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Memories of an Epee Fencer

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I am retired and a former epee fencer at CCNY Varsity and USFA. I have achieved the rank of A and have competed in National tournament.

memories-of-an-epee-fencer

Introduction

I am retired and recently have completed my autobiography. It is an extensive piece of work that covers most of my life so far. There is one part that was not included. It is my experience and recollection of a fellow epee fencer who also happens to be quite famous. His name is Jamie Melcher, an olympic epee fencer, a humanitarian and a good and decent human being.

- Sept. 2020

Background

Jamie and I crossed path back in the early 1970s. He was at the top of his fencing career while I was just starting out as a member of the Varsity team at CCNY.

At the time, Jamie, George Masin and a few others dominated the epee open tournaments. They would be held either at the Fencers Club or the NYAC. As students, we were encouraged by our coach, Professor Ed Lucia, to attend as many open tournaments as possible. This would improve our game by fencing a variety of competitors. It was proven correct. Besides getting lessons from Lucia, our competition at these opens helped me improve much faster. Fencing more experienced fencers like Melcher and Masin kept us at the top of our game. Often, Jamie would give us some pointers after a bout. Being also left handed, this was a great help. Some techniques are only applicable for a left handed fencing against a right handed fencer.

My best showing was my senior year at the Martini and Rossi International tournament. A group of 90 competitors including some from Europe came to NYC and participated in this high profile event. I made it to the semi-final round, along with Melcher and we were in the same pool. I was on cloud nine just making it to that round. Of course I lost all my bouts, including to Melcher. He went on to the final pool and came in 3rd.

At that time, it was before the direct elimination bouts. It was only round robin of bouts. The final scores was reported by the New York Times Sports section. I saved the news clipping since it was the first time I saw my name in print. Quite a deal for a 21 years old kid attending CCNY.

A year later, I had graduated but continued to fence for the NY Turverein club. That year, our epee team, included Arnold Messing and John Karousos and my self. Those two were great fencers from our school and both were All-Americans. The Nationals were held in NYC that year. Our team achieved the best performance by coming in with a bronze medal, behind the NYAC and the Fencers Club.

Melcher the Role Model...

When you are young and starting out in life, you look for role models to look up to. In my case, I had my coaches and some of my professors. They were excellent role models and taught us many things about life and how to navigate through it. Another source of a role model was our fellow fencers and competitors. Both Melcher and Masin were a few years older and much better skilled at fencing. We tend to look up to them and imitate them both on and off the strip.

I remember one bout in particular during an open tournament in the preliminary pools, I was up against Melcher. I was feeling good and confident that day and was able to get 4 quick touches on Jamie. He must have let his guard down and now he is getting serious. He started to score one touch after another against me and making very well executed moves! such as a faint attack and disengage to score. I started to loose my confidence and sure enough, I was psyched out. I lost to him 5-4. That day, I learned an important lesson. Never give up. No matter how far down you are, you must keep your focus and fence each touch as if it is your last. That has saved me a few crucial times in my career.

The other important stuff, not related fencing is how he treated others. He was a gentleman. Kind, soft spoken and treated others with respect, even opponents. After a bout, whether win or lose, he was always gracious. That was one of the things that attracted me to this sport in the first place. It was a sport of honor and sportsmanship.

You win by your skill and cunning and strategy and not by brute force. You try to execute the least amount of force to score. There is a beauty to these moves that only a well trained fencer can appreciate. Even when I loose, to a better opponent, I can appreciate a good move and can't help but acknowledge it.

Another part about Melcher was his personal life. He was married and had two small kids. They would attend the tournament sometimes as spectators. One time, I remember he would bring his small son into the locker room. As we were changing out of our uniforms, he would reply to some questions a kid often asked. I felt that he was being a good father and wanted to help his son grow up to be a good person. This is a sign of his nurturing side. I told myself that is a good way to be. I hoped to live my life as he has. A few years later, I did get married and have three kids. By then I have stopped fencing all together. I never forgot how Jamie was being the good father. I hoped I lived up to that ideal.

Story Continue...

Our paths crossed again in my 50s. Now, I got back into fencing and competing in the Veteran division. On one NAC tournament, I ran into Jamie. He had just finished his bout and lost. He was out of the tournament. He told me he had just arrived that morning and did not have a good flight. He was tired and could not fence as well as he liked. He told me it was not worth it and probably that was his last competition. He has nothing to proof. He had a great career and competed in the Olympics years earlier and won several National Championships. It is time to hang it up.

A year later, I came to a similar conclusion. In my case, my knee was bothering me and I decided it was probably due to old age. I cannot expect to move like I was still in my 20s. I retired from fencing.

A few years ago, when I turned 65, I had just retired from my second career. On a chance reunion with an old friend, he told me about a natural supplement for the knee. I decided to give it a try, nothing to lose. To my surprise, it worked. My knee, which was stiff from sitting or resting, started to feel much better. I got that urge to take up fencing again. I decided to join the Fencers Club and just go to practice once a week. I made the conscious decision to just fence for exercise and not for competition. I wanted to reconnect with the sport I loved and also the many friends and acquaintances I met over the years. Some of the people I practiced with in my 50s are now also members of the same club.

It became a social event. I would drive down to the city once a week, practice, and later have a late meal with my friends. I also got a few of my fellow teammates from college to come back as well. They too had retired and wanted some distraction and exercise.

Again, I reconnected with Jamie. By this time, he is well over 70. He was on the board of the Fencers Club and I learned that he was instrumental in saving the club a few times from bankruptcy. It was due to his generosity that the club is still in business. He had started a successful hedge fund and have done very well financially. He donated large sums to keep the club alive.

As we fenced, we would reminisce about the old times.

The Harvard Club

In 2018, our club had a yearly fund raising event held at the Harvard Club. This was to kickoff the announcement of our new facility which was to be occupied by 2020. We were trying to raise the last chunk of funds needed to complete this deal. It was at that event that Jamie announced his generous donation of $5 million to finally get us over the finish line. The total target needed was $17 million. He single handed made this dream a reality. I attended the event along with about 100 other members. Jamie gave a short humbling speech and introduced John Tinmouth, the architect and fencer, to demonstrate our new facility. It was a dream come true after a long process and some false starts... Jamie came through and made it happen.

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The Past Year...

It was shortly after that when Jamie started exhibit signs of forgetfulness. First if was small things like losing a mask or glove. He would have difficulty remember the scores. He would forget the combination to his locker. His son, also a fencer, started accompany him to the club and help him get dressed. Once on the strip, he could fence just as well as before. A few times, he would get frustrated and leave early. He could not deal with the congestion at the club, which was increasing. Some of us old fencers would invite him to fence and make sure he was able to get on a strip. He would still offer some advice to younger and less experienced fencers.

A few months ago, he stopped coming to the club all together. It was getting too much.

Some of us decided to visit him at his home. He was drifting in and out in conversations. He seems distracted. His hands were shaking. However, he can still play the piano. Once he sat down to play, you could not tell any different. He played from memory beautifully.

Our New Fencers Club

Our current club is located on 28th Street. We will be moving to a new location on 33rd Street in the heart of Manhattan. This new facility will be about 10% larger in space, around 10,000 sq feet and with 22 strips. Our club is growing and thriving. This new place is owned by our club and not leased. Hopefully, we will not be burdened with ever increasing rent in the tight NYC real estate market. It was the vision of the board under the leadership of Jamie Melcher that lead us to this location. We are forever grateful for this facility where we can train and excel in the sport we love.

We are on target to move in on Jan. 2021. Stay tuned.

The Legacy

The $5 million personal donation by Jamie to help our club purchase our own facility in Midtown Manhattan is his legacy. His generosity and love of the sport cannot be overstated. His donation inspired me to do more for our club. Though I have done well and succeeded in my own career, I am not in the same financial position as Jamie. I have donated money and time to help our club.

Despite all the challenges, Jamie has lived a life well lived. By any measure he was a success in business, in his personal life and most of all in the sport of fencing. The fact that he was able to integrate all three and ended up being the benefactor for the Fencers Club for all eternity is just the icing on the cake. Well played my friend.

Arnold Messing - Tribute to Jamie in his 2013 Induction to the USA Fencing Hall of Fame

James Melcher, universally known as Jamie, came to fencing as a freshman at Columbia and blossomed into one of the most elegant epee fencers of his generation under the guidance of Michel Aloux at the New York Fencers Club. His national results are impressive.
He was a two-time national champion, having won the title in the successive years of 1971 and 1972:
He was an Olympian in 1972, first alternate in 1976, and second alternate in 1980.
He was a Pan American Games Team member in 1963 and 1971 (when he won the team Gold in epee.
He was a member of the World Championship Team five times (1965, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1977).
Jamie was one of the first American fencers to understand the value of competing internationally, and one of the very few epeeists of his time to achieve significant results including, 3rd place - Martini and Rossi NYC 1973, London 1970 Finalist, Poitiers 1970.
Jamie’s service includes his role as Chairman of the New York Fencers Club and as a significant helper to the club in a time of financial distress. Jamie fenced into his 70’s and was a regular at the Fencers Club where his cunning combined with his elegant and classical style, allowed him to go toe to toe with members of of the World epee squad; and he always found time to help his club mates, young and old with strategy and technique.

- Arnold Messing was a founding member of the Hall of Fame Committee at USA Fencing.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, what is important to us? fame, fortune, love, family, friendship, power, and health...

In Jamie's case, he had it all until the final days. His health failed him as it would all of us. For me, he is my hero. From the beginning, when he was at the peak of his fencing career to the end, he was the iconic gentleman athlete.

This year, 2020, I was elected to join the board of the Fencers Club, one among 21. I was honored to be selected and hope to contribute my talent and energy to help our club be the best in the world. Jamie continued to be in the back of my mind as I proceed in this new venture. When faced with a difficult situation, I would ask myself "what would Jamie do?"

Jamie and I at a local Tournament a Decade Ago...

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Jack Lee