Other side of the fence

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By Glynnis Mapp

Walk past the Ryerson lower gym’s last doors, push past various intimidating swords and equipment bags, and in a little office under the stairs, you’ll find a smiling, former Soviet National fencing coach.

Iosef Mirkin has coached the Ryerson varsity fencing team for over five years. But before that, fencing took him all over the world – Mirkin finished university in Moscow and began his fencing career in 1961, coaching at the Institute of Physical Culture in the former Soviet Union. In 1968 he started teams for both men and women in Uzbekistan that went on to both national and international championships; Mirkin was at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal as coach to the men’s foil team, that year’s champions. He has also taught fencing in Germany, France, and the Philippines.

Some of Mirkin’s most recent accomplishments include coaching former Ryerson student Donna Saworski, who become the first world champion in the women’s sabre competition in 1998.

While coaching in the USSR, Mirkin remembers government involvement with his team. “There was a lot of propaganda.” he says. “During the Cold War, both Russia and the United States were trying to prove to one another whose social system was better, fencing was just another way to compete.”

The now defunct USSR government gave athletes time off from schooling to make sure they had time to train for fencing. The government would finance the national teams, paying for accommodations when they competed within the country and internationally, and fencing athletes who were in the army were given time off from their military duties in order to train for various meets.

“It was believed that all Russian athletes were amateurs because of their responsibilities [to the state], but they were very dedicated to their sport,” says Mirkin.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mirkin added to his resume when, from 1991-1997, he served as head coach to the National Fencing Team of Israel. He trained the Women’s foil team, coaching them for seven years; after four years, in 1995, they became one of the eight strongest fencing teams in the world.

When Mirkin first moved to Canada, there were some hard times. He briefly worked in a factory and as a delivery man.

“He misses his experiences,” says his son, Ujay. “Like all people who emmigrate from their homeland, he just misses the familiarity of Russia, his friends, and his younger years.”

Mirkin never learned to speak English very well, but still manages to communicate with his team.

It helps that traditional fencing terminology is in French, which some of his students understand.

“It is difficult working with someone who doesn’t speak English” says assistant coach Bryan Hartwell. “Still, fencing is its own language in a way; it’s not hard to understand what he’s trying to explain to you.”

After coaching national teams around the world, coaching at Ryerson, Mirkin says, is a big change.

“It’s different from working with professional athletes, you cannot fully realize the full potential of your students, and even the potential of your own coaching” says Mirkin. “Students don’t have as much time to train [and] there is not enough money for the school to support fencing.”

Russia, Israel, Canada&what’s next?Mirkin wouldn’t mind staying with Ryerson for another 15 years if he could; he’s happy with the teaching staff and the impact he has had on the students.

When he started his teams in Russia there wasn’t much support, but as victories began to build up and the word started to spread around Uzbekistan, the government started to take notice. Mirkin is approaching his coaching at Ryerson with this in mind-with a positive attitude.

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