If the Soviet Union died not with a bang but a whimper, how do you explain where the pieces are falling? How does Vladimir Nazlymov, the coach of the world-champion Soviet saber team, wind up at an inner-city high school in Kansas City?
Answers have eluded the world fencing community since December, when it was announced that the two-time world saber champion and 1976 Olympic silver medalist had turned down offers from several national teams to take a job with the Kansas City, Mo., school district.
"My jaw dropped when I heard that," says Carla-Mae Richards, executive director of the United States Fencing Association (USFA), in Colorado Springs. "Especially since we wanted to hire him in conjunction with a club back east."
The Nazlymov hiring has created an equal stir in Kansas City, where taxpayers have questioned the need for a world-class fencing coach in a school district that, until last October, had no fencers. No wonder the 46-year-old Nazlymov was the center of attention in February, when 850 young competitors gathered in Kansas City for the 1992 Junior Olympic Fencing Championships and Youth Tournament.
In his blue windbreaker with the red letters CCCP on the back, the wiry coach left a wake of awed fencers and officials wherever he went. "He's an absolutely unique commodity, the best there is," said U.S. fencing official Russell Wilson. "We're unbelievably lucky to have him."
But why? The question dogs Nazlymov, who was, in Richards's words, "a man in demand" the moment the Soviet government sport committee broke up.
Speaking through an interpreter, Nazlymov gives answers that are partly personal and partly professional. He chose the U.S., he says, to be closer to his son, Vitali, who just completed his sophomore year at Penn State University, where he was the 1991 NCAA saber champion. Returning to the republic of his birth, Dagestan, was not really an option for Nazlymov; nor could he stay in Moscow to coach world saber champion Grigory Kirienko at a time when Russia needed food more than it needed fencers.
"If I were a farmer, I would have stayed to help out," Nazlymov says. "But I'm a physical trainer. That's all I do. And when you don't have anything to feed your kids...."
From the perspective of the international fencing community, Nazlymov had to be thinking with his heart instead of his head. U.S. fencing has produced few world-class fencers or international medal winners. Insiders blame a system dominated by two East Coast clubs—the New York Athletic Club and the New York Fencers Club—neither of which has an extensive Olympic development program for youngsters below high school age.
"The key problem in American fencing is poor basics," says Richards. "Our senior athletes work very hard, but it's difficult to correct poor technique once it's learned."