loving Luke. He was a champion in far more ways than simply in fencing.
“More than any other person I have met, Luke truly aimed to love every day of his life. He often encouraged everyone to do the same. ‘Ride the wave,’ he’d say.”
In addition to ranking second on the Notre Dame men’s fencing career wins chart, La Valle currently ranks seventh in career regular-season win percentage (.933) among all Notre Dame men’s fencers. Walsh (.970; 23-7) fittingly is the only Notre Dame women’s fencer (min. three seasons) ever to post a career winning percentage higher than La Valle’s. When looking at NCAA Tournament results, La Valle ranks seventh among Notre Dame fencers with 62 career wins in NCAA round-robin bouts (Walsh and five other ND women’s fencers each have totaled 64 or more NCAA bout victories).
During La Valle’s four seasons, the Notre Dame men’s fencing team won better than 93 percent of its dual matches (100-7), including a 38-match win streak (sixth-best in the program’s history) that spanned the 1997 and ’98 seasons.
Men’s sabre has proven to be the most dominant weapon in all of Notre Dame’s fencing history, with La Valle playing a lead role in that decade-long excellence. A total of 36 ND men’s sabreists have combined to earn NCAA All-America honors 61 times, including at least one All-American in 15 straight years and 32 of the past 35 (all but 1982, ’83 and ’93). The Irish have produced the maximum two men’s sabre All-Americans in nine of the past 12 seasons (all but ’02, ’04 and ’08)
In 17 of the past 24 NCAA Tournaments (since 1985), the ND men’s sabre contingent has finished among the top-three. La Valle holds the unique distinction of combining with Lester for the most men’s sabre wins at the 1996 NCAAs and then matching that feat in ’99 (alongside Szelle). Lester and La Valle were the NCAAs second-best men’s sabre tandem in ’97, while La Valle and Bednarski totaled the third-most men’s sabre points at the ’98 NCAAs.
The Notre Dame men’s sabre tradition now has produced four NCAA champions, seven NCAA runner-up finishes, and four fencers who were four-time All-Americans (Sullivan, Nowosielski, La Valle and Ghattas, whose career spanned the 2004-07 seasons).
In the nine years since La Valle and his classmates concluded their college fencing careers, there has been one other trio of ND classmates with four-year All-America status (2002-05): women’s foilists Kryczalo and Ament, along with men’s epeeist Sobieraj. There also have been two recent pairs of classmates who were four-year All-Americans, in Debic and Viviani (2000-03) and then Ghattas and Providenza (2004-07).
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, its agony in the NCAA team competition extended for three more years after 1999. The Irish were runner-up to Penn State in 2000, finished third in 2001 (behind St. John’s and PSU) and then were second to Penn State again at the ’02 NCAAs. The tables finally turned in 2003, when the Irish edged PSU for the title (182-179) – and Notre Dame claimed yet another NCAA crown in 2005, after completing an historic rally to nip regional rival Ohio State (173-171).
THE EARLY YEARS
La Valle – born in Manhattan, on Jan. 16, 1978 – displayed many of his lifelong characteristics an an early age, as noted in the eulogy given by his father. As a baby, the future NCAA fencing champion already had a distinctive “twinkle” in his eyes and he went on to be a boy known for being “alert, enthusiastic, imaginative, inquisitive, persistent [and] strong-willed.” He was devotedly “protective of his two younger brothers” and had a “contagious” smile that remained a trademark “throughout his life.”
The La Valle family on Thanksgiving Day 2002 — from left: Luke III, David, Nancy, Luke Jr., and Michael
As an eager student at Epiphany Nursery School and St. Ignatius Loyola Grammar School, La Valle “made friends easily” and was well-liked by his teachers. He was attentive and studied hard, while developing “good judgment, sound logic, leadership traits and a pleasant personality.” La Valle later received an academic scholarship to nearby Regis High School, a four-year span that saw him balance “wild teenage years” with more success in the classroom, where he capitalized on the rigorous Regis curriculum to earn admission at several top universities.
La Valle’s zeal for a variety of athletic pursuits was evident at an early age. His family vividly recalls their son’s determination and joy that accompanied his first bike ride, ski lessons and even learning to drive. The La Valle clan spent several summers in Remsenburg, Long Island, and at the Westhampton Yacht Squadron, where Luke “perfected his ping-pong, sailing, swimming and tennis talents.” He was a backstroke champion for a WYS swim team that won multiple regional titles, and he even proved to be a talented basketball player.
“Luke did well in all sports, with a special ease and grace” says the always-proud father, Luke La Valle, Jr.
In his years leading up to college, La Valle developed a deep love for cars and enjoyed numerous trips to sporting events such as ski trips (at Hunter and Sugarbush) and football games, at Boston Collage, Army, and Giants Stadium.
La Valle’s future as an elite athlete ultimately came on the fencing strip. He excelled in numerous sports at the age of eight, when he became participating in the Saturday-morning children’s sports programs at the New York Athletic Club (NYAC). Coaches quickly took note of his “determination and enthusiasm” – particular in fencing.
“It became apparent he was a fighter, determined and trainable,” says the La Valle patriarch. “He listened and practiced what he was taught.”
Guided by coach Etropolski, La Valle “perfected his technique and rhythm” while developing into “a beautiful sabre fencer, with a classic style.” He began to compete at national and international tournaments, all the while remaining a fencer who was “respected for his sportsmanship and style.”
Luke and brother David emerged as two of the nation’s top young sabre fencers, earning spots with multiple U.S. national teams on the cadet (under-18) and junior (u-21) levels. The duo often competed side-by-side during that five-year stretch (1994-98), representing the various national teams at events around the globe (including Paris, Belgium, Spain and Venezuela).
Luke won national titles at the 1994 D2 Nationals and 1995 Junior Olympics (under-17). He also captained the NYAC junior fencing team in 1994-95, received the club’s 1994 Travers Award for Sportsmanship, and was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” on May 15, 1995.
La Valle’s busy schedule also included tutoring younger children in fencing and swimming, in addition to being active in Big Brothers and the school yearbook and newspaper at Regis.
When it came time to decide on a college, La Valle had the luxury of picking from five schools – Notre Dame, Columbia, Penn State, Duke and North Carolina – that were noted for their academics and/or fencing programs. Notre Dame and Columbia offered the best combination in those two areas … and Luke ultimately accepted a fencing scholarship with the Fighting Irish.
La Valle’s mother, the former Nancy Wagner, had a brother who attended Notre Dame and she was a graduate of nearby Saint Mary’s (Ind.) College.
“Luke was exposed to Notre Dame at a young age and was an avid football fan of the Irish from the beginning,” says David La Valle. “As his youth fencing career gathered steam, Luke became acquainted with various members of the Notre Dame team. There also were two older fencers at the NYAC – Tony Consoli and Mike Gostigian – who had gone to Notre Dame, and they both were instrumental in exposing Luke to the school’s fencing program.
“Notre Dame’s strong academic reputation and the strength of the fencing program were the two main factors in Luke’s decision to become part of the Fighting Irish tradition.”
DeCicco had watched the La Valle brothers fence during their stellar high school careers and admits to having a primary focus on recruiting David, who was a member of five different U.S. youth national teams from 1994-98 (whereas Luke was a rung lower, as an alternate for many of those teams).
“I had a lot of friends who were high-level coaches on the east coast,” says DeCicco, a native of Newark, N.J. “After we signed Luke, all I ever heard from those coaches was how well they thought Luke would do at Notre Dame. … As things turned out, they were right.”
Brown – who was unable to join her former teammate Walsh in attending La Valle’s funeral – had closely followed his condition over the past 17 months. Her personal tribute follows below:
“Luke had a unique ability to always know what was important to those around him and make them feel special by reflecting that,” says Brown. “His zest for life was rivaled only by his unwavering ability to focus on the important stuff, keep it in perspective and always have fun despite the situation. I still can hear his unique laugh in my mind.
“As a competitor, Luke was fierce and very smart. His ability to read others not only helped him in life, it helped him on the strip. As a fencer, he was the same as in life: focused on the important things and determined to enjoy himself. As a teammate, no one could ask for a better one: loyal to a fault and supportive, but also willing to ‘call us out’ if needed.”
Andrzej Bednarski, who was a freshman when La Valle won the 1998 NCAA title, looked up to the veteran fencer as if he was “larger than life.”
“I remember how effortless Luke made winning a national title seem – I never saw him lose his cool,” says Bednarski. “One thing I clearly recall is that it didn’t take you long to smile when you got to talking with Luke. Most most of the time, you’d be smiling even before you started the conversation. I simply admired the way he carried himself, on and off the strip.”
La Valle’s family and friends now head into 2009, hoping to overcome their sorrow through memories of Luke’s inspiring life.
“When we got married, we were ready to start our perfect life together. … The Luke we all knew was smart, kind, funny and a great dancer (or at least an entertaining one),” said his wife Jen, during the funeral Mass.
“He had so many great qualities and so many different sides to him: championship fencer, all-night party guy, wanna-be NASCAR driver, businessman, and – for the last two years – there was also Luke the husband and Luke the father.
“He still is here in our minds and hearts, still is my best friend, and still is the love of my life.”
— ND —