En Garde! Fencing Club’s David Guardino
Coach refuses to let challenges stand in his way
It’s a Wednesday night in the three-court gym at FitRec, and the Fencing Club is making its usual racket. Weapons clatter and clang as students spar; scoring machines beep when a target is hit. Coach David Guardino, wearing a white fencing jacket, padded glove, and baggy shorts, is at the back of the room with a half-dozen foil fencers. He faces Becca Lauzon (CAS’13), and they both pull a protective mask down over their face.
“Are we …” she starts to ask, wondering if they will be practicing a move or simply sparring. In a moment, a woman dressed in street clothes appears at her side, facing Guardino. “Are we just fencing?” Lauzon continues. Guardino watches the woman, then nods to Lauzon, and the two begin.
The unusual exchange is one of very few indications that Guardino (CAS’08) is not a typical coach. He has a hearing loss, and he communicates during the club’s practices and competitions with the help of a sign language interpreter, almost always Caity Cross-Hansen.
Guardino, who fenced with the club as a BU student and has been coach since 2009, does hear sounds and can read lips. But because the gym is such a noisy place and because all fencers must wear masks, making it nearly impossible to see their faces, he relies on an unmasked signer to tell him what’s being said.
“When I first started fencing, I didn’t have an interpreter,” he says. “I didn’t have one until my last year, when we had a Russian coach, and I realized I couldn’t understand him at all. I thought I could coach without one, but after my first week or so, I realized I couldn’t hear anything over the sound.”
“Caity has a good rapport with the fencers and me,” Guardino says. “She knows the sport and the coaches.”
The strategy works. Guardino now teaches some 40 students the art of foil, épée, and saber. (Each weapon is different, and each has its own set of rules.) They describe their coach as knowledgeable and enthusiastic and say communication is rarely a problem. And, the fencers say, they are happy to learn a little sign language along the way.
“What’s best about him is that he can walk up to anyone, watch them fence, and critique them,” says club president Bryan Turcotte (CAS’11), “and it’s never a nerve-wracking experience.”
Ralph Conserva describes Guardino not just as a coach, but as a mentor. “There were a lot of issues with my style when fencing that he was able to point out early, unlike any other coach I have had in the past,” says Conserva (SMG’13), who started the sport as a high school freshman. “Because of him, I do believe I am not only a better fencer, but a better athlete in general.”
Guardino, who hails from Pine Brook, N.J., was born with a hearing loss. Both his parents and his sister are Deaf.
“I grew up in a hearing environment, even though my family is Deaf,” says Guardino, who wears two hearing aids. “I had a lot of speech therapy. All of my friends are hard of hearing, and we talk and sign.”
He attended a public high school with a program for Deaf students. And while he was busy with extracurricular activities—he was a peer leader, editor of a newsletter for the Deaf, and a member of the fishing club and the academic bowl—he didn’t play any sports. “I was the least athletic kid in school,” Guardino says. “I just liked reading.”
But when he started his sophomore year at BU, he decided to try a physical activity and joined a fencing class. After a few weeks, he was hooked. He liked that it was an individual sport and that he could proceed at his own pace. “You don’t need to hear anything,” he adds. “There are a lot of visual cues.”
But there were challenges. During a bout, a foil fencer scores a point when the tip of his blade hits his opponent’s torso. A scoring machine lights up and beeps, and the director watching the match calls, “Halt.” Guardino could hear neither. “It’s usually not until the other fencer says stop, and I think, OK, it’s time for me to stop,” he says. “But I always warned the director beforehand that I’m Deaf.”
After graduating, Guardino, who lives in Allston, stopped fencing; most area clubs are not easily accessible by public transportation. So when he was asked to coach the BU club last year, he didn’t hesitate. “I miss fencing. I love fencing. I love the club,” says Guardino, a hard of hearing independent living specialist and youth education project outreach specialist at DEAF, Inc., an agency that provides programs, services, and continuing education to those who are Deaf or have a hearing loss.
Coaching at times presents its own challenge. When a time-out is called during tournaments (the club participates in about five each year), only one person is allowed to approach the fencing strip, or playing area. Coaches often objected when both Guardino and Cross-Hansen tried to talk to a competing BU fencer. “Last year, when I was still new, most coaches didn’t know I had an interpreter,” he says. “I’d say, ‘I can’t talk to my fencer if she’s not there.’ Over time, they understood.”
At the club’s four-night-a-week practices, Guardino and Cross-Hansen incorporate some sign language into each lesson. “Last year, everybody kept coming to me and asking, ‘What’s the sign for so and so,’” he says. “We thought it would be good for the kids to learn.”
After warm-ups, stretches, and footwork, they teach the students how to count or how to say, “ready,” “okay,” “sorry,” and “understand.” Signs for words particular to the sport don’t exist, so Guardino and Cross-Hansen made them up. The sign for “saber,” for example, is a fist with the forefinger and pinky pointed straight up, like a saber-toothed tiger.
“It builds the relationship between the students and coach,” says Cross-Hansen. “A lot of kids are talking about taking sign language classes.”
Conserva says that in the beginning, he found it somewhat difficult to relay his thoughts to Guardino. “I tend to be more soft-spoken in one-on-one situations,” he says. “Over the past few weeks, Caity has been teaching me some basic signs, making it much easier for us to understand each other from a distance. It has been a learning experience for both of us.” As a result, he says, communication has greatly improved.
“His overall demeanor is wonderful,” says Turcotte, who has been fencing for seven years. “Maybe it’s the way he handles himself, or just his general humor about everything, but just working with Dave is a great experience.”
Guardino says what he enjoys most about coaching the club is seeing fencers develop as athletes. “We have a lot of people come in with no fencing experience,” he says, “and they’re very awkward. But when they reach a point where they’ll go all-out and do what it takes to win, that’s when it feels good.”
The Boston University Fencing Club competes in the Northeast Fencing Conference Meet No. 1 on Saturday, November 20, at 9 a.m. at MIT’s Johnson Athletic Center, 120 Vassar St., second floor, Cambridge. Other teams competing include Sacred Heart University, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Brandeis University, University of New Hampshire, Brown University, and Boston College. The event is free and open to the public.+ Comments