June 30, 2006
Janusz Bednarski – one of a just five coaches, in any sport, ever to guide his Notre Dame teams to multiple national championships – has signed a multi-year contract to continue as head coach of the Irish men’s and women’s fencing programs, Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White announced today. A former Olympic fencing coach in his native Poland, Bednarski has been recognized as an elite fencing instructor on the international level for more than 30 years, emerging as a specialist in all three weapons (foil, epee and sabre) during that time.
“When Janusz became our head coach prior to the 2003 season, he faced the tremendous challenge of upholding a wonderful tradition of championship fencing – on both the team and individual level – here at Notre Dame,” said White.
“Janusz’s ability to help deliver two NCAA team titles in his first four seasons, while also overseeing the development of several elite individuals, already has placed him among the top coaches in the great history of Notre Dame athletics. We all are excited for the future of Notre Dame fencing and look forward to several more years with a coach of Janusz Bednarski’s caliber leading the way.”
Bednarski’s wide-ranging experience with elite-level fencers and his fun-loving personality have helped mold Notre Dame into the nation’s top all-around fencing program during his four years as the Irish head coach (photo by Pete LaFleur).
Bednarski spent eight seasons (1995-2002) as an assistant fencing coach at Notre Dame before directing the Irish men and women to the 2003 NCAA combined championship, the sixth national title in the program’s history. Notre Dame’s athletic heritage has featured many legendary coaches but Bednarski remains the only one – in any sport – to guide his Irish squad to the national title in his first year as the program’s head coach. Such was the accomplishment in the spring of 2003, when a veteran Notre Dame team edged rival Penn State to return atop the pinnacle of the college fencing world.
Two years later in 2005, Bednarski’s clever tactics and leadership helped spark Notre Dame’s historic comeback that resulted in another NCAA combined title for the Irish program. In the process, he joined legendary fencing coach Mike DeCicco (5) and three former football greats – Knute Rockne (3), Frank Leahy (4) and Ara Parseghian (2) – as the only Notre Dame coaches whose teams have won multiple national titles. Leahy celebrated his team’s second championship in his fifth season but Bednarski bested that mark, returning to the first-place medal stand in just his third season as the Notre Dame head coach (Rockne’s second title came in his 12th season, DeCicco’s in his 17th).
The Irish have finished fourth or higher at the NCAAs in each of Bednarski’s four seasons, with the Notre Dame men and women combining to win better than 95 percent of their regular-season matches during the Bednarski era (197-10; 98-5 by the men, 99-5 for the women). The 2003-06 seasons saw Notre Dame fencers win five NCAA individual titles while eight others have been an NCAA runner-up, as part of 34 total All-Americans in Bednarski’s four seasons as head coach.
“I have great pride for being the coach of the Notre Dame fencing program and enjoy working with so many great kids at one of the best universities in the world,” said Bednarski, who has overseen both men’s and women’s fencing teams at Notre Dame that have held their respective number-one rankings in the past few years.
“Notre Dame is a perfect environment for world-class fencers because of the teamwork of many specialists and support staff, such as fencing and conditioning coaches, psychologists, athletic trainers, academic advisors, tutors, sports information directors and equipment managers. Because of the competitive sporting atmosphere on this campus and within the athletic department, it all combines to provide the perfect environment for those who want blend top world-class results in both academics and athletics.
“I feel so honored to be associated with a university where we are able to show all the world that it is possible to combine the highest academic level with the highest sport achievements. I thank everyone at Notre Dame who has helped me be in this position and I remain excited for the great future that lies ahead of us in the Fighting Irish fencing program.”
Currently a noted sabre specialist whose extensive previous experience includes developing several top epeeists and foilists, Bednarski presently oversees the best all-around collection of sabre talent in all of college fencing. Rising junior Mariel Zagunis won the 2004 Olympic gold medal before dominating the college scene in her first two seasons by winning nearly 92 percent of her total bouts with the Irish (131-12), including an NCAA runner-up finish in 2005 before winning the NCAA women’s sabre title in 2006. Her teammate Valerie Providenza was the NCAA sabre champion in 2004 – becoming the first Notre Dame sabre fencer (men’s or women’s) ever to win the NCAAs as a freshman – and already has posted three All-America finishes, including a fourth-place showing in 2005.
Zagunis has been able to maintain her world-class status while training at Notre Dame, in addition to her continuing work at the Portland-based Northwest Fencing Alliance (an elite sabre academy coached by former Notre Dame assistant coach Ed Korfanty). She has ascended to the No. 1 spot in the women’s sabre world rankings and recently finished atop an elite field at the World Cup event held in Las Vegas.
Valerie Providenza (fencing) and Mariel Zagunis (seated) are two of several elite fencers who have trained under Janusz Bednarski, in addition to honing their craft in their hometown area of Portland at the Northwest Fencing Alliance (photo by Pete LaFleur).
On the men’s side, Bednarski has developed a talented sabre trio comprised of rising seniors Patrick Ghattas and Matt Stearns and sophomore-to-be Bill Thanhouser. Ghattas is a three-time All-American who has reached the NCAA men’s sabre title bout in each of the past two seasons while Stearns turned in an All-America performance to help win the NCAA team title in 2005 before repeating as an All-American in 2006. Thanhouser was the nation’s top-ranked under-20 men’s sabre fencer in 2005-06 and competed with the United States contingent at the 2006 Junior World Championships.
Bednarski’s first season as head coach included a 46-2 combined record in 2003 regular-season dual meets, with the Irish men going 24-0 to extend the program’s third-longest winning streak to 83 matches (that streak ultimately ended at 90 matches in 2004). The Irish men claimed the No. 1 ranking in the middle of the 2003 season while both Notre Dame fencing teams owned the nation’s top ranking in 2004. The Irish women maintained their No. 1 ranking in 2005 and the Irish men then reclaimed the first spot in the national polls during the 2006 season.
Two of the top fencers in Notre Dame history recently competed with the Irish, after making the long trip from Bednarski’s native Poland. Alicja Kryczalo won the NCAA women’s foil title in 2002, ’03 and again in ’04 before finishing as the runner-up in 2005. Her classmate and fellow Poland native Michal Sobieraj also was a four-time All-American, winning the NCAA men’s epee title in 2005 after near-misses in 2003 (runner-up) and ’04 (third-place).
Even before becoming Notre Dame’s head coach, Bednarski played a lead role in helping the Irish remain firmly in the chase for the national title, highlighted by NCAA runner-up finishes every year from 1996-2000 and third-place finishes in 1995, ’01 and ’02 (plus ’04). In a six-year span from 1995-2000, his sabre standouts Bill Lester, Luke La Valle and Gabor Szelle combined to bring home two NCAA individual titles, two runner-up plaques and a third-place award from the NCAAs.
All told, Bednarski’s sabre fencers at Notre Dame have earned 29 All-America honors (out of a possible 36), with women’s sabre making its debut in 2000. The men’s sabre squad posted the maximum two All-Americans in each of Bednarski’s first six full seasons (’96-’01), with that level of success unmatched by any other Notre Dame weapon in that six-year stretch. Bednarski’s four years as head coach have seen the Irish sabre fencers combine for 13 All-America performances (out of a maximum 16), including All-America honors for all four Notre Dame sabreists at both the 2005 and 2006 NCAAs.
Bednarski also has worked closely with Notre Dame’s fencers in the other weapons, notably in epee. Most recently, he was the primary instructor for freshman epeeist Madeleine Stephan during her freshman season that ended with an impressive sixth-place finish at the 2006 NCAAs.
Formerly a member of Poland’s national sabre team, Bednarski received the prestigious Polish Silver Cross of Merit for his coaching accomplishments after serving as head coach of Poland’s Olympic Team from 1978-88, with members of those teams winning 11 medals at the Olympics and World Championships. After moving to the United States in 1988, he served as head coach at Denver’s CFS Fencing Club – the largest fencing club in the Rocky Mountain region – from 1989-94. While in Colorado, Bednarski also was a member of the U.S. coaching staff at the 1992 Junior Pan American Games in Venezuela (head coach), the 1993 World Junior and Cadet Championships in Denver (head coach), the 1993 Senior World Championships in Germany (women’s epee coach) and the 1994 Junior and Cadet World Championships in Mexico (men’s epee coach).
The epee and foil fencers coached by Bednarski during his time in Denver regularly won medals at some of the nation’s top tournaments, with several earning spots on various national teams.
Bednarski – who recently was presented with an honorary monogram from the Notre Dame Monogram Club – served from 1994-2002 as head coach of the Escrime du Lac Fencing Club in Mishawaka (also known as the Indiana Fencing Academy) and has been a member of many advisory panels for the U.S. Fencing Association, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association. He is licensed by Federation International D’Escrime as an “A” category fencing director and is one of just a handful of fencing specialists in North America who are ranked by the International Fencing Federation. Bednarski’s wide-reaching experience includes participating in the organization efforts for World Championships held in Denver (1989 and ’91) and South Bend (2000). In 1997 and ’99, he was selected as Midwest Region coach of the year by the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association.
Fluent in several languages, Bednarski in 1970 received his master’s degree in business from Warsaw’s prestigious SGPiS Business College, where he worked as a lecturer in economics. He obtained his coaching diploma from the Academy of Physical Education in 1978 and has published several articles on coaching, effective club management and counseling of athletes. He currently is an elected member of the NCAA National Fencing Committee and chair of the NCAA Midwest Regional Committee.
A resident of Granger, Ind., Bednarski and his wife, Izabella, have two sons: Michael (33) and Andrzej (27), a three-time sabre All-American and 2002 graduate of Notre Dame who served as an intern assistant coach on his father’s staff during the 2005 and ’06 seasons.