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Olympic Memories: Three-Time Fencing Olympian Steve Mormando of NYU

Olympic Memories: Three-Time Fencing Olympian Steve Mormando of NYU

In spite of not taking up the sport of fencing until age 22, Steve Mormando qualified for the Summer Olympic Games three times and competed at the World Championships four times.

Admittedly, he took an unusual route to international success. His grandparents raised him on a horse farm and he worked six days a week on the farm with Sunday his only day off. "We had television stations from Philadelphia and New York," Mormando remembered. "There were cartoons on in the morning and then at 1 p.m., there would be sword movies with the likes of Errol Flynn. I would watch them and then go outside and battle the trees with a stick."

Mormando wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life, but he knew it was not working on the farm. He joined the Navy during the Vietnam era before returning home and attending Indian River Community College for two years. He played a lot of sports there, including volleyball, after only competing in chess in high school and though he fared well in several, he found his one sport. "When I picked up fencing, I was in the groove," he recalled. "Although I wasn't using proper form back on the farm of course, all those years in the trees strengthened muscles I didn't know I would use."

He transferred to Rutgers University, where he placed fourth in the Eastern Fencing Championships and 13th in the 1979 NCAA Fencing Championship. He was training hard in New York City his senior year. New York had long been a hotbed for fencing with top-notch Hungarian coaches Giorgio Santelli and Csaba Elthes training numerous Olympic fencers. 

While attending graduate school at NYU, Mormando took his fencing career to another level. "I started working hard and got a lot better very quickly," he said. "I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I started athletics way too late for other sports, but it worked out for fencing."

He began at NYU as an assistant coach in 1981-82 and that year attended the World Junior International Games as an athlete and a coach. He competed in the Pan America Games for the first time in 1983 in Caracas, Venezuela, where he helped lead the U.S. sabre team to a silver medal.

Qualifying for the Olympics is based solely on a point system with no subjective selections. "It is just a hard process," Mormando stated. "You have to gain World Cup points and U.S. points while traveling all over."

He was ranked No. 1 in points in the U.S. all three times he qualified for the Olympics, the first time being the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. "I loved it when everything was on the line," he said. "The bigger name the tournament, the more I liked it. A lot of guys would be practicing at the last minute, while I had my glove and was throwing the ball around with a friend. They thought I was crazy."

Mormando credits his success in those big tournaments to several factors. "A lot contributed to that," he commented. "Good coaches, good teammates, and the years I served in the Navy. When you are in the Navy, anything can happen at any time. I had the attitude that a lot of the spoiled kids didn't have. A lot of them had not been through the hard knocks."

Through all his experiences and international competitions, one moment forever stands out in Mormando's mind as his favorite. "Walking into the gate in Los Angeles for the opening ceremony was the number one experience of my athletic life," he said. "It blew all of us away. Every star in Hollywood was around the track. We were wishing we could be them and they were wishing they could be us. There was nothing going through our minds at that time. We were so overwhelmed." He finished 12th in the sabre, while the U.S. team placed sixth in the weapon.

He walked in nearly 10 opening ceremonies in international competition. "It was always great to qualify, but walking in was the best experience." Mormando, who captured the 1987 U.S. National Sabre Championship, finished 16th in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea and 34th in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Mormando helped the U.S. to silver medals in the team sabre in two more Pan American Games, 1987 in Indianapolis and in 1991 in Havana, Cuba. He won the gold medal in the sabre in 1991. "Once I heard the national anthem playing, it had me in tears," he recalled. 

He has earned 17 U.S. Olympic Festival Championship medals and in U.S. national competitions, Mormando has accumulated a total of 34 medals, including the silver he won in the team competition at the 2003 U.S. nationals. 

In 2005, Mormando won the bronze medal at the Veterans (over-50) World Championships in Tampa, Fla. He won the gold medal at the 1998 Nike World Masters Games in Portland, Ore., defeating 1980 Olympic sabre team gold medalist Nikolay Alyokhin of Belarus 15-12 to win the championship. 

He has found great success since taking over the NYU head coaching duties for the women in 1982-83 and the men in 1987-88, producing six NCAA champions and 40 All-Americans. In the 16 years in which a UAA Fencing Championship was held (1987-88 through 2002-03), Mormando led his men's team to 15 titles and the women's squad to 10 titles. He coached 46 UAA individual weapon champions, while he and his assistants were named UAA Coaching Staff of the Year 11 times.

"Coaching is far more stressful than competing," Mormando remarked. "When I am competing, it is my personality and my ability taking care of me, my country, and my teammates. It is incredible how easy that is. Coaching is different. It is hard to show 17-to-21-year-olds what they need to do to succeed. I am just watching them."

"I have always been a strategist and 'tactition' from my chess days," he said. "Some student-athletes tell me that they don't know what they are doing in a match and need a game plan. That is kind of fun, but more so for me than the athlete. It is best when they are figuring it out on their own and coming up with a solution, but boy is that stressful!"

The NCAA Fencing Championship is an all-division competition, but Mormando is happy to be where he is, coaching in Division III. "Doing it at NYU has been an incredible pleasure," he said. "You don't have to worry about any of the dirty stuff. With NYU and UAA student-athletes, you can help them, nurture them, and be a family. That is one of the things I am most proud of. Student-athletes come into this program and understand it is a family. Then they come back and support the program year after year."

A very young NYU squad placed 13th at the 2016 NCAA Fencing Championship, not far from becoming the 13th of Mormando's teams to finish in the top-10 at nationals. "This is a group of incredibly hard workers," Mormando stated. "We are very excited about the future."