February 19, 2008
p. In the depths of William and Mary Hall, below the bright lights and bleachers of Kaplan Arena, down a poorly-lit corridor that few students of the College even know is there, exists a room. With its fluorescent lights, cinderblock walls and noticeable damage just about everywhere you look, the room does not look like much to the impartial observer. But to the Tribe fencing club, it is home.
p. And it is here, underneath the arena where thousands could, on any given night, cheer their team on to a come-from-behind victory, that a real-life comeback story is taking place.
p. Several team members are absent from today’s afternoon practice, taking time to rest or catch up on homework following their grueling, weekend-long bout a few days before.
p. The members who are present, including senior co-captains Tom Hennig and Chris von Hohenleiten and sophomore Marcus Balog, go about their typical business. Their first task is to roll up the martial arts mats that are currently lying on the floor, property of the martial arts club, with which the fencing team shares the room.
p. There is no doubt, however, as to whom this room truly belongs. “Tribe Fencing” is stamped in bold, green letters on the room’s back wall. Further proof of ownership is found in the utility closet/maintenance room that the team uses for storing various tools and other materials.
p. With its rickety shelves, rusty wrenches and discarded foils, the room looks as though it could double as a set for the movie “Fight Club.”
p. A number of fencing trophies, most of them old, hang on one of the walls of the utility room. Hennig doesn’t know the origin of any of them, except for one: the 2007 Coach of the Year award, issued by the Middle Atlantic Collegiate Fencing Association.
p. “I know where that one came from,” Hennig said.
p. The trophy, awarded to the team’s late coach Pete Conomikes, is one of many reminders of the coach that remain in the fencing room. Conomikes was killed in November when the car he was driving careened off of I-64 and crashed as the team was driving to a competition. Freshman Ben Gutenberg, who was riding in Conomikes’s car, died of injuries sustained in the accident a few weeks later.
p. Freshmen Spencer Butts and Matt Peppe, who were also riding in the car, sustained injuries as well, but both are on their way to a full recovery.
p. In the days and weeks following the accident, as the team coped with the tragedy of losing members of their team, Hennig and von Hohenleiten continued to open up the fencing room as usual. They did not require that anybody attend practice, but encouraged team members to come by.
p. “It was more we just wanted [practice] there as a coping mechanism, to relieve stress,” Hennig said.
p. Hennig can still recall what it was like opening the room for the first time following the tragedy.
p. “It was really weird,” Hennig said. “Opening it up the first time I was like, ‘I’m going to be the highest ranking person here. Pete’s not going to show up. What am I going to do?’”
p. The team continued to hold practices, although the amount of fencing that got done was less important. There was an unspoken understanding among the members of the team that once the next semester started up, the team would too. But for the time being, they got back in the routine of enjoying each other’s company again, by resuming their tradition of getting dinner at the Caf following practice.
p. “That was really what got us through it,” Hennig said. “It wasn’t talking to other people; it was being with each other and realizing that the team is still here.”
p. Hennig, who first began fencing at the age of eight because he liked the sport’s similarities to the light-saber fight scenes in “Star Wars,” made his decision to attend the College in large part due to fencing. He had known Conomikes for a number of years, as the coach would referee many of the youth fencing events in which Hennig, a Northern Virginia native, took part. The opportunity to fence for Conomikes, the man who effectively created the fencing program at the College, proved to be enough to entice Hennig to attend.
p. “I don’t think it would be possible to write a sentence about Tribe fencing without including Pete in it in some way,” Hennig said. “He is Tribe fencing up to this point, and from here on it’s up to us to use everything he was about to keep the thing going.”
Upon Hennig’s arrival, Conomikes went to work on getting Hennig to buy into the coach’s emphasis on the importance of team unity. It is this unity that has been so important to the team as they rebound following losing their coach and teammate.
p. “The farther away you get from it, the more you realize that the way he taught things made a lot of sense,” Hennig said. “Even though he’s not here, we still have a bunch of people who believe in the team who can pass that on.”
p. Conomikes’ advice has clearly paid off, as both Hennig and the team as a whole have achieved tremendous success over the past few years.
p. Despite only being able to compete as a club team, meaning that the only funding the team receives is from the College’s Recreational Sports department and outside donations, Tribe fencing has proven that they can hang with even Varsity-level competition. The team won last year’s MACFA title, has won seven Virginia Cup championships in a row, and has consistently been the best club team in the MACFA. Hennig posted a near-perfect 34-1 record in foil last year during the regular season, while von Hohenleiten was an impressive 33-2 in epee.
p. The Tribe is all business just three days later, as almost the entire team of 17 individuals (three women, 14 men) is in attendance. The members perform a series of drills in smaller groups before breaking up into one-on-one fencing practice bouts.
Hennig, who is dealing with a cold, is not practicing but still coaching. He, along with other more experienced members like Von Hohenleiten and Balog, is offering instruction to the less experienced members as they prepare for the weekend’s competition.
p. They break off into their respective specialties — epee, sabre and foil. Each specialty requires a different weapon and set of rules, and likewise draws a different type of athlete.
p. The manner in which the fencers go about their business and dedicate themselves to getting better is demonstrative of how the sport has played a role in the team’s emotional recovery.
p. “For me, [fencing has] played a pretty large part,” Hennig said. “When [the accident] first happened, everyone felt kind of powerless. But when [I] go into fencing, and I’m coaching or doing drills or something like that, in my own small [way], I feel like I’m doing something for Pete or for Ben. And I think a lot of the [team members] feel the same way. That’s part of the reason why we’ve been so dedicated since the semester started.”
p. So far this semester the team has competed in three events, and they have another three scheduled, including a home competition Mar. 15-16.
p. While the team is clearly focused in their practice, they also take time to joke and have fun with each other. Teammates are helpful and encouraging to one another. Hennig calls this year’s squad the most tight-knit he’s seen in his four years with the team.
p. As for the emotional well-being of the team’s members, Hennig feels that, all things considered, the squad is doing all right.
p. “Everyone is getting better at [his or her] own speed, which is the important part,” Hennig said.
p. For Hennig, like many of his teammates, getting to put his gear on and pick up a sword again has been a healing experience, one that makes him appreciate the opportunity to compete in the sport he loves. He can still remember the feeling he had the first time he got out on the fencing strip following the accident.
p. “It was different from opening up the [fencing room],” Hennig said. “It felt more like getting back to business, kind of, starting to get things back to normal. It felt more like a transition from grieving to coping, to going back to the way things are going to be.”