Alen Hadzic and the Infinite Sadness

Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece film Rashomon tells the story of four people who pay witness to the same crime—the murder of a Samurai. Rashomon’s story is told via trial, with testimonies provided by a priest, a woodcutter, a bandit, and the samurai’s wife. Each witness provides his/her account of the crime, giving drastically different but equally conceivable accounts of how the Samurai’s life ended. Rashomon is not so much a “whodunit” film, rather, a poignant study of the incongruences in testimony of witnesses to a controversial event, and the subjectivity of the lenses through which we bear witness to events in our lives.

On March 10, 2013, former NCAA first team All-American and reigning Ivy League champion Alen Hadzic was black carded from the northeast regional qualifying event, immediately ending his season and dashing any hopes he had of winning his first NCAA individual title. The story of Alen Hadzic is hardly as absolute as one might be led to believe given the negative stigma associated with receiving a black card. No testimonial of the black card was the same—whether it was from the lens of the coaches, referees, Alen’s opponent, or Alen himself. Alen’s story is, in short NCAA fencing’s version of Rashomon, a tale where each player in the event passionately and convincingly tells his/her side of the truth to paint a picture that leaves more questions about the event than answers.

Alen’s absence from the 2013 championships has left the fencing world asking “what if?” in debating the impact he would have had. In what began as a promising season built on momentum from his 2012 NCAA finish, a vigorous off season to ready himself for the next season, and an ivy league championship win, Alen’s 2013 season came to a screeching halt with the awarding of a black card.

This is, to quote the anonymous author of “Shin A Lam and the Infinite Sadness” “…an attempt to provide a complete explanation of what actually occurred, why it happened, and what should have happened.”

I. 2012 NCAAs

Alen Hadzic’s final victory of his sophomore season at Columbia University highlighted one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA fencing history.

It was March 2012 at the NCAA championships in Columbus, Ohio. Hadzic had been selected as one of the four finalists after posting a dominant 17-6 record in preliminary matches. To get into the finals match, Hadzic had to clear Ohio State’s Kristian Boyadzhiev, an established Bulgarian fencer who had narrowly finished behind Hadzic with 16 victories. As the match began, Boyadzhiev had an immediate grasp on Hadzic’s tactics.

Hadzic, on seemingly every touch began to push Boyadzhiev aggressively. Whenever he launched an attack, Boyadzhiev was ready, awaiting him with well-timed defense to take a decisive 12-7 lead.

In epee fencing, fencers have the luxury of using a tactic known as a double-touch, which means if both fencers hit each other within one twenty-fifth of a second, the touch counts for both. In a scenario like Boyadzhiev’s in which he was three touches away from victory, it’s often the most commonly used tactic to safely close out a bout when leading.

As the ref ordered Hadzic and Boyadzhiev, to get en garde, Hadzic walked away with his mask off, quietly contemplating his approach to regain his deficit.

And that was the moment the tables began to turn. Hadzic began to press his point around Boyadzhiev’s hand. Boyadzhiev lunged to be hit by Hadzic before he could fully extend into his attack. 12-8.

Small pushing and Hadzic let out an explosive running attack direct into Boyadzhiev’s body. 12-9. Alen removed his mask to plot his next move, emotionless in his face, but clearly on the war path believing his defeat was not imminent.

If Fencing was a main stream sport, Hadzic’s next touch would have been worthy of an ESPN highlight reel. Boyadzhiev responded with a fleche of his own, only to be met by Hadzic’s blade who scooped up Boyadzhiev’s attack and flicked him over the back. 12-10.

Hadzic Back Flick

Boyadzhiev, who had remained in control, looked over to his coach’s corner searching for answers as Alen returned to his en garde line poised and ready to continue his rally. Hadzic put pressure around Boyadzhiev’s hand and Boyadzhiev responded with a desperately rushed lunge as a Hail Mary to turn the tide, only to be met with Hadzic’s point. 12-11.

Hadzic walked away from the line once again, this time screaming at the top of his lungs to get fired up to continue his rally. With great precision, he caught Boyadzhiev moving forward and stopped him dead in his tracks with a running attack to tie the score at 12-12. Five unanswered touches.

By this point, the score indicated the bout wasn’t over, but both Hadzic and Boyadzhiev’s body language indicated otherwise. Two more unanswered touches to take a 14-12 lead, and Alen let out a smirk, pleased with his unprecedented comeback. One final touch, and Hadzic dropped to his knees, capping off an 8-1 rally to make his first NCAA gold medal match.

Hadzic would go on to lose firmly to three-time first team all-American Jonathan Yergler, but with his victory over Boyadzhiev, he planted the seeds for high expectations for the remainder of his NCAA career and ascended to the forefront of NCAA fencing.

II. 2013 Season

Alen’s conquest for his first NCAA individual title fell short, but with his 2nd place finish, he was still crowned an NCAA first team All-American. Determined to get to the next level and win an individual title, Alen upped his training to five days a week, practicing three and a half hours each day and spending needed time in the gym to build strength and agility.

The fruits of Alen’s labor paid off, and his results in his junior season began to show noticeable difference. Yergler, Kelley, and Badger, who had beaten Alen at the 2012 Ivy League Championships all suffered defeats to Alen this time around. Alen, had gone 22-10 in dual meets before Ivy League championships this year and would go on to win the 2013 championships (tying Princeton’s Ed Kelley) in one of the toughest epee fields the Ivy League had ever seen, finishing with a 12-3 record. “He was fencing the best I have ever seen him fencing. An individual title was definitely a feasible goal for him” said Columbia head coach Michael Aufrichtig. The story of Alen Hadzic is a question of “what if?” As Alen came off a strong win at Ivy League Championships and had a wealth of momentum heading into the northeast regional qualifier for nationals. Unfortunately, his season would come to an untimely end the next weekend.

III. The Card

Sunday, March 10 was Alen’s final hurdle to qualify for NCAA nationals—the Northeast regional. Alen seeded 3rd, only behind teammate Brian Ro and St. John’s Adam Watson, making his path to the national championship a fairly easy one. In his first round of pools, months of training, dual meets, and time spent in the gym was erased by a confrontational utterance in the heat of emotion.

In his third bout of pools, Alen squared off against Vassar College senior Tavish Pegram. Alen plugged in, only to realize his light wasn’t going off when he tested his body chord. To make sure it was his own equipment failing and not a strip or reel malfunction, Alen took some extra time to test his gear. The presiding referee (I will reference the official as the referee to respect their privacy and because they declined to partake in an interview) lost patience and told Alen he would “be much happier if Alen took the yellow card and stopped delaying the bout.”

The bout began slowly, as neither athlete had fenced this season and both wanted to feel each other’s tempo.

At 2-2, Alen initiated a running attack on Pegram, a fencer known for his strong blade work and defense, and was met by a parry-riposte to go down 3-2.

Once again, Alen sensing an opening in Pegram attempted a running attack and was met with the same action to go down 4-2. What happened in the next few minutes would change the 2013 Men’s Epee NCAA championship.

“God damn it!” yelled Alen as he was running by. The referee pulled out a red card, giving Pegram the final touch of the bout to win 5-2.

“I wouldn’t have made that call, because yelling ‘God damn it’ is much milder than other things people have said. I’ve heard fencers shout directly at their opponents and get no card. Alen was not yelling at me or the ref,” Pegram would later say. “Alen was obviously frustrated, as anyone would be. He lost on a red card that very few people would have given. When he was unhooking he dropped his mask a little harder than I would have liked so I went up to the ref and asked him not to black card him. He told me not to worry.”

Alen, frustrated with the outcome of the bout proceeded to walk over to the referee “…while not being overly aggressive” Pegram said, though he noted that Alen “was definitely being a bit difficult.” Pegram’s mild explanation of the card greatly contrasted Charles Greene’s account, who was refereeing on the adjacent strip: “Alen was no more than five, six inches from [the referee’s] face,” Greene said. “I stopped my bout because I felt Alen could have put his hands on [the referee] and I wanted to be ready to intervene in case that were to happen.”

Alen pleaded with the referee to provide an explanation for why he wasn’t given a warning for his language before given a card. The referee’s response was simple: “You shouldn’t have said that,” he said. The referee, who Greene said was “cool as a cucumber throughout the confrontation” would hear no more and provide no further explanation, increasing Alen’s frustration.

“How could you end the bout on a card like that, man?” Alen asked the referee.

“I didn’t say ‘god damn it’ to anyone. You’re fucking up the whole pool.” Charles Greene noted that he also heard Alen proclaim “Don’t you know I’m trying to win a championship,” which Greene said was the equivalent of the classic “Don’t you know who I am?” move.  Alen stormed off angrily, walking to his end of the strip to unplug.

“Alen,” the referee said.

Alen turned to face the referee and was shocked to see what was held in his outstretched hand: a black card.

In fencing, a black card is the most severe form of punishment an official can levy on an athlete, reserved only for the gravest offenses. When received, a fencer is marked on the results as “fencer excluded,” expunging any record or trace of his involvement in a tournament. Unless a fencer demonstrates an unruly physical outburst, such as the spiking of his mask, referees will offer stern warnings to fencers to cease their bawdiness if the fencer berates the official. According to multiple sources present at Hadzic’s carding, no such warnings were issued.

Greene’s assessment of Alen’s behavior in the wake of the black card was in short, damning. “What I witnessed, what I saw, if they had rescinded the black card, I was prepared to give him one myself. Alen walked in the middle of a bout I was refereeing on the adjacent strip. In between me and the two active fencers. I feel sorry for his season ending this way, but he was out of control. The black card to me was cut and dry. He was blinded with rage and in his own little world,” Greene said.

After seeing the black card, Alen approached the referee and apologized for his transgressions and asked the referee to reconsider. Pegram approached Alen, offering to speak on his behalf too. The decision had been made and the referee was unwilling to change his mind.

Alen and Michael Aufrichtig made an appeal to the bout committee, comprised of Tom Vrabel (Head Coach of Sacred Heart), Syd Fadner (Head Coach of Boston College), Sharron Everson (Head Referee), Barb Bolich (MIT Assistant Athletic Director). The committee convened and quickly upheld the referee’s decision.

Sacred Heart had two competitors on the fringe of capturing one of the qualifying spots, a point which raises questions regarding the membership and objectivity of the appeals committee. “Although I do not believe any coach would do anything wrong,” Columbia coach Michael Aufrichtig said, “I would have hoped that the bout committee was made of no college coaches to be fair. The National Committee serves in that capacity with the Chief Referee at the final round of the NCAA Championships and is also made up of coaches and administrators from other NCAA schools, just as the regional committee is. It is a little strange to me too, but that’s the way it is.”

Alen spent a minimum of 18 hours per week training, and had fenced 41 bouts this season to reach this point. In a matter of seconds, in bellowing the words “damn” and “fuck,” his season ended, erasing any hope he had of winning an individual title.

IV. Alen’s Impact on the 2013 Championships

It’s difficult to measure what Alen’s impact would have been had he competed in the NCAA championships, as fencing (particularly epee) is a sport in which results are wildly unpredictable, and one victory on a hot day could result in a defeat the next.

Alen fenced 16 out of 21 of the opponents he would have been eligible to fence at NCAAs this season. Five of his opponents came from west coast schools; thus, Alen did not square off against them this season. Of the remaining 16, Alen went an impressive 13-5, leaving the question of “what if?” Alen had gone 1-1 against NCAA champion Marco Canevari, a decisive 5-1 victory over NCAA runner-up Jonathan Yergler, and achieved victories over the third place winners as well.

Opponent

Score

V/D

M. Canevari (OSU) Unknown V, D
J. Yergler (Princeton) 5-1 V
P. Badger (Harvard) 5-3 V
E. Kelley (Princeton) 5-3 V
D. Nollner (Duke) Unknown D
D. Tafoya (OSU) Unknown V
A. Ibrahim (UPenn) 5-4 V
K. McGuire (Brown) 4-5 D
M. Raynis (Harvard) 5-4 V
A. Watson (SJU) Unknown D
G. McGrath (Notre Dame) Unknown V, D
V. O’Garra (UPenn) 5-4 V
B. Russell (PSU) Unknown V, V
C. Fishler (UPenn) 5-4 V
P. Cohen (Yale) 5-3 V

Total: 13-5

Well, what if? The same question rests on Alen’s mind. When I asked him how he felt sitting on the sidelines knowing how he could be out there, Alen became introspective: “Fencing is a huge part of my life, so this is not an easy question for me…I trained relentlessly for NCAA championships the entire year. There are huge sacrifices in time and social life. It’s also extremely challenging to balance fencing with the demands from school. It is like training for a marathon for an entire year to be told that you have been disqualified for disagreeing on something.”

Alen has one final season of eligibility. He will be a senior at Columbia next year. His goals are simple and direct: “academics, and to prepare for the next NCAA championship.”

V. Conclusion

Photo credit: Columbia University Athletics/Gene Boyars

Photo credit: Columbia University Athletics/Gene Boyars

Alen Hadzic holds no ill will towards the referee, who he described as “…fair to me in previous bouts. I always had a great degree of respect for him as a referee.” Alen’s disdain, he says, is in the system that failed to open its ears to his appeals case that was decided in haste:

“It is often said that an athlete’s education is the primary focus of college fencing – to balance fencing and academics and to provide an environment which helps foster development and life skills that a student-athlete can use throughout their life.

If this is indeed the case, then what went on at the regional qualifiers at St. John’s this year was not in the spirit of the NCAA’s goal of enhancing athletes not only on the piste, but in building their character as well. I was not offered advice or guidance on the strip that day, but the harshest punishment without a consideration, warning or opportunity to amend my behavior.

I feel that I, my teammates, my coaches and Columbia University athletics program have all been robbed of an opportunity to bring back an NCAA medal. In hindsight, I feel like I was judged very unfairly. The pressure of the competition was immense, and my protest may have been emotionally charged as a result of that pressure. As such, I could have benefited so much more from an experienced referee’s or committee’s advice, than by being outright ousted for something that by all spectators was deemed to be a disproportionately harsh punishment.

What I also learned that day is that a fencer is not fencing the opponent only, but also the referee, as they can be emotionally charged as well. I firmly believe that what went on that day can and should be used as a case study to help make refereeing and the committee’s decision making at collegiate fencing more in the spirit of collegiate athletics through focused seminars on refereeing.”

I spoke to one US Fencing referee about the incident that chose to remain anonymous: “As referees, we are subject to the same emotional ebbs and flows as fencers. Even the best referees like (the referee) can have off days where tolerance for unruliness is shorter and cards might fly a little more freely. Fencers have off days. We can too.” When I asked the referee to provide a statement, he simply replied “I have not and do not plan on discussing any call that I have made in a public forum.”

The appeal to the bout committee raises questions too: would the outcome of the appeal been any different had the committee comprised of members who didn’t have a stake in the outcome of Alen’s black card? It’s hard to say, but Aufrichtig questions just how much the committee listened: “I feel if it was listened to fairly, the committee would have taken into consideration the severity of his actions. If Alen had done something physical or detrimental to the referee, then 100% he should have been kicked out of the competition, but he used a bad word when telling the referee he was messing up his call. This should not in my opinion be a black card but more of a Group III red card warning, giving Alen a chance to cool down and then decide his own fate either by his fencing or the way he used his words for the rest of the competition.”

This past weekend, I fenced a pool bout in which my opponent told me to “shut the hell up, it’s a fucking pool bout, man” after I let out a yell for celebrating a touch. The referee pulled out a group 3 red card, told the fencer that if such behavior was repeated that day, he would receive a black card. The man took the warning to heart and remained non-confrontational with his opponents for the rest of the day. His behavior was rude, uncouth, and against the chivalrous nature of fencing, but he learned his lesson, and life went on.

A shortened version of this will appear in next week’s Washington Times.

14 thoughts

    • I think he’s got a great shot. Yergler, Hadzic, Watson, all looking pretty good to do that. Alen got immensely better this last year. Don’t count him out.

  1. Telling another fencer “It’s a fucking pool bout, man…” is VASTLY different than telling a referee “You’re fucking up at your job.”

  2. Pingback: A Black Card Too Far?

  3. This should not in my opinion be a black card but more of a Group III red card warning, giving Alen a chance to cool down and then decide his own fate either by his fencing or the way he used his words for the rest of the competition

    Except Mr. Hadzic already had a Group III red card (justly or unjustly), for saying “god damn it” (disrupting order). Because of this, the referee had no choice but to show a black card for the second Group III red card offense of disrupting order.

    I should reiterate that I make no judgment as to whether the first red card was appropriate. That said, Mr. Hadzic gave the referee an excuse to black card him with his hot-tempered remark. When you hand an unarmed man a loaded gun, your subsequent surprise at then being shot is a bit hollow.

  4. I have to say that based on the explanations of those you interviewed, and given what I know if each of them, (nothing of the fencers, but I do know and respect Charles Greene) I can’t imagine this not being a black card offense. There’s a rules book, and when you’re at a tournament that’s being judged by those rules you should fully expect to abide by those rules. When someone describes something you do as “When he was unhooking he dropped his mask a little harder than I would have liked…” You can’t “drop” a mask harder than you would have liked. Which means he threw it. Try to candy coat it all you want because you’ve been there before, but it is what it is which was a tantrum.

    That bout was likely already lost at 4-2, and to get upset about the card enough to rage about a POOL bout is pretty idiotic. Yes, I agree it was just a pool bout, so take your red card and the loss and move on to fence your next bout. Show a little self-control. Don’t throw a temper tantrum on the strip and expect the referees to just allow it because you think you deserve to win.

    There are three people that can change the outcome of any bout. Your opponent, the referee, and yourself. In my opinion Alen beat himself in that bout. He lost is temper and was given a card that he absolutely deserved.

  5. I’m not going to comment on a subjective decision by a referee, other than to say the referee should make the same call on the deciding touch as he would at 0-0.

    The issue, as I see it, regards an egregious conflict-of-interest on the bout committee. Certainly, no coach or administrator whose fencers could benefit from the decision should be involved.

    When I was Head Referee at the NCAAs, the bout committee/jury of appeal was comprised of the Head Referee and two other referees who weren’t involved in the bout. I’m not sure why this wasn’t the same at the NCAA Regionals. Hopefully, they mirror the NCAA going forward.

    • Mr. Bukantz, curious to hear your opinion since you’re a well-seasoned referee. On your strip, if a fencer says “Goddammit” to themselves, is that a card, or is “dammit” within the curing threshold you would tolerate? Thanks.

  6. Is fencing not the ‘sport of gentlemen’? Why are fencers even going that far as to verbally disrespect anyone during a competition? Especially at the collegiate level? Professional athletes look stupid when they argue with a referee – but at any level in any sport it shouldn’t be done. It isn’t in the spirit of competition to curse or swear, regardless of popular thought and action. Respect the sport. Respect your opponent. Stop with the selfish actions and I can guarantee that you would never get a card of any color.

  7. Again, I prefer not to criticize the ref in this incident, as I was not there.
    Personally, I prefer to speak to the fencer on the first offense. It is a combat sport, competed with extreme emotions, and a spontaneous reaction like that is borderline, at best.
    To answer your question directly, no, I would not card a fencer in either of your two examples, at least not for an isolated first time. It was not directed at the referee, Goddammit is not the same as a curse word, and it was in the heat of battle.
    That being said, the referee was well within rights to apply a penalty.

  8. As a witness to the whole event, and a fencing parent, I have to say that Alen’s oath was one of the slightest infraction’s for which I have ever seen a red card handed out. Alen’s remark was not particularly loud (relatively, in a noisy gym), nor aimed in any way at his opponent. Of course we live in a society where attitudes towards profanity vary widely – and one would guess are somewhat correlated with age. I was outraged by the injustice of the call, but it was obvious that there was nothing to be done and it was time for Alen to move on.

    Alen’s remark to the referee however was handing the referee a metaphorical blank check, as has been noted above, and it was no surprise that the referee responded in kind.

    The “trial” of the bout committee was the fascinating to watch, the first I have ever seen in 15 years of watching fencing. I was far enough away that I couldn’t hear anything being said so there is nothing to be added here, except no witnesses were interviewed and no representation was available for either party (probably a good thing). Altogether a sad affair, but a lesson was learned I’m sure.

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