In this excerpt from Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who
Made a Difference, published by Warner Books in November 2005,
Jonathan Ames ’87 describes his “commando training” with his fencing
coach, Michel Sebastiani. Sebastiani is retiring at the end of
this season after 24 years at Princeton.
“Pull your balls in. Create a band of steel from the hips on down.”
“Yes, Coach,” I said. And I sucked in my balls and I assumed my
en garde position. Then the coach came at me with his heavy
lead bar and I retreated. He swung the bar at my ribs and I parried
it with the guard of my sabre. There was a great clang of metal.
I held the parry. I was strong, powerful, youthful the sabre weapon-leader
of the Princeton fencing team, 198384. These were the days when
I was fit, an athlete, my body uncorrupted by age and drinking and
The coach attacked me this way up and down the floor of the fencing
room. I parried his blows and then I would riposte return with
my counterattacks: chops to his mask, slashes across his belly,
cuts to his rib cage, and slices down his shoulders. He was wearing
the thick leather suit of a coach so that I wouldn’t raise welts
on his body. And he was using the lead bar to make me strong, inviolable.
“Commando,” he’d say every few minutes to urge me on, to keep me
The coach and I would practice like this at six in the morning.
Just he and I alone, no one else from the team. It was my special
commando training to turn me into a champion on the fencing strip.
The coach, a Frenchman, had been a commando in the French-Algerian
war. And he believed in fitness and combat even more than most fencing
coaches. He was in his early fifties, but was still in trim, fighting
shape, and he was a good-looking man, even though he was bald. He
bore a resemblance to Sean Connery, but his eyes didn’t twinkle
like Connery’s they were cool and gray, assassin-like and somewhat
After my morning lesson, we’d sit in his office and cool down.
My legs would be swollen and exhausted from fencing you develop
incredibly muscular thighs and calves, since in the en garde
position you are always crouching, always maintaining one’s
groin in a band of steel. I would drink some water and the coach
with his beautiful bald head glistening with sweat would regale
me with long-winded war tales from his days in Algeria. He spoke
in a thick French accent and often told me the same story perhaps
because of battle trauma he was somewhat repetitive.
“We were making our way through this little village, which we had
seized,” he would say. “We were checking the buildings for snipers.
I was carrying my rifle, of course. Always ready. Always alert.
But then suddenly there was a great searing pain in my buttocks.
I’ve been shot, I thought. But then I realized I was flying through
the air. I was 20 feet off the ground; I saw my men below me. Was
it a mortar? No it was an electric cable that had come undone
and it had whipped through the air and bit me like a black snake.
Thousands of volts I received and so I was flying. But I landed,
like a cat, on my feet, ready to fight, to survive. A commando.”
When I’d leave the coach, I’d jog slowly back to my dorm, furthering
my conditioning. Then in my room, I’d do 100 push-ups, even though
my right arm, especially, was aching from parrying the coach’s lead
bar. I was driving myself like this because I was bent on revenge.
I wanted to defeat all my opponents, but I had become fixated most
of all on destroying the number-one sabre fencer at Columbia George
Leary. For years, he’d been beating me in national competitions
when we were both in high school, and he had continued his dominance
our first year in college. I had never beaten him in more than a
dozen bouts. But now my sophomore year, 1983, I wanted to end his
dominance of me. I wasn’t going to lose to him again.
What had made his reign over me so dreadful was that he was not
an athlete, at least in my arrogant eyes. He was chubby and his
face was pasty. He would whine to the judges during his bouts, and
then politic with them afterwards. And on the fencing strip, he
was savvy and tricky, not graceful. He grew up in New York City
and before attending Columbia he had studied with a famous exiled
Hungarian sabre master and had learned many exotic moves. So even
though Leary was fat and ignoble, he was unbeatable, one of the
best in the country. Also, he had snubbed me once at a party at
the Junior Olympics in 1981 in Cleveland. Claimed to have forgotten
my name. I detested George Leary.
The meet against Columbia was scheduled for late February. The
season began in November and I trained hard all those months. And
in practice every afternoon, I, as the weapon-leader, challenged
my sabre squad to keep up with me. I gave them all nicknames: Sir
Gawain, Green Knight, Black Knight, Lancelot, Don Quixote and
myself, I called El Cid. Don Quixote, a lumbering freshman, bore
a passing resemblance to Leary and I would take great pleasure in
chopping my blade against his ribs and slashing his ample belly.
Against the other teams the Penns and Yales and Harvards I
was doing very well, winning three-quarters of all my bouts, but
always I was aiming toward my confrontation with my Columbia nemesis.
The school newspaper, the Princetonian, caught wind of my
nickname and they would dutifully report that Jonathan “El Cid”
Ames had thoroughly vanquished his opponents. And along with my
pretentious nickname, I tended to be theatrical on the fencing strip.
I was very much caught up in the myth of sword fighting and whenever
I struck my foes, I would scream in French, “Et làaa!” which
sounded like, “Aye lah!” French is the language of fencing,
all its terms are Gallic, and “et là” is often shouted by
fencers it means, “And there!” as in “And there! Take that, you
swine.” I just happened to scream “Et là!” louder than most.
Two days before the big Columbia meet it was unusually warm and
I took my sabre squad out to our ancient football field, Palmer
Stadium. I had us climb to the top of the bleachers, and then over
a wall. At the very top, the stadium was surrounded with what looked
like the battlements of a castle. I had us duel up there and we
engaged in a dangerous free-for-all of three against three. I drove
my teammates to the edge of the battlements, slashing at them with
mania and bloodlust; it would have been tragic had I sent one of
them falling five stories to his death.
Finally, the day of the Columbia meet arrived. The coach, like
myself, was particularly anxious for a victory against the Lions.
We were the underdogs and this fueled the coach’s commando spirit.
Also, he and the Columbia coach had once, in their past, been romantic
rivals for the affection of a certain lady, and so the lingering
effects of this old romantic triangle added to the drama and pathos
of the whole thing, which is what sex will always do. Add drama
and pathos, that is. In short, my coach wanted to win. He wanted
me to win. I sat near him on the van ride up to New York and he
told me another war tale: “We were in a marketplace and I saw this
Algerian sneaking up on one of my men with a knife; so I moved like
a cat and came out with my own knife one, two, one, two. And he
went down. But I didn’t kill him. I could have if I wanted to. But
I had control of my blade, and we had him arrested. You, ‘El Cid,’
must control your blade to beat Leary.”
When we got to the gym, the Columbia team was nowhere to be seen.
We started warming up and then the room was filled with music
Wagner’s eerie “Ride of the Valkyries.” Then the Columbia team raced
into the gym, all of them resplendent in their white uniforms, waving
their weapons above their heads, and they circled us. And all the
while Wagner’s horrible music played. We were supposed to be scared.
But in my case, it only made me hate them even more made me think
of them as storm troopers, and Leary as a corpulent Gestapo chief.
The meet began. In fencing there are three weapons: foil, épée,
and sabre. In foil only the blunt tip of the blade is used and the
target area is the torso. In épée, like foil, only the tip is used,
but the whole body is the target. And in sabre one can use the tip,
but the primary way to score is to cut and slash. The target area
is everything above the waist, including the head and the hands.
We had our opening rounds of all three weapons; in my first bout,
I faced the number-two Columbia sabre man and I lost. I was too
hyped-up wanting Leary. Then the second round came, and as a team
we were behind and we needed a victory. I was scheduled to face
Leary. The moment had arrived. Before going on the strip for my
bout, I asked a teammate on the épée squad to punch me in the face.
He was a strong fellow he had attended a Texas military high school,
which had toughened him up considerably and he gave me a really
good shot to the cheekbone. A little too hard, actually. But it
got my blood racing and I put on my mask and went out to face my
As per custom, at the start of the bout, I saluted Leary by bringing
my sabre to my mask, though I was leering at him through the iron
mesh, and then I saluted the director. Bouts are refereed by a director
who determines which fencer has initiated the attack and which fencer
has scored. He watches keenly to see if one’s blows land or are
parried; and when I was fencing, the sabre blades were not yet electronically
rigged up, unlike foil and épée, and so the director was aided by
four judges. This made sabre fencing at the time the least modern
and also the most exciting; it was the closest thing to real dueling.
The director was a Holocaust survivor and a legendary person in
the fencing world. He was bald and had a strange lump on his forehead.
With his German accent, he began the bout by saying in French, “Allez!”
Leary and I began our dance, our movements back and forth. The
first one to score five touches would win. I was deep in my crouch,
my band of steel keeping my balls in and lowering my center of gravity
so that I could spring out and catch him by surprise. I scored the
first touch by feinting to his head and then cutting his exposed
ribs. Then I scored the second touch with a beautiful riposte to
his head. I was up 20, and with each touch I would scream, “Et
Làaa!” Then we exchanged touches and I was up 31. Leary rallied
and tied me, 33. Everyone in the gym, about 200 Columbia fans,
were watching our bout and they were cheering against me. My teammates
were shouting, “Go, El Cid!”
I went ahead 43 by chasing Leary down the strip and then executing
a beautiful flèche with an attack to his shoulder. Flèche
means arrow, and that’s when you literally leap at your opponent,
both feet going in the air, so that ideally you appear like an arrow.
Then Leary parried my next attack and cut me across the arm with
his riposte. It was tied 44. The next touch would end the bout,
and when you are at 44, the director calls it La Belle,
because the next touch is the beautiful touch, the final touch,
and in real dueling it would be the death blow.
The coach called time out and came on the strip. He gave me advice
in French, and I was too frantic and mad to understand a word of
it. But I nodded as if I did, so he walked away from me, but then
he turned and looked at me with his cool gray eyes and he said under
his breath, “Commando.”
I felt like the electric cable had struck me in the ass I assumed
my en garde position, I tightened my band of steel. “Allez!”
commanded the director. Leary came after me; he pushed me to the
end of the strip. I sensed he was going to try his patented attack
to cut my left arm. But if I overcompensated with my parry he would
then deftly cut my right arm. I waited for him and then he sprang;
he was quick and deadly when he needed to be. I met his blade. I
didn’t overcompensate. The clang of metal was astounding—I had him
parried. He was mine. He was off balance and his head was only a
foot from our locked blades. All I had to do was move my sabre efficiently
and directly to his mask and for once I would beat him. But something
primitive happened to me I reared my arm back like a man lifting
an axe over his head to chop wood, and this was foolish, it left
me exposed. But Leary didn’t react and so I brought my blade down
with the tremendous force of a woodcutter on his head and my blade
snapped in two. I saw silver glistening in the air as the severed
portion went over the hysterical crowd. But it counted, I had broken
my blade over his head, and I was bellowing, “ET LÀAAA!!!”
Leary was woozy, and I was so passionate that I was pumping my
now jagged and dangerous sabre up and down. And later I was told
that it looked as if I was going to run Leary through. His father,
who had paid for all those lessons with the Hungarian master, was
shouting irrationally, “His blade is broken! His blade is broken!”
But I didn’t stab Leary, and the ancient director with the odd
lump on his forehead shouted above all the screaming and said, “Touch
to the left, to Princeton!”
And my teammates lifted me up and I shouted again, “Et là!”
It was the most glorious moment of my athletic career, and then
from my teammates’ shoulders I looked down and saw Leary. His mask
was off; his hair was matted with sweat. I reached out my hand and
said graciously, “Good bout.” I hardly meant it, though, but it
was the right thing to do, and Leary shook my hand and then my teammates
carried me away. I had my vengeance!
When my teammates lowered me, my coach, maintaining his commando-ish
dignity, calmly shook my hand, but I could see that his cool eyes
were quite happy.
A few years ago at a dinner party, I reenacted this story using
my steak knife as a substitute sabre. A woman at the party said
she knew George Leary. She later got in touch with him and when
she recounted my story, he claimed not to remember me.
Jonathan Ames ’87 is the author of six books; his most recent
are Wake Up, Sir! (a novel) and I Love You More Than
You Know (essays). He is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship
and is a recurring guest on the Late Show with David Letterman.
He was a member of the Princeton fencing team in 1982-83 and 1983-84.
His Web site is http://www.jonathanames.com/
From the book COACH: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a
Difference, edited by Andrew Blauner. “The Duel” (c) 2005 by
Jonathan Ames. Reprinted by permission of Warner Books, New York,
N.Y. All rights reserved .