It's not so strange that one of this year's preseason favorites to win the NCAA foil championship is an Israeli Army veteran. Fencing combines balletlike gracefulness with the force of hand-to-hand combat, and Yehuda Kovacs qualifies on both counts. He fences for the University of Notre Dame, so it's a case of fighting Israeli turned Fighting Irish.
Kovacs, 24, a senior and two-time All-America, leads a powerful Notre Dame team that is seeking its fourth national title in 10 years. Kovacs rode his quick, aggressive, decidedly non-American style to a 34-1 record last season and has a career record at Notre Dame of 74-5. "The Americans aren't used to this kind of fencing," he says. "They tend to be much slower. I'm very offensive. It's my character. I try not to let my opponent do anything first."
How Kovacs found his way to the Golden Dome two years ago is a tribute to an unusual trinity of recruiters: Father Theodore Hesburgh, then Notre Dame's president; fencing coach Michael A. DeCicco; and South Bend rabbi Yisrael Gettinger.
Kovacs's grandfather, Laslow, was a champion fencer in Hungary, and Yehuda, who was born and raised in Israel, took up the sport at nine, quickly becoming a national age-group champion. But when he was about to move up to international competition, he had to serve the mandatory three years in the Israeli Army. He spent the week of the 1982 world championships not in Rome but at an outpost in Lebanon. After his discharge, he enrolled at Haifa University, but sport and academia don't mix well in Israel. "I had to travel two hours each way to practice at a fencing club," he says. "That's when my friend told me I could do both much more easily here."
His friend was Yoram Kochavi, an Israeli Olympic swimmer and a student-athlete at the University of Denver. Kochavi gave Kovacs, who had been at Haifa for one year, the names of 13 top collegiate fencing schools, including Notre Dame. Kovacs knew Notre Dame had been host to the '79 junior world fencing championships, but he didn't know much else about the university.
DeCicco was surprised to receive Kovacs's letter inquiring whether it would be possible for him to attend school and fence there. "Goodness gracious," DeCicco says, "here was a young Israeli student even considering coming to Notre Dame to study. I was genuinely moved." So moved that he immediately replied, urging Kovacs to apply, even though he didn't know a thing about him. Kovacs was accepted soon after. DeCicco still wasn't optimistic that Kovacs would come to South Bend. No Israeli national had ever matriculated at Notre Dame, where 77% of the 9,850 students are Roman Catholic and .2% are Jewish. So DeCicco enlisted Rabbi Gettinger of the Hebrew Orthodox Congregation of South Bend. Gettinger wrote Kovacs, giving his view of the South Bend religious community and assuring Kovacs he wouldn't have to compromise his Jewish identity.
"I was hesitant to persuade him at first," Gettinger says. "The other schools he wrote to had sizable Jewish populations. But then I realized that if Yehuda became a part of the Jewish community here, he would feel a stronger sense of Jewish pride than he would somewhere else." Gettinger's congregation got behind the effort also, raising money to cover half of Kovacs's tuition because Notre Dame's only male fencing scholarship had already been awarded. When Kovacs arrived on campus in the fall of '85, Father Hesburgh invited him and DeCicco to his office. "I really didn't know what to expect," Kovacs says, "but he was so nice. He took a Hebrew Bible off the shelf and read from it—in Hebrew. I was impressed."
The adjustment—and acceptance—of Kovacs came quickly. "I had no idea how good Yehuda was going to be," DeCicco says. "When I gave him his first lesson, I discovered he wasn't just another freshman." Indeed he wasn't, having arrived at Notre Dame with a year's worth of collegiate credits from Haifa University. As a fencer, he was even more advanced. His .937 winning percentage over two seasons tops DeCicco's .918, which was set from 1947 to '49 when DeCicco was a student and fencer at Notre Dame.
Although Kovacs will graduate in the spring with a degree in mathematics (concentrated in computer science), he will probably go on to graduate school and fence for another year. When he leaves, he will surely miss the place. "They really take care of you here," he says. "I study and I fence and that's all I have to worry about."
Except, of course, for the NCAA title that has eluded him the last two years. He was runner-up in 1985 and finished a disappointing fifth in '86. "It just was a bad day," he says of his second attempt. "I guess I wanted it too much. I burned myself out before the tournament." Kovacs thinks he has a shot at winning it all this year, if he takes his coach's advice to relax and concentrate more. It may be tough to teach an old soldier new tricks, but Kovacs has already proved himself a willing student.