There are times in sports when someone has such a significant impact on a team that his influence is still felt when he’s not even there anymore.
Dave Micahnik had such an effect on Penn fencing. Though the coach retired in 2009, he spent 35 glorious years at the helm of the program. He even founded the women’s varsity program in 1976.
And the numbers don’t lie: 722 career wins, 22 Ivy titles. Both his 1981 men’s team and his 1986 women’s team won the national championship.
But what is he most proud of?
“I’d like to think surviving 35 years. But actually it went by pretty fast,” Micahnik answered while laughing. “It’s never the same from one year to the next, but we never had a losing season.
“If I had to be the most proud of anything, it would be having students on nine U.S. Olympics teams — that’s a big deal for me, especially since I was on the team myself,” he added.
Prior to coaching, Micahnik enjoyed an illustrious career as a competitor, winning the 1960 U. S. National Epee Championships and taking part in three different Olympic Games.
Micahnik coached more than 100 All-Americans and All-Ivys. But for him, fencing is “an individual sport, but a team success.”
“I always said that when the team wins, everybody wins. And I want people to feel that way so that they bond with one another and cooperate,” said Micahnik, who was inducted into the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame in 2008. “I’m hoping that this culture is carried forward.”
Current coach Andy Ma served twice as an assistant under Micahnik. And if there’s one thing he remembers about his predecessor, it’s team spirit.
“He put all the team together,” Ma said.
Current senior Zane Grodman was part of Micahnik’s last class of fencers. He remembers his former coach as a “student of the game.”
“He knew how to really communicate the sport in ways that were understandable,” Grodman said. “Every fencer he coached, he was able to enhance their mental game, which is why he was such a successful coach.”
Micahnik’s influence on the program as a whole was so great, some might ask if he still operates the team behind the scenes.
“I try to keep hands off and let the present team operate under the system that’s in place now,” Micahnik said. “Little by little the team has turned over, so there are people that I don’t know personally. But if they are wearing Red and Blue, they’re good to me.”
While he’s no longer standing on the sidelines during matches or teaching fencing technique at practice, Micahnik occasionally frequents Penn events as a fan.
“Dave has come back to see the program that he gave so much to, and I think that when we win he’ll always be happy about that,” Grodman said. “He was such a huge part of it and will always be a part of it.”
What stands out about Micahnik is his desire to make his fencers and the team better.
“I liked to foster the ambitions of those that were really hungry,” Micahnik said. “The most important thing is to be constantly looking forward and upward.”
The new regime under Ma has tried to embrace this.
“The new generations [are] always something different than before — new techniques, new rules — and we have to adjust to that,” Ma said. “We carry all the tradition and try to update it. Hopefully we’ll make the program better.”
There’s a lot to remember about Micahnik. But most of all, his work can be seen in the current program that has benefitted from his 35 years as coach and continues to be influenced by him to this day.
“Dave, when push came to shove, would fight for his fencers, and that’s what every good coach does,” Grodman said. “He might have looked like a sweet old man, but he always had that desire, that passion to win. And that’s something that is contagious. I think that’s his legacy: that desire, that will to win.”
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