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Valeri Nikolajchuk: Ahead of his time.

In 2009, I found an interesting article: Valeri Nikolajchuk: first coach of Pavel Kolobkov, Andrej Shuvalov and Kolobkov’s teammate/most recent coach Vladimir Ivanov. Olympic medalists. Original article was done by the Russian Fencing Federation, and the link was lost to time. I did my best to recreate this article and inject some of the original photos still floating around on the internet.

Not much longer than 15 years ago, an event occurred worthy of severe attention. It’s significance we are only beginning to understand now. In 1991, at the World Championships in Budapest, the longest medal drought in history of Soviet epee was interrupted. 20 years: that is how long soviet epeeists could not win a medal at the World Championships or the Olympic games.


Valeri Ivanovich Nikolajchuk (13.07.1947 — 28.07.1990).

The years went on, new and talented athletes kept growing up and joining the Soviet team. In 1979, 1981 and 1987 years — they managed to win the gold in the team event. But individually, no one could surpass the magnificent foreign masters: the Swede Harmenberg, Germans Pusch and Bormann, Frenchmen Boisse and Riboud.

Andrej Shuvalov stopped the series of failures by rising to the top of the medal pedestal in 1991, 20 years after Grigory Kriss’s victory in Vienna. Shuvalov’s success was a true breakthrough, since it lead up to brilliant Olympic victories of Aleksandr Beketov (1996) and Pavel Kolobkov (2000) through four gold medals of the same Pavel Kolobkov won at the World Championships in 1993, 1994, 2002 and 2005…

One of those standing at the roots of such achievements, was a remarkable coach, instructor of Andrej Shuvalov and Pavel Kolobkov: Valeri Nikolajchuk. A specialist who in many way was ahead of his own time and possibly the future. A coach that was able to develop and apply new, absolutely original methods of preparing fencers.

Here is what his students say about him: those that accomplished the breakthrough to the highest places of the medal stands:

Andrej Shuvalov:: «There were such dead ends, that it seemed – that’s it, finish, I cannot achieve more, I reached my ceiling. That was the case in 1987, when I couldn’t make one good result the whole season. And yet my coach lead me out of the dead end…»(«Sport-Express», 29.10.1991).

Pavel Kolobkov: «Valeri Ivanovich was an extraordinary human being. During his short coaching life, he managed to prepare uniquely unlike masters such as Shuvalov, Oleg Skorobogatov and myself. He was not only a Fencing Master, but a teacher in the broad sense of the word. I did not understand a lot of his actions then, I argued with him, did not agree in some things. He was a hard man, and at practice we had to overcome not just physical fatigue, but pressures coming from the coach. When I analyze the years spent with Nikolajchuk now, I realise that he was acting consciously. He was preparing us for the future, saw our potential and understood that in order to overcome difficult struggles we would need courage and strength of will. Often, I… miss his confidence, his knowledge and Nikolajchuk himself.» («Soviet Sport», 14.07.1994).

And here is the opinion of coach Oleg Glazov, who during the second half of 1980’s was the head of the Soviet junior team: «During the years when a man could be buried in bureaucracy for a small misstep, when it took little to label someone “difficult”, “morally unstable” and so on, I… paid attention only to the strong sides of coaches, to traits that benefited the whole collective. Indicative of such attitude is the example of Valerij Nikolajchuk. He showed up at my camp with his first student, Andrej Shuvalov, that later became of of the brightest epeeists of in the world. There were so many rumors about Valeri: cruel, poor manners, uneducated, and in general: an impostor. But I believed in him. That man invented his own system of preparation, based not on classical theory physical training, but on eastern teachings, on knowledge taken from mixed disciplines, on age old practices of martial arts. He believed in this system and so did his students. In ten years (his life was cut short) Nikolajchuk raised two more World Champions besides Shuvalov: Pavel Kolobkov and Oleg Skorobogatov.» («Physical Culture and Sport», №5, 1996 г.).


Today, Pavel Kolobkov is an Olympic Champion, four time World Champion and a member of the board of the Russian Fencing Federation (december 2005)

And indeed, Valeri Ivanovich Nikolajchuk was without a doubt an inordinate man. He broke into the fencing world like a hurricane, tornado, tsunami. The Soviet school was always famous for it’s maestros. Upon their shoulders was a vast amount of experience gathered as athletes and coaches of outstanding fencers. The epee world was especially conservative. During the previous years, the stereotype of an ideal epeeist was developed: tall and athletically built. Epeeists back then were nicknamed “fly-fishers”. Their bouts, in general, had a prolonged character: for hours they stepped around the strip, forcing the opponent to make a mistake, trying to eventually “fish out” one more touch. That’s why the epee bouts seemed boring back then. Nikolajchuk was the first to encourage his students to lead an active bout, not wait, to force their own styles onto the opponent.

He was not accepted by the well known maestros of the time. First, because he never accomplished anything on the strip himself, and never graduated from any sports academy. Second, because he supposedly “embarrassed” the Soviet school that years were spent on developing and that was famous through out the world for it’s exercises.

After careful study of his predecessors, Nikolajchuk took his own path. This was relevant to purely coaching work, to his interactions with his students and his pedagogical approach. During a time when leading coaches often walked pompously in front of their students, working out phrases in individual lessons, Nikolajchuk was almost clowning around. He would jump up, throw himself from side to side, would not allow interactions with his weapon, forcing the student on one hand to maintain a high state of awareness, on the other to seek out inordinate solutions.

He dedicated a lot of time to the study of history of philosophy of eastern martial arts, trying to understand the gist of raising fighters of high moral and spiritual character. He used any chance to bring something new to fencing. I recall during the USSR Championships in Tallin, he loved going to the pantomime theater. He would study the artists there. Valeri would seek out interesting conversation with any type of scientist and artist, so that he could partake of their experiences in discovery and stage presence.

He was considered abnormal by many in the fencing world. He’d hear it to his face almost. Others thought he was strange, misunderstood, talked about a mysterious “bio-field of the coach”, about his ability to affect his student with all but hypnosis. Others still, completely rejecting any mystique would clearly state: he got lucky with Shuvalov. But then, he “got lucky” with Kolobkov, then two USSR Championships in a row were won by Skorobogatov. It wasn’t luck. However, even when Nikolajchuk’s students were showing high results and were the cornerstone of the Russian team, he was not sent along with them to World Championships, Olympics, other international competitions. Yet everyone knew the kind of authority he had over his students, the kind of effect one word of his could have on the course of events if they weren’t going smooth.

After Pavel Kolobkov’s first victory at the USSR Championships, when I went to interview him (Kolobkov) and we unexpectedly ended up talking for hours late into the night, Nikolajchuk was waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel. “What did my student say, does he understand what he needs to strive for, how to achieve success? Does he understand my role in this process?» – Valeri would torture me. It was very important for him that the students would have a correct attitude toward his coaching methods and would piously believe in them. We agreed then, that the moment Nikolajchuk himself is ready, I will take such an interview, that not only his students but all the other coaches, sports bureaucrats and fans could understand and accept Valeri as a coach and human being.

Eventually he called and said: “I’m ready to speak about myself”. This is what turned out. Honestly speaking, when I re-read this interview that was published in May, 1988 in the “Soviet Sport” newspaper, and later entered into the archives of articles called “Faces of Fencing”, for some reason, I want to cry.


Andrej Shuvalov returned to the strip 15 years later. (september 2005)

— It is said you are not a very social person…

— To the contrary, I love socializing. It’s just that not everyone understands me and I’m used to that. But I always engage the challenges I encounter. Otherwise I would stop respecting myself. And I have encountered a lot more than misunderstanding.

— It is almost ten years you are coaching. After a relatively small experience as an athlete, a degree in biology from the Odessa University and even work as a stoker, you choose the profession of coaching. How could you explain such a step?

— One thing: love of fencing. Everything else is search for self, my place in life. A human being must engage in work that brings about the most good.

— But maybe love alone is not enough to brave teaching other people?

— Even when I was still an athlete, I composed the likeness of an ideal fencer. He has to be an athlete, dynamically control the bout, be able to make good decisions depending on the situation.

I learned with the students. Observed a lot (actually, observation, the ability to see: I consider that absolutely paramount in coaching). I did not want to copy anyone. I understood early that you had to take your own path to win.

— But considering all that, it was important whom you took on this long journey. On what traits did you select your students?

— Their eyes! But seriously, fencing is not so popular that you can select anyone. Took everyone. It’s another thing with whom I was left. I’m certain that a coach can work only with those who are compatible.

— So still, why did you choose, for example Shuvalov?

— Andrej came to me after only a year of me coaching. I was already having hopes for some. Shuvalov initially did not stand out. He never played any sports before, he had “heavy” legs and a thin torso. That summer my whole group and I went to a health camp. I had this one kid from the so called “golden youth”. Liked to show off, smoked a little, trained without intensity. A lot of the kids were drawn to him. Andrusha, maybe due to his upbringing, or maybe because he was youngest wasn’t interested in that company. With pure pedagogical goals, I started giving him individual lessons. Later, observing his bout, I understood that my choice was well made. Having little idea about fencing, Shuvalov tried to make a touch at any cost, threw himself at the opponent and attacked without end, drawing a smile from observers. Just a year after, he won the Moscow regional, then, the the Capital Youth Games won a country-wide event. At 20, conquered a bronze at the Junior Worlds, and while the debates were going on whether or not to place him into the senior team, he became the Champion of the USSR. The debates were resolved.

— Wow, just an “Exemplary-Demonstrative” athlete…*

— So that you shall not harbor any illusions on Shuvalov’s behalf, I’ll tell you an episode from his life later. The others? Every man has his own ceiling. He reaches it, and then you have to think of something to break it. I try to anticipate the difficulties that he’ll encounter and cultivate the ability to surpass them. Where the student may slip into a puddle, I lend a hand, where he may fall into a chasm, I build a bridge. Sometimes though, there are situation where neither my hands nor bridges help.

Right now, this is happening with Vladimir Ivanov. he came to me as an eighth-grader, after a few years of swimming. A little short for an epeeist. But he also opened up during summer camp. I was leaving to a training camp with Shuvalov, and upon my return I was told that my kids were not allowed to train with a weapon in my absence. Ivanov would sneak into the reeds and practice there. So I gathered the kids and asked: who’s going to wake me up at 7am? Ivanon immediately volunteered. So there’s out thread of connection. In a year already he achieved an “A” rating, and a medal in a USSR-wide competition. And all the things he’s doing now aren’t so bad either. A man must overcome difficulties to become stronger and wiser.

16 years later Oleg Skorobogatov celebrates his victory at the Russian Natioanls.


— Shuvalov and Ivanov had to overcome some difficulties so that you may believe in them. What did Kolobkov and Skorobogatov do?

— They came to me in fourth grade. Both attended an English language school. These were next generation kids, and even now I can’t pick them apart, but it was always interesting with them. Even at the very first practices, playing soccer and basketball they fought for the ball, never feared falls or bruises. It was evident that Kolobkov will never be a two-meter giant, and Skorobogatov wasn’t giving any promises to size up either. Even so, I knew they were worth working with. just had to come up with methods that they could defeat any opponent with.

— You promised something from Shuvalov’s biography.

— All of last year Andrej was performing poorly. Even though he did well at the 1986 World Championships, and it was planned to take him along with the team, I know that in his current state he had nothing to d0 there this year.

In the beginning of the season we began to change his game. Andrej would spent too much emotional energy in the early rounds, and he couldn’t last long. So we searched for a way to win rationally, without spending all the emotional ammunition. It was to be reserved for extreme situations only. I was forced to attend camps with the junior teams, so all out innovations were not perfected. With every false start, Andrej lost confidence. There was only one more prep camp before the World Championships. I didn’t sleep for three nights, trying to figure out how to lead my student out of the dead end. In general, I hate any talk about “peak performance conditioning”. To me, that that concept is psychological, not physiological. It depends on the what state the human is in during performance. It is within the coach’s power to manifest “peak performance”.

— So what did you think of?

— First, I concentrated my own energy. Went for a run in the morning, barefoot on the grass. Didn’t talk to anyone. Second, during the very first lesson I took absolutely absurd positions, threw myself and the weapon from line to line, in other words, I became the most uncomfortable opponent. Andrej could not hit me. This went on for several days. He was pissed off, bitter, on the verge of tears and then attacked me like a feral animal. The intensity of those days clouded all the failures of that year. At the end of the week, Shuvalov finally could hit and beat his teammates. I could bet anyone he would make finals at the World Championships. What actually happened, you know.

— Are you afraid of being an adversary to your students, even if on the strip only?

— My students are athletes, and they took the path of struggle in order to achieve victory. I have to teach them how. I have to become an adversary, the most awkward and fierce. I play that role. But that only happens within the walls of the gym. Outside those walls, I am their friend, brother, I read them books and share my thoughts with them. Anyway, it’s impossible to pretend around them. Maybe one could force a baby to fall in love with you, but at some point a student would understand that a useless snake was trying to teach them. That’s the only thing I fear.

— Lets return to your searching. I often heard other young coaches complain that without the ability to travel, they cannot find methods to defeat foreign opponents. You students, however, fenced equally strong at home and abroad, often without you there.

— I already mentioned that I am an opponent to my students. In order to mimic, lets say a french athlete, I interviewed our leading masters about them. Asked them to describe the different fencers. So I got kind of a photo-album of the same person taken from different angles. So a concrete opponent’s profile was created. Interestingly, when I actually saw them fence, they all appeared weaker than my “photo-robot”. The practice wasn’t useless though, my students received an advantage against the foreigners.

— Do you set performance goals for your students – what place to take?

— Their internal motivation is high without that. They want to win and help their coach establish a reputation. I never hand any additional load on them. It’s enough that I alone take on responsibilities, sign onto result plans at the sports committees. I just try to keep my guys interested the process of the fight itself, tomorrow I want them to be even more interesting and unpredictable for the opponents. If it were my choice at all, I would give material incentives as late as possible, and being it that they are necessary, the coach must carefully control that process.

— So you reject material stimuli in athletics?

— In the early stages, yes. If you mean athletics at the highest levels, where every struggle take place at maximum effort, then material encouragement is but one means to help the athlete in his difficult life. Enough with the attitude that we are some sort of supermen, superior humans. Athletes suffer more than others, they often do not have a personal life, no opportunity to keep normal relationships with family and friends. They are always at the peak of struggle and spend themselves quicker than anyone else.


Like 15 years ago, Pavel Kolobkov is ready for the fight. In the background: Vladimir Ivanov. (March 2006)

He left life early. He was murdered. A silly, unfair death. After it happened, Andrej Shuvalov closed in on himself, became numb, did not even talk to his wife for a month. Left the strip shortly after. His other great student, Pavel Kolobkov is still fencing, winning Word Cups and Championships. Training with yet another student of Nikolajchuk – Vladimir Ivanov. And still, in his bios, where it says “coached by” writes: Nikolajchuk, Ivanov.

It’s curious that both Andrej Shuvalov and Oleg Skorobogatov, after having left big sport in the early 1990-s, resumed competing nationally after 15 years. As a result, Shuvalov became the Silver Medalist at the Russian Championships 2005, having lost in the final only to Pavel Kolobkov. Skorobogatov, won the second tier of the Russia Cup 2005 and Russian Nationals 2006 and even managed to secure a spot on the Russian team sent to the World Championships in Turin! One can see the uniqueness of Nikolajchuk’s coaching gift that created such a longevity in his students, developed such a wide set of abilities that allows them to win even 15 years down the road.

Whatever the case may be, Valeri Nikolajchuk’s fate is not unique. A genius not recognized during his lifetime. We all should apologize to him. And take from his coaching legacy and life a lesson, especially important now, when we are again witnessing a long drought in victories among the Russian fencers.

We have to learn to value people, endlessly devoted to fencing today, now, not after decades. People with power, in whom we trust to govern us and make decisions need to judge their employees based on merit and not on some conjunctural concepts, careless remarks or emotional actions. Unordinary, creative people, even if they are less than comfortable to work with and control, need to be offered help in nourishing their talent, not gotten rid of. The ability to reject contemporary standards and vision of the future is not given to everyone. So lets cherish that. Only such talent can gift the world with new talent.

It is 11 years now, since Dmitry Shevchenko’s success at the 1995 World Championships in the Hague, our foilists cannot win individual gold, our women epeeists cannot win individual gold for all of that event’s 17 year history. The sabre girls do not know the taste of victory for all of seven years of that event’s existence. In his time, Nikolajchuk would not have been afraid to go against the current, would have searched, experimented, created. Our coaches of today should listen to Valeri’s words said 18 years ago. I want to wish all the maestros that are making fencing history today never to search and never give up. To be patient and experiment. Not to lock themselves in one sport, to try and look at the broader world. I am certain that a hint can be found in many things, may it be good literature, modern ballet, eastern psychological teachings or simply intelligent conversation. Mainly – not to be afraid of being laughed at or misunderstood. Time will judge everyone equally.

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