Civil War, Bread Lines, Providing Perspective For Irish Fencing Coach
The events of March 12 happened so fast that Notre Dame fencing head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia didn’t have any time to truly digest the damage that was being done to his program as the flood of cancellations from coronavirus inundated the professional and collegiate sports worlds.
Only five days after winning four of the six events at the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships and qualifying the maximum 12 athletes for the 2020 NCAA Championships — an event previously scheduled for this weekend — Kvaratskhelia’s student-athletes had the plug prematurely pulled on their season late in their quest for a third national title in four years.
“Athletically speaking, we were peaking at the right moment, confidence was flying high,” Kvaratskhelia said. “It was all the ingredients to make something happen out of it, and we’re talking about attacking a title.”
Shortly after the season cancellation, the dorms at Notre Dame were evacuated and its students told to go or stay home.
“It happened so quickly,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We couldn’t even get the team together to kind of convey what we felt. It was chaos.”
Kvaratskhelia shared his “condolences” by phone with all of his seniors and sent a letter to every team member to convey his disappointment and share his gratitude for all the hard work they put into the season.
“For a few of them, it was the only opportunity they had for NCAA participation. They qualified as seniors after four years of hard work,” Kvaratskhelia explained. “They accepted the fact that the competition was not going to happen but it’s still hard to accept that it’s over, that your athletic career at the college level is finished just like that.”
As difficult as it was for the Irish coaches and players to accept having their season suspended, Kvaratskhelia’s upbringing brought a unique perspective beyond self-pity.
Growing up under communist Soviet Union rule in the Republic of Georgia, Kvaratskhelia’s young adult years were marked by civil war and deep economic depression, especially during the 1990s when the Soviet Union was fighting and killing to maintain its stranglehold on the region.
“I can recall standing in the bread line for 10-12 hours to get a loaf of bread, tents in the streets, people shooting at each other. I look at everything going on right now through that prism,” said Kvaratskhelia, 49. “It’s disappointing, and I feel bad for the athletes, but it is not necessarily the end of the world not having an opportunity to win a national championship.”
After the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Kvaratskhelia came to the U.S. to visit and learn the culture.
Ultimately, he permanently relocated to the states and helped build an elite fencing club in Kansas. Life’s journey brought him to Notre Dame as an assistant coach in 2007 before he was named the Irish head coach in 2014.
Kvaratskhelia said he found fencing as a 14-year-old almost through the process of elimination.
Athletics in the Soviet Union are specialized, structured, selective and never recreational, Kvaratskhelia said.
“And not being the strongest and tallest and fastest kid,” he added. “I was kind of denied from the main sports like soccer or basketball, so fencing was one of the outlets. I tried it and I loved it.”
Married and with two school-aged children being kept home right now because of the coronavirus, Kvaratskhelia is feeling the hardship of this pandemic right along with everybody else.
His parents, both in their 80s, remain back in Georgia where they are also fighting this battle, under much different circumstances.
“I’m worried, of course, but that’s a lot tougher of a populous there, which gives me a little bit of hope that it will subside faster there,” Kvaratskhelia said. “Cops are on the street, you’re not allowed to go anywhere except to the store. They are keeping a very tight lock on everything there.
“For all of us, the only hope is to get back to business as fast as we can so life gets back to normal.”