Francisco Martin: Westchester’s Olympic Fencer

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Dobbs Ferry overlooking the Hudson River, the Masters School campus is the picture of bucolic serenity. But take one step into the gymnasium and the illusion of tranquility is immediately shattered, replaced by the constant din of clashing sabres, foils, and épées. This is the unavoidable side effect of being in the company of the international fencing icon, Francisco Martin, and his 100-student fencing team. 

Over the course of his 45-year career, Martin has won six consecutive Spanish National Championships between 1968 and 1973, developed one of the most prominent high-school fencing programs in the country, and cultivated future Olympic athletes. But perhaps Martin’s most impressive accomplishment has been serving as the team captain to the US Olympic Fencing Team in the 2012 London games, as well as US team captain at the World Championship in Paris in 2010, and the World Championship in Catania, Italy, in 2011. As team captain, Martin didn’t compete, but instead defended the US Fencing Team against cheating and violations from the competition. “The team captain must be someone who knows the rules very well,” he says. “I am responsible for ensuring the rules are applied correctly and fairly to my team’s fencers.”

Born in northern Spain, Coach Martin, also known by his close friends as Patxi—the Basque name for Francisco—admits that moving to the US and becoming a prominent fencing coach was not his initial plan. Speaking with a distinctive Basque accent, the 61-year-old coach shares a secret: “My father wanted me to be an engineer, but, when I was 16, the Fencing World Championship was to be held in Madrid. It was being advertised all over the city. I saw the advertisement and I found the Spanish Federation of Fencing where I learned about the fencing clubs that were sponsoring training—it was totally free. I got hooked!” Within a year’s time, Martin won the National Junior Championships.

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During this time, the US fencing program was not competitive in the world arena, but this would change after Martin’s arrival in the US. “I never intended to leave Spain, but I met my wife, Pamela, who was studying at Madrid University. After we were married, my wife pushed me to accept a coaching job at NYU because she was a little homesick for Yonkers,” he says. “Then two years later, I found the Masters School. They didn’t have a fencing team, so I suggested the idea of starting a program. They liked that idea very much.” Martin launched his fencing team in 1984. 

Over the past 25 years, his high school fencing team has grown into one of the largest in the country. (He doesn’t cut any students, but not all 100 students compete.) It also has become one of the most competitive high school programs in the nation, producing world-class athletes such as 1996 Olympian Suzie Paxton. 

Today, many students choose to attend the Masters School for the sole purpose of training with Coach Martin for both his technical skills and personal coaching style. “I came to the Masters School for the opportunity to work with Coach Martin,” says senior Nicholas Graziano. “For the four years I’ve been here, he has helped me both on and off the strip. He’s been a good sounding board. He’s taken me to the airport. He’s like the team mom.” 

Former Masters School student turned Olympic athlete Suzie Paxton believes that her former coach’s most significant contribution has been helping to turn the US fencing team into an international force by “making great fencers.” In addition to being an Olympian, Paxton is an Emmy-winning producer who worked for NBC during the Athens, Beijing, Vancouver, and London Olympics, and says of her former coach: “He has played a very strategic and significant role in helping shape US fencing. When I was fencing internationally in the mid ’90s, US fencing was just starting to break through the ranks internationally. As the US team has emerged over the past two decades, Coach Martin has been an international Chef de Mission [head of team], coach, and referee. These are all extremely important positions to prepare and protect the athletes competing on the international stage.” 

Toward this end, Martin’s role in preparing and protecting the US Olympic Fencing Team was recently expanded. In January, he once again was appointed captain of the US National Fencing Team  until and possibly through the 2016 Olympics in Rio. What’s next for Martin? “My favorite thing about fencing is the technical part—the coaching,” he says. “I don’t want to be an administrator. I just want to have my hands on the sport.”

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Ali Jackson-Jolley is a full-time freelance writer and avid sports spectator from Croton Falls.

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