Georges Cointe was the head fencing coach at Cornell University for 27 years.
Georges Cointe, Cornell Fencing Coach,
In his 27 years as head fencing coach at Cornell, he developed into one of the most respected and best loved fencing masters in the country. In 1955 his team won the three-weapon championship of the Intercollegiate Fencing Association while the 1956 foil team won the Little Iron Man trophy at the Eastern Intercollegiates. He was appointed trainer of the 1956 U.S. Olympic crew, which was Yale, and was thus given the opportunity to watch his star pupil, Richard Pew ‘55, take fourth place in the epee. Pew, who was inducted into the Cornell Hall of Fame in 1980, had never fenced until coming to Cornell in 1951. Another of the coach’s successful protégés was 1960 NCAA fencing champion Raoule Sudre, another member of Cornell’s Hall of Fame. Cointe was a trainer for football from 1934-41 and for crew following service in WWII. He was so devoted to his fencers that despite three heart attacks and doctor’s orders to the contrary, he continued to watch and advise the team. In 1961 he suffered a fatal attack while watching a close fencing match between Cornell and Penn.
A Student’s Retrospective
I would like to take this opportunity to provide, from the point of view of one of his most devoted students, some measure of the man we knew, the man for whom we spent two hours a day, six days a week, for six to seven months of the year, for four years, exercising, lunging, listening, fencing, philosophizing, laughing, groaning, always trying to follow his example, the example that showed us how to pursue improvement in any aspect just when you thought you had already reached the top of the ladder. The example that never said stop, but always said you can do better, and it was not always referring to your fencing.
The best way I can think of to portray the Coach that I saw, is to cite particular examples of incidents which he handled as routine, but which, in fact, show the true understanding which came to him so naturally. The nature of the incidents is disconnected, hence so is this discourse.
When I first approached him, stating an interest in fencing, after climbing the 519 steps of Barton Hall (I’ve forgotten the actual number) he handed me a weapon, a new glove, a mask and a jacket. How could I back out after that display of interest in me?…… I resolved to try fencing for at least six months…. After three months he had trained me well enough to win three bouts against Columbia, in my very first competition…..I was rewarded with a lower berth on the train home, as were all winners…….
I fenced in the #1 position in the 1953 Easterns. I was nervous, inexperienced, tense, and it showed. I fenced poorly and practically cracked up emotionally. Coach was right there telling me what I was doing wrong, playing up the fencing mistakes and playing down my obvious nervousness and the toll it was taking in my fencing…..
As a Coach he always actively fought for his team’s rights among the other coaches. He was always able to bring back to the team an optimistic story of how lucky we had been in choice of strip, order of bouts, etc., whether it had been optimistic in his mind or not…….At the 1954 Nationals, I asked at one point if I could lend a weapon to a Northwestern man who had broken all his. Coach said, “You better not. They belong to Cornell and you might need them yourself.” I went ahead and loaned it anyway. When I sheepishly admitted it later he remarked, “Well I certainly hope you did. I would have been very disappointed if you hadn’t”…..
At Michigan State the next year, the three of us, Phillipe Moquard, James Brown and I placed second in the NCAA’s as a team, but when we got back from our showers, besides the usual beer he had managed to find, he gave each of us a small box containing a medal that was inscribed, “Remember the Coach, 1955.” It was clear that he had purchased these medals well before the competition began. The gist of its presentation was not as a consolation for not winning, but as a sincere note of appreciation on his part for the three of us, to whom he had given so much.
Finally I shall never forget the time and effort which he spent in the Spring of 1956, sneaking up from crew practice (in addition to coaching fencing, “in order to make ends meet,” he served as the trainer for the Cornell Crew) to give me lessons, once a day, and after school was out, twice a day, in preparation for the final Olympic trial. For me, the Olympics were a fitting climax to four years of fun and rewarding practice, and a tribute to his coaching skill. I was overjoyed that he could make the trip with the crew and be with me, as he had been many times before, to help give me the confidence to do well in the finals. I am convinced that his presence in Melbourne, was, in a large part, responsible for my success.
In reflecting about Coach, now with the perspective of two or three years with little contact with him, I see a man who was internally very happy with what he had made of his life. He had struggled at most of the stages along the way, but the very process of fighting his way was, in itself, a satisfaction to him. Although he would never admit it to us, I am sure he was at his happiest when he could work with young people, and that was certainly one of his greatest strengths.
What this all boils down to is that the Coach is one of a very few individuals who I will long remember as having influenced some of the major ideals and goals of my life as well as being entirely responsible for my athletic development. In short, I will not need the 1955 medal in my hand to recall the inscription, “Remember the Coach.” His thoughts, kindnesses, and influences will be with me always.
Note: This retrospective was prepared in 1961 shortly after Coach Cointe died.