It's more than a little ironic that George Mason University's first National Collegiate Athletic Association championship came via a nonscholarship foreign student who does much of his training in a private club. GMU is largely a commuter school trying to build its major athletic programs by recruiting local athletes and expanding its sports facilities.
The student is Alexander (Sasha) Flom, 22, a USSR native from Kiev who has been in the United States less than three years. His sport is fencing, and he recently proved he is the best in the country by sweeping the national championships, held in March at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.
"This year I knew I could win it," said Flom, who finished third in the NCAA finals last year. Going into the third and final day of competition this year, Flom needed to win only two of his remaining eight bouts. "That was the best feeling--after the second day," he said. "I knew then that I would do it."
On that third day Flom, who won 22 of 23 regular-season bouts, beat his first two opponents to clinch the title and then breezed through his remaining six bouts for good measure. Tournament officials named him Outstanding Fencer of the Year.
If winning the national championship was the high point of Flom's career, the low point came three years ago when Flom, his parents and his older brother left the Soviet Union to start life anew in the United States.
"I'm a Jew, and it is not good to be a Jew in Russia," Flom explained. "There's not really much future for young people there. I didn't want to have to join the Russian army and wind up in Afghanistan somewhere."
The family arrived in New York in June 1979 and was taken to housing sponsored by an organization for immigrant Jews. No one in the family was fluent in English. "It was late at night when we arrived," Flom recalled, "and we rode in a bus through Brooklyn. We didn't know for sure where we were going. I remember wondering if we had made a mistake."
But Flom says his sense of loss came more from leaving his friends than from the change of country. In fact, he says, his family left the Soviet Union largely at his urging.
"I wanted to leave Russia because I knew what it was like on the outside," said Flom, who at 16 attained the rank of Master of Sport in the USSR. "As an athlete, I had traveled to Europe a few times," he said. "I had met people from all over."
In New York, Flom found he had to concentrate on his studies at an English-language school, and he put aside the sport he had loved since age 11. But in the fall of 1979, Flom heard from Emil Kaidanov, a fencer and a friend of Flom's coach in the USSR, who knew that Flom was in New York.
Kaidanov, who had left the Soviet Union for the United States at about the same time as Flom, was working as an instructor at Salle d'Armes Fencing Academy near Tysons Corner. The owner of the academy, Michel Mamlouk, is the fencing coach at GMU.
Kaidanov told Flom about GMU's fencing program and persuaded him to visit the campus. The rest is history--for both Flom and GMU.
Flom, now a junior at GMU and one of nine men on the school's fencing team, is majoring in computer science and enjoying life as a bachelor in a Fairfax town house he shares with some friends.
Sometimes, according to Mamlouk, he enjoys life too much.
"Sasha is well-schooled in every area of fencing except in the management department," Mamlouk said. "Sometimes I have to sit on him. He was in Russia for so long that now he occasionally goes off the deep end with all that is available to him."
Though he has a year of eligibility left at GMU, Flom says he may concentrate on international competition next year and aim for the Pan Am and World University games. And in training for competition, Flom says, he practices at least 18 hours each week.
"Sasha is fast, accurate, with good reflexes and intelligence," said Mamlouk. "He understands that fencing is like a precision watch--you can't be too wide or too narrow."
Flom says his major strength "is an ability to read my opponent's mind. . . . I can determine quickly what an opponent will do. My biggest weakness is that I cannot always control myself so I can take advantage of my opponent's move.
"You have to learn to react in a way that you would normally not react. When someone throws something at you, you naturally want to duck. In fencing you might just move a little to the side and then counter, or step back and see what they do 9ext.
"In fencing you have to learn to make very quick decisions."