Dubai: When MK Fencing Academy was launched in 2002 on the outskirts of Dubai, it had five keen fencers, two masks, three epee swords, two fencing jackets and one shared passion. In less than a month, the academy had more than 30 fencers.
Driven by the shared values of integrity, respect, responsibility, quality and dedication, former Bulgarian Olympian Mihail Kouzev’s institution has made its mark among the fencing community of the UAE. Since 2005, it has been the driving force in founding the UAE Fencing Federation (UAEFF), thus giving this Olympic sport its due recognition here. Currently, the UAEFF has six national fencing centres around the country promoting the values of fencing through different activities, programmes and events.
When Kouzev landed in the UAE in 1999, very few would have expected that a decade and-a-half later he would be heading one of the most successful fencing academies in the region. Following are excerpts from a wide-ranging interview with Gulf News:
Gulf News: Given your versatile background as a sportsman, why did it occur to you to start a fencing academy rather than any other sports club?
MIHAIL KOUZEV: As a modern pentathlete, I was in the unique position to practice a range of very different sports from swimming, shooting, horse riding, running and fencing. All of them had their own profound identity and contributed immensely to my growth as a person and professional.
Fencing, however, is a universe of its own. The more I discovered from it the more I wanted to explore. There are no limits for mastering the art of fencing. There is always something new to learn even if you have many years of experience behind you. The question has never been about ‘which sport’. It was more about ‘when’ and ‘how’ and as the saying goes, ‘if there is a will, there is a way’.
GN: How do you explain the success of the work that you do?
MK: Eleven years has been a long time. But over this period we have great facilities and equipment and more than 150 core fencers along with partnerships with a range of schools and a bunch of medals. We are proud to be ambassadors of the values of fencing in Dubai and the UAE and we never forget that there is one crucial thing without which we would not have survived, and that is the fencers, who have always been the heart of MKFA, and our supporters such as Gargash Mercedes-Benz, Freeplay and the Raffles International School (the location of the academy).
GN: How has the sport grown since your academy came in the picture?
MK: MK Fencing Academy was the first private organisation that educated people in fencing in the Middle East. When I came to the UAE in 1999 I had just finished with my professional sports career and my Masters degree in fencing. I was eager to share my knowledge, skills and admiration of fencing with anyone who was keen to learn. At that time the sport had not developed in the region.
There were some fencing activities in schools, though these activities were used only as a presentation of fencing, but not as a competitive sport. However, it is interesting to note that fencing is strongly connected with the culture of the UAE as one can trace many of its aspects and symbols in the local traditions of this country. That and my passion pushed me in establishing fencing as a main sport in the UAE into a long-term goal.
GN: What sort of blueprint do you have in mind for fencing and for the academy?
MK: MK Fencing Academy has the vision to be a centre of excellence in the Middle East. We will continue to look for new opportunities to popularise fencing not only in Dubai and Abu Dhabi but the whole Gulf. We already have great after-school programmes. We are about to create an inter-school league and even include fencing in the school curriculum.
We should never forget that the biggest change has to start from within. We will be always committed to nurturing one’s personal growth and each individual will have his own path in life and different fencers find their own purpose and meaning in the fencing hall. Patience, balance, competitiveness, enjoyment, flexibility, well-being, clarity, precision, confidence, fitness, belonging, nobleness, grace, discipline, strength, persistency, resilience, honesty, integrity and fulfilment are only some of the treasures that fencing can hold for anyone.
GN: How different is it to sustain such smaller sports that may not be as popular as, say, football?
MK: Fencing is one of the first five Olympic sports and it has maintained its place at all the Olympic Games so far. This fact itself makes fencing one of the most sustainable sports. Yes, we cannot compete with football, athletics, golf and tennis, and we don’t need to. The unique characteristics of fencing attract people from all walks of life, especially here in the UAE and the Middle East, where it has enormous untapped potential as an indoor sport. Contrary to all belief, fencing is a very affordable sport. It is beginners-friendly and it has even melded to fit the needs of the visually impaired and individuals using wheelchairs. Though perceived as an exclusive sport, it is truly a sport for everyone.
GN: How important are such small competitions that you and others organise during the course of the season?
MK: Every competition counts. Competition means experience and experience means improvement and improvement means achievement. Meeting other fencers, talking about fencing, playing with them and experiencing different styles is what builds the fencers alongside the preparation in training. The UAE Fencing Federation has developed a solid calendar of events covering all age groups that give fencers an opportunity to be active and in shape throughout the year. However, I believe that the UAE needs top-range events to be held here.
GN: How optimistic are you about the growth of fencing in this country?
MK: We have been in the UAE for the past 11 years and we have already been active participants in the writing of meaningful fencing history here. The growth of fencing, as it is with the growth of any community, is not something that you can afford to be optimistic or sceptical about. It is something that you choose to strive for. And though it might sound a bit cliched, the future of fencing here is in our own hands. The rest is hard work, dedication, adequate actions and the ability to stay true to your values and connected with a vision during the tough times.
GN: What are plans for the future?
MK: In near future, we are considering bringing fencing in schools and this will be an important milestone in the history of this sport. This can definitely have a powerful educational impact. And if started at an early age, fencing can contribute greatly to the holistic development of a child and support it in becoming not only a successful person but a person with values.