The truth is, I’ve been saving this one. Not for any particular reason, but this competition holds a great deal of personal significance for me. Not because I was in it; I’d barely been fencing a year, nor did I ever get close to this level of ability by any stretch of even my own imagination. But my first coach, Len Carnighan, then in his second year as the coach at Cabrillo Community College in Aptos, CA, went to Notre Dame with a video deck and camera and came back with this one tape – the Men’s Foil finals of the Junior World Championships.
Len Carnighan in 1979
Now, for those of you under 40, let me explain. This is before YouTube, the Internet, DVD’s and even, believe it or not, VHS tapes. To be fair, VHS started to gain traction in the US market around 1980/81. But most schools, if they had any video recording capability at all, had one of these:
The Sony Portable Reel-to-Reel video recorder
This device, nominally portable, weighed about 15 pounds. The tape was on half-inch reels that would record up to an hour, but not in color – oh no – black & white for your viewing pleasure. Len hauled this device on a plane across country, recorded the finals of the Men’s Foil event and came back to school and had us watch so we could see what real fencers looked like.
Len’s program at Cabrillo was new – I was in his very first class in the fall of 1977. There weren’t fencing matches on TV, we hadn’t grown up with the sport, and had no idea what we ought to be trying to do – until we saw this. Len put a copy of the tape in the media library at the college and myself and others would check it out and watch it over and over. It was like having the key to a previously unknown lock. Name pretty much any other sport and we all grew up with a visual memory of what it looked like, how it was played, who was the best, etc. Fencing? In sleepy little by-the-sea, let’s-go-surfing Aptos? Fencing? Not. A. Clue.
Until this tape.
One of the best things about setting up this archive is that I can indulge myself by asking questions that have been on my mind for a while. As an example, let me run this little scenario by you. A couple of years ago, I was up in Portland to visit with Len. I’d just started the archive and like the old writing trope of “write what you know”, I was following a similar strategy for collecting memorabilia for the archive. “Collect what you know” has been a good rule of thumb for me, as I invariably discover things that I don’t know about by asking after things I do. Let me set the stage:
(Int. Night. Len’s Living Room)
Doug: Hey Len, do you still have a copy of the ’79 Junior Worlds tape you made?
Len: Yeah, it’s up there on the bookshelf. Why?
And that, my friends, is how The Magic happens. I borrowed the tape from Len, got it transferred to a digital file and found it was just as interesting to watch today as it was 36 years ago, although sometimes for different reasons. The foil game has changed significantly over the years. Not just because the scoring is reversed and meter warning is gone. The distance today is much, much closer. Counter-attacks are less likely to have priority. Point in lines are next to impossible to establish. There are other differences no doubt, but I’ll let you see for yourself.
By any measure, this was a strong group. The finalists were Mauro Numa (who had won the previous year) and Andrea Borella from Italy, Matthias Gey and Martin Baumgarten from (West) Germany, 1977 Junior World Champ Vladimir Lapitsky from the Soviet Union, and Krystof Puzianowski from Poland. Numa, Borella and Gey all went on to have long and successful careers in the senior ranks. Lapitsky had the mis-fortune to get seriously injured at the 1980 Olympics by a broken foil blade – almost a precursor to what happened 2 years later at the World Championships to Vladimir Smirnov.
I was visiting my parent’s house in the summer of 1980 hanging out in my old bedroom, when I hear my father call from the television room. “Hey Doug, they’re showing fencing on TV!” This was such a rarity I dropped whatever I was doing and sprinted to the TV, just in time to see Soviet fencer Lapitsky fall to the strip, a foil blade having pierced his arm and continued into his chest cavity. I think that was all the reporting I ever saw of the boycotted 1980 Olympics, but it was certainly impactful. After the report was over, my dad turned to me and asked, “Is this sport you’re doing safe?” I don’t really remember my answer. Probably a mumbled something like, “Uh, sure, I guess…”
Ok, back on point. Here is the first bout of the finals. Teammates had to fence first, so the premier bout is Andrea Borella versus Mauro Numa. Borella had been a finalist at this event 3 years running and had taken the Silver medal in ’77 to Lapitsky and to Numa in ’78.