Lessons from The Master

Emil Beck, the obsessive West German coach, turns out the world's best fencers at his Tauberbischofsheim training center
Emil Beck, the obsessive West German coach, turns out the world's best fencers at his Tauberbischofsheim training center
September 13, 1988

It is going to happen—why even try to oppose it? They are carrying off the Soviet, he is dying from a foil plunged into his skull, and now everyone is blinking and twitching and gasping like goldfish tumbled from a bowl.

Carry on, that's what we must do, the West German coach, the most successful fencing coach in the world, is thinking. Isn't this the world championships? The Soviets have an alternate fencer, the West Germans have one too, and are leading the match 2-1, no, sir, we cannot just. . . .

Oh, poor Matthias, like a son to me you are! It was not your fault, boy, don't punish yourself. You both just happened to lunge simultaneously, and your foil hit him in the chest and snapped, and the jagged end punctured his helmet and. . . .

But we have to continue, men. Let Matthias go rest, but we cannot all just call it quits here. We've all worked too hard to go home without a single medal, and besides—listen to me!—the best way to put this horror behind you is to pick up your weapons and fence, right now, before the numbness spreads to your fingers and toes, before it freezes up your fighting souls forever.

Don't look at me that way! I'm not a monster, I'm not a ghoul! Gey, we must go on, do you hear me? Pusch, don't just stand there, go get your épée!

Yes, it is happening now, he cannot help it. Like an apple baking, Emil Beck's great round head is reddening, his squat legs are beginning to pace, his thick arms starting to cut the air to pieces. Oh how they'll talk one day, he can hear them already: Did you see Beck at the 1982 world championships in Rome? The Soviet was dying—you remember that terrible accident, don't you?—and that madman was shouting at his fencers that they must not call off the match, they've got to continue.

Well, let them talk. The elitists, they say he has degraded the sport, stripped its swordplay of its elegance with his system of lightning-swift and odd-angled parries; robbed it of its regality by opening its door to the rabble; shorn it of its sophistication by affixing sponsors' logos to every bare T-shirt and wall he can find. The other fencers, they carp about the Mercedes-Benzes his athletes drive and the advantages the judges seem to give them. The press and West Germany's fencing federation, oh, how they mutter about all the money he draws to his center, a human magnet for deutsche marks, and about all the fencers he is inducing to quit rival coaches and join his club, and all the tantrums he throws when the scoring does not go his way.

Yes, let them talk. Their jealousy is his highest honor, the emerald of their envy glitters brighter than all the gold and silver of his medals and pins. Soon they will grow weary of talking, and then they must listen to the facts.

Listen: At the 1976 Olympics, nine fencers from Beck's national fencing center in Tauberbischofsheim in southern West Germany won 11 individual and team medals, including five golds. At the '84 Los Angeles Games, 11 of his fencers won 12 medals, seven of them gold. There are 27 other first-tier fencing clubs in West Germany, yet in the '88 Seoul Games, 13 of the country's 20 fencers will be from Tauberbischofsheim, including the favorites for gold medals in épée and foil, Alexander Pusch, the '76 Olympic gold medalist, and Mathias Gey.

Listen: Tauberbischofsheimis a town of 12,000 people.

Yes, let them talk, their gossip proves our glory; we drink their insults in like rain. So Pusch, get your épée; Gey, take up your foil! Trust me, men, the only way to forget is to continue; the only weapon a man has against memory is work.

To his right rushes the river Tauber. In his face blows the winter wind. Around him the naked vineyards rise and fall and rise again, forcing him to stand and grunt and drive his feet against the pedals. It is a hilly 22-mile trip from Tauberbischofsheim to Bad Mergentheim and back, and the teenager bicycles it every other day.

Emil's father sneers at this. Children who see Emil dressed in his ragged fencing suit of flour sacks stitched together by his sister laugh, too. Let them scoff—he has the glow inside him. It has been there for a few months now, ever since he slipped into a seat at the cinema that night and saw it unfold before him, a newsreel before the movie he had come to see, a world he never knew existed. How graceful the movements of those two men clutching swords on the screen, how sudden the thrusts, how rich the clang of steel! Chink! Chink-chink! Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh-haiyaaaaaaa! He had returned to the theater the next day and left before the movie even started, just to glimpse this lovely dance again.

So what does he care that the nearest fencing teacher lives 11 miles away? Hah, that man, too, thinks Emil will soon surrender this crazy notion. They'll see. They'll see.

Where does this teenager, so short and slight, get such energy? The people of Tauberbischofsheim wonder. Just to be 16 and alive in the Beck clan is triumph enough. Every few years that poor family has another procession, another tiny, dark box to drop into the earth. Emil is the youngest of 13 children, six of them dead in childhood.

It is 1951. The people around him wear a stunned look, as if awakening from a dream. The war has just left Germany, the occupiers have gone, too—all that remains is a vague spiritual sickness, a groping to forget, a groping for a reason to push on. And there goes the Beck's youngest one, dashing out of his father's barber shop where he apprentices until 7 p.m., jumping on his bicycle, pumping through the dusk and up the hills, burning up the potatoes his father sometimes traded old pants and shirts to obtain.

Emil has always been the wildest Beck, so uncontrollable in kindergarten he had been thrown out after five days; so wild at home his older brothers would leash him to a tree with the goats.

Fencing, that was perfect for a boy such as he: not a common passion nor a team venture like soccer, which all the boys played; more like a treasure chest to which he alone in his village held the key. After all, it had been only two years since a German was even allowed to wield a sword, fencing having been banned by the Allied powers in the postwar dismantling of Germany. Too much ugliness was associated with the sword. Many of the Nazis' highest military officials had proudly borne cheek scars inflicted during a bastardized version of fencing that they had pursued in the universities—duels in which fraternity members challenged one another to stand a few feet apart, each man hacking at his opponent with their faces unprotected until one of them was bloodied or humiliated into stepping backward.

The sport the fencing teacher is trying to steep Emil in is different, something nobler, more lyrical. Ach, but this Beck is an odd one, rash and restless and eager to do it his own way, no ear at all for what the lords have deigned. Why does a man need to hold the foil with his fingers? Because the French did? Pah. Your fingers get tired that way; why not use the palm of the hand? And why thrust the blade only from here? Because the Hungarians and Italians did? My god, if it will bring you a hit, why not jab the thing at them from behind your back? He scours libraries for books, pesters trainers in other cities, makes himself the maverick, the German barber's son unbound by any fencing law.

In three years, by age 19, the student turns coach; he can nod his head yes for only so long. He organizes a fencing club in Tauberbischofsheim, cuts hair from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., wolfs down bratwurst and bread, then hurries to the boiler room beneath the grammar school for training. Snip, snip, snip. Herr Beck gives the fastest haircut in the valley, as impatient with a pair of scissors in his hand as with a foil, cajoling the men and women, as he buzzes and clips about their ears, to try his sport, just once. Herr Schmidt—no?—then what about your son?

How they laugh in Heidelberg when these farmers clomp into their fencing hall, led by that short, crude young man, that barber. How they chortle as they slice up his team, 15-1, "holding their noses up so high they gathered rain,” he would growl years later. How they splutter and choke, two years later, when the barber and his farmers beat them!

Is it Beck or the steam pipes that radiate so much heat in that little cellar room, pushing the temperature some nights to 110 degrees? His voice booms off the walls, urging his charges to move faster, faster, the taller ones cringing from his anger, and, too, so that their heads won't scrape the low ceiling. No one is immune from his fever. In 1960, while training in the Black Forest, he meets a 19-year-old woman named Karin Lohring, a runner and long jumper on a Frankfurt track team. In four months they are married. In no time at all they are clanging foils in the garage. Sometimes, in his rush to teach her, he reduces her to tears.

But this will not do. To make a champion, he must have someone younger, softer putty he can mold. He begins persuading little children in the village to drop by. He flips five balls into the air and watches; those who catch two, he keeps. To them he becomes a father, frets over their schooling, arranges jobs, does favors. "You must train, you have no choice!" he would bark at an 11-year-old boy named Matthias Behr, who would one day be an Olympic medalist (and in 1982 would be involved in the still-haunting bout at the world championships that ended in death for Vladimir Smirnov). Then he would give the boy a little smack across the cheek and trundle away with that queer rolling gait, a pirate crossing seas forever choppy.

His own sons? "'I have many sons,' he'd tell my brother and me, and I'd get jealous," his son Rene, now 22, would one day recall. "Always I would have to say, 'Hey, Papa,' three times before he'd come back to our world." Rene and Karin would chase him into that world, each learning fencing and becoming administrators in his empire. Frank, five years older than Rene, would learn to fence, too, but eventually would leave to study chemistry in Wurzburg.

Less and less does he have time to teach the sport, more and more does he race across West Germany, imploring cabinet ministers and corporate executives for money. Money for training expenses, equipment and travel; money to spring his growing club out of that tiny boiler room. He begins to do his jousting in candlelit restaurants, packing away platefuls of pigs' feet and washing them down with a couple of mugs of beer; telling jokes, bellowing out a German folk song like a ship's horn, the sharp edge of his charisma probing the money men for softness. Daimler-Benz, Du Pont, Sony and Adidas say yes, banks and bread companies, brewers of beer and distillers of schnapps join, too, 52 sponsors in all spreading their names and jingles across his walls. Oh what contacts he cultivates: You name one other German fencing coach who could slap Chancellor Kohl on the back and address him with the informal Du, instead of Sie.

Each dream he dreams he chases down, possesses, then redreams it with an annex. His own fencing center? In 1971 that comes, sprawling amid the apple trees on the edge of Tauberbischofsheim. Then a cafeteria, weight room, physiotherapy department, photographers' lab. A soccer field, basketball and tennis courts, a dormitory, sauna, massage room, a weapon repair shop, a computerized Cybex and a pulsimeter to monitor the condition of his fencers. A boarding school with three full-time teachers to oversee the fencers' studies, a fleet of 12 cars and four Mercedes buses to take the children home after dinner, with some 30 more Mercedes either free or leased cheaply to fencers, according to their status.

More medals, more money, more pressure. "To complete his lessons you have to be a machine," sighs Gey, 28, current world foil champion, schooled by Beck since the age of 2 1/2. "We do everything so fast and hard, there is barely time to breathe. He works so many hours, he doesn't understand that we have lives outside of fencing."

Who else but Beck, after sending his athletes through weightlifting and gymnastic sessions, three-mile jogs and fast-paced lessons, would hold a tournament each night, breaking down the fencers into pools of 12 or 15 and assigning to each one a number of victories he must achieve? Who else but Beck would tell the fencer who fails to reach that number that he is an invisible man; sorry, you never came that night, you must redo the session. Too many invisible nights and Herr Beck withholds the monthly stipend the government pays West German athletes—hey, boys, nobody rides a Mercedes for free. Elmar Borrmann, a former world champion in épée, once said, "When Emil Beck says, 'Sit down,' we don't look behind us to see whether there's a chair."

By now, of course, he has finished snipping hair. In 1972, the German Olympic fencing team he coaches collapses in the Munich Games, winning not a single medal before the home audience. The president of the country's fencing federation, smarting at the way this maverick operates, this self-made federation of one, calls Beck in and berates him. Then the press takes up the cry.

Beck is staggered. All that work—for this? For hours he walks alone, his hands clenching, crying bitterly. I will quit fencing, he blurts out in his darkest hour.

No, says his wife. You cannot let them defeat you.

Yes. Yes, she is right. The answer is work—he must work even harder, even longer. Only work could cauterize this wound, only work could make a man forget.

"Man was born to work," says Beck. "Without work, he could not exist. I work 14 to 18 hours a day. Seven days a week. Vacations? They are an invention of modern times. Man doesn't need a holiday."

After 16 years of marriage and a cache of Olympic medals in 1976, Karin finally convinces him to take one. Mornings spent competing with his son to see who can do the most push-ups; afternoons dictating to his secretary; nights spent working in the bathroom so his wife can sleep—this is how Emil Beck vacations. He would go nowhere without his pocket tape recorder, groping for it on the nightstand at 3 a.m. and muttering memoranda, wondering why his wife resorts to earplugs. Happiness and gloom—what time has he for them?

Now and then, though, he wonders about those headaches, so searing sometimes he must leave his desk and step outside. Why does his doctor warn him to cut back, speaking as if work were some kind of drug? Funny how he had become so overwrought during the 1974 world championship that he sat down on a bench to savor his victory—and passed out.

One day, when the glory of the Los Angeles Olympics is still fresh, he drives to work at 7:15 a.m., the same time, to the minute, he does each day. His center, now a $12 million complex manned by a staff of 52 and attended by 340 fencers, is only a five-minute ride away. His Mercedes 560 SEL, the biggest of the fleet, suddenly slows. His head drops into his hands; my god, it's as if some water main has burst between his temples!

He regains consciousness, restarts the car, heads to the office. Must have been the wine last night, he tells himself as he works, but inside his thick body, round now from too much desk time, too much bratwurst, too much beer, he is beginning to feel fear.

A doctor notices his face is crooked. Herr Beck, he says, you've had a stroke!

In the hospital he has two beds, one for his body, one for his paperwork. When the doctor leaves for the day, Beck winks at the nurse and slips out the door, stays out all night . . . and works.

A few weeks pass. The fear, like that caused by a loud thump on the roof at night, passes too.

It is just like a carousel ride," says Beck. "Once you get on, you must ride it to the end. My life is one long storm. My enemies are waiting for me to fail. They try to pull me down, but they only push me higher."

He has a hobby now, something his wife suggested to relax him, take his mind off fencing. Three years ago, for his 50th birthday, she gave him six carrier pigeons.

Sometimes at dawn now she wakes to the flapping of 300 pigeons, to the love coo of the ones he is breeding to win blue ribbons, to the whistle of her husband in the backyard beckoning them back to the three-annex cage he has built them.