Remembering Columbia Fencing Coach George Kolombatovich

An excellent conversationalist.

Knowledgeable.

A gentleman.

An opportunity maker.

Kind.

A fencer’s advocate.

A bow-tie wearing badass.

 

When I was preparing my remarks for today, I asked some of George’s college coaching colleagues and some of his former fencers how they remembered him, and these are some of the words and phrases they shared.

 

An excellent conversationalist.

Knowledgeable.

A gentleman.

An opportunity maker.

Kind.

A fencer’s advocate.

A bow-tie wearing badass.

That last one is probably my favorite – and it came from Oriana Isaacson, an epeeist and team captain, class of 2009 – it’s probably my favorite because I can’t remember ever seeing George without a bow tie.

And George was a badass.

You always knew that having George strip-side was the equivalent of having a member of royalty in your corner. Your ref was going to make sure he got things right.

Like a lot of fencers who would come to join the Columbia lions family, I first really met George at Summer Nationals, in between my Junior and Senior years of high school – it was a “recruiting meeting.”

Fencing was relatively new to me. I had only started as a freshman in high school, but fell in love with the sport and threw my heart… and my parents’ money (I’m still paying them back)… into it, full throttle. I earned cadet and junior points quickly, but I was for all intents and purposes a no-namer… untested…

I wasn’t on the World team, I was captain of my HS fencing team…That meant something to George.

I had visions of gold medals, and Ivy League rings, and NCAA rings, and Olympic rings… I had aspirations.  That also meant something to George.

So, in our meeting we probably spent about 15 minutes talking fencing… about what I had done and what I wanted to do… And then I mentioned I was a classically trained violinist. Well, then we spent the next 45 minutes talking about art, and Joshua Bell and opera and Paris…

George was an exceptional conversationalist.

Over the following months, I’d have a few other conversations and emails with George, and then came the famous phone call. You know, the one that goes like this:

George: Are you sitting down.

Athlete: Yes.

George: Well, I just wanted to call you to say that I can’t call you to tell you that admissions has reviewed your application and accepted you to Columbia University. I can’t call you to tell you that, so I’m not calling to tell you that. Happy Thanksgiving.

Now, for some context for the current team… getting recruited in the Ivy League was a different process 15 years ago. There was no such thing as a “letter of intent,” and there was no “signing day.” Sure, you’d have a verbal commitment, but there were “horror” stories of fencers who had verbal commitments, only to find they were rejected by admissions. We were like every other non-sword wielding muggle who had to submit an application and wait. Hanging over our heads was a certain degree of uncertainty that we’d get accepted. So that phone call meant a lot… and then we had to keep quiet about it.

This was because the Ivy League didn’t believe in recruiting. The ethos was that to be scholar-athlete in the Ivy League was to be a Scholar above all.

George felt differently… because he knew differently.

In that first recruiting meeting he told me about Olympian Ann Marsh – who happened to be and continues to be one of my fencing sheros — how in between bouts at World Championships she’d be reading her organic chemistry textbooks, studying for the MCATs. He took pride in her prowess on the strip and in the classroom. Later, once I was a full-fledged lion, George introduced me to Ann at a NAC. A couple of hours later, I would have, let’s call it the pleasure of drawing Ann in a DE… and while she was really pleased to meet me, she was also really pleased to beat me.

Without the benefits of scholarships and meal-plan perks, George made Columbia fencing among the most sought after collegiate program in the country because he believed with all his heart that it was possible to be a scholar and an athlete in equal measure… and to be equally exceptional in both.

My time as a scholar-athlete at Columbia is punctuated by a two-year captainship, first team All-Ivy, All-American honorable mention, third place team finish at the NCAAS, and what is perhaps my most memorable experience at Columbia, an Ivy League Championship. I traveled with George to World Cups. in fact, at one, I had food poisoning and George in his capacity as head referee made sure I had a strip near the bathroom, so I could throw-up between bouts… not the same as Ann studying Orgo between bouts, but it does show how George took care of his fencers at home and abroad. I was also Dean’s List, a 2x Academic All-Ivy, a staff reporter for the Spec, and a class marshal at commencement – anyway, listing this is not really to tell you about me, it’s to testify to how George made personal success possible.

And I think about my teammates Emma Baratta and Jeff Spear among others, who were not only on the national senior teams, they were Academic All-Americans –  Like, they were the smartest College Athletes in America.

George loved boasting that Columbia’s fencers were Olympians and All-Americans – I think he had 150 over his career. But he also loved to boast that our team carried the highest GPA of all athletic teams at Columbia. I think Mike loves boasting about that too.

All this to say, you wanted to go to Columbia because you knew you’d have the support, the resources, and the access to be a collegiate athlete, a world class athlete (if that’s what you wanted), and an academic. You know, have your Ivy League cake and eat it too…

The Scholar-Athlete equilibrium built into the DNA of this program was built by George. Everyone who comes into this fencing room, and gets to sing “Roar, Lion, Roar” is a beneficiary of that legacy. And I applaud Mike for his commitment to ensuring this legacy.

George was one of the advocates for establishing the Ivy League round robin tournament. Before that, you’d fence each school in the League whenever it got scheduled, so often athletes vying for spots on national teams would have to make a choice – world cup, or meet v. Cornell, World cup or meet v. Harvard… essentially, National Team or college team. The Round Robin made is so that those athletes traveling to World Cups didn’t have to choose between college team and national team. Have your fencing cake and eat it too…

He also believed you didn’t need to have a team entirely made-up of National Team members to win championship titles. To make a Team you need more than just wins. You need heart. And so he created pathways for athletes who loved the sport and who loved being part of a team to be on this team. This is what coaches at NYU and St. John’s admired most about him: He made opportunities for good kids.

George was an exceptional conversationalist.

He was an athlete’s advocate.

He also had a sense of humor.

The night before we’d ship off for an away meet, he’d circulate the traveling squads. Now, if you know me, you know my mother. My mother came to all but 2 of my college meets, and is herself a member of many Veterans World Championship Team, and goes way, way back to old Fencers Club days.

So the night before we traveled to Penn State for a set of duals, he posted that Diane Reckling would be starting against Notre Dame, instead of me… honestly, I was totally fine with that… My mother was pretty flattered…

I will always remember our captains’ meetings in his office, surrounded by stacks and stacks of papers and more lions than in all the prides in Africa.

I stayed at Columbia to do my Masters in Art History – which I jokingly referred to as a “trophy wife degree…” George thought that was pretty funny, and would send me punny art cartoons, often to that effect. But he also set-me up as a phys ed instructor, so I could earn some extra money towards all those expensive art books.

There are probably more lows in sport than there are highs. But in lows, George always found the thing to say that made you believe your next “feels” would be a high. I think it’s easy as an athlete, sometimes, often, to look back and focus on the success you didn’t have, rather than the things you did do. Especially when you’re surrounded by such incredible, high-achieving people. If your goal was First Team All-American, and you didn’t make it, or if it was to be an Olympian, and you weren’t, you start to think this is how you’ll be remembered – for the things you didn’t achieve. When I found out I was going to get my picture on the Wall of Fame, I was actually kind of surprised. I mean, I knew what my Teammates had done – James Williams won a silver medal at the Olympics – and the other fencers on the wall, Dan Kellner, Erinn Smart, these were the people I looked up to. I didn’t think what I had done was as deserving. But George just looked at me and said, Common Kathleen. Look at all these things you did. You deserve this. George always made you proud of your successes, because they were yours.

Just an aside about the wall, since this is the first time I’ve been in here in a while… when my picture did go up, it went up with the class of 1937. Right. Like, women didn’t GO to Columbia in 1937. I was with the class of 1937 because the wall was full – I mean look at it. But, I’m not really sure why I was the one that ended up in 1937 – it wasn’t based on the alphabet, because I’m pretty sure Williams comes after Reckling… but I guess if you have an Olympic silver medal, you get right of way, so OK, I’ll let it go. Anyway, it became a bit of a running joke with George whenever I’d come back to campus. George, I know I study old pictures, but that doesn’t mean I want to hang on the wall with ‘em.

I never once heard him yell at a fencer on the team, and he genuinely took joy in watching an athlete improve from season to season.

If I’m making a list of “best days of my life,” the day George called me to say he wasn’t calling to say I had been accepted into Columbia ranks at #1. Because that was when I was given my Columbia family.

I am so grateful to George because he gave me an opportunity to attend this incredible institution, and to walk onto campus with the comfort of knowing I had a built-in group of friends – my teammates – who really were the most amazing support network throughout college and since. I am grateful for his kindness, for his unwavering cheerleader support of me even when I’m not sure I deserved it… and for his pride in who I was on and off the strip.

 

An excellent conversationalist.

Knowledgeable.

A gentleman.

An opportunity maker.

Kind.

A fencer’s advocate.

A bow-tie wearing badass.

 

This is how I too will remember you, George.

Thank you.

Roar, Lion, Roar.

 

 

 

Kathleen Reckling

December 2, 2018

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