I’ve been trying to write this post for a few days now, hoping it would get easier, but it really hasn’t. Finally I’ve just decided to knuckle down and write it, because I really feel I need to. Last Saturday Pete Conomikes, the long time coach for William and Mary Fencing, was killed in a car crash while driving to a fencing meet in Pennsylvania. Pete meant a lot to more people than I could count, and I think most of us who knew him secretly thought that he would live forever.
When I first met Pete, he was 80 years old, and yet somehow even at that age, he was coaching the Fencing team. I honestly don’t remember what my first impression was, but I’m sure I was skeptical that someone that old could coach such an active sport. I can’t remember what I thought, because those initial preconceived notions couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. At 80 years old, Pete could kick the ass of anyone on the team. He was fast, agile, strong, and tireless. New members of the team always heard legends of his exploits, one of the most colorful being that he would smoke like a chimney under his mask while besting two students, a sword in each hand. The thing was, you never quite believed they were only legends. I remember several occasions when Pete would parry or thrust so quickly and so perfectly that I barely saw the action itself, his only remark, “When I was younger, I could do that quickly.” He was simply superhuman, moving faster and with more strength at over 80 years old than most people can manage in their prime.
His long life was filled with the kind of adventure that most of us can only read about in books. As a veteran from both World War II in the Navy and Vietnam in the Army, and later a member of the CIA, one can only begin to imagine his exploits as a younger man. As a fencer he began fencing with the Columbia University team, was A rated in all three weapons at one point, and winning competitions until he retired in 1986. Combined with the fact that he was still an amazing athlete at over 80 years of age, you can begin to see where the legends might have started, and why they were probably all true.
I was neither a very talented fencer, nor the best student, and to tell the truth I often wondered why Pete had picked me to join the team at tryouts. It wasn’t a question I ever asked, however, because despite my lack of skill, and the time it took me to learn the foot and blade work that was required, Pete always had time to work with me. I never questioned it, I was just thankful to have such a great teacher to guide me, and Pete was more than a great teacher, he was damn near perfect. He was never easy, and would push you until you got it right, and you would always tire before he did. All to often I was whacked over the mask with his Epee because I was slipping back into old habits that ruined my form, or slowed my response. I remember him repeating the same phrase for days as we practiced, “Your point should be DESCENDING as you are EXTENDING,” as I struggled to get my extensions correct. Even when I managed one correctly, he would make me repeat it until I had everything right consistently every time. It was incredibly frustrating, but I was learning, and when I finally got it correct his simple praise of “Good,” and then moving on to the next technique was worth more than you can imagine.
Pete inspired love and loyalty in all of his students. He was hard because he knew it would make you learn, and his praise was rare enough that when he gave it, you knew he meant it. It was all of the little things he did too, like the fact that he assembled all of our weapons personally. I still remember him pulling me aside and giving me my first Epee. It was an amazing experience, something I still think back to. Pete gave so much to the program, because he loved the sport, and loved the team. Even when the college canceled Fencing as a varsity sport in 1990 (due to Title IX restrictions), Pete continued to coach, using donations to continue the program.
Thank you Pete for over 35 years of commitment to William and Mary, for the thousands of lives you have touched, and for all you have taught us all. You will be missed.
My thoughts and prayers go out to all who loved Pete, and especially to the families of the fencers in the accident with him. I will be praying for their speedy recovery.