Fencer Gilbert Part of Forgotten NCAA Title

Not many people could name the Buckeye squads to capture the first and second NCAA titles in school history. While the 1929 track and field team grabbed the first OSU title, much more information on the '42 men's fencing team, the second title-winner, came to light recently when All-American Ivan Gilbert was announced as one of the newest members of the OSU athletics hall of fame.

The Ohio State University has won 27 NCAA championships, starting in 1929 with an outdoor track and field title under the tutelage of coach Frank Castleman.

Memories of some titles spring to mind more easily than others. Nearly every Buckeye fan alive remembers Donnie Nickey batting down the desperation heave of Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey on the final play of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, setting off a wild celebration as the football team won the 2002 national title. Buckeyes with earlier birth dates might remember any of the five titles won by Woody Hayes, or perhaps might remember the 1960 basketball title under Fred Taylor or Marty Karow's 1966 Buckeye nine that won it all.

Even the name of Mike Peppe lives on in OSU lore. The longtime swimming coach won 11 national titles from 1943-62 and had his name on the Mike Peppe Natatorium that was part of the old Larkins Hall that was recently torn down to make way for a new recreation center and the world-class McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion.

Then there are some national titles that sit under the radar. Certainly, Castleman's '29 track team, led by All-Americans Richard Rockaway (high hurdles) and Peter Rasmus (discus) and national title winner George Simpson (100- and 220-yard dash), would fit in that description ever.

However, it would be hard to find a more forgotten title than the one captured by the Ohio State men's fencing team in the winter of 1942. The championship was just the second in school history and came in St. Louis when Frank Riebel's Buckeyes defeated St. John's (N.Y.) 34-33½ in the finals.

Of the six members of that team, only two are alive any longer. One of them is Ivan Gilbert, who was recently chosen to be inducted into the Ohio State athletics hall of fame. Gilbert, at the age of 85, still has a strong memory of the trip to Washington University in the Gateway to the West.

"We stayed in the dorms and ate free in the dorms," Gilbert said. "We got this trophy which was about three-feet high. We went across East St. Louis, filled it full of beer and emptied the trophy.

"We drove back home and nobody ever noticed that we had won the NCAAs. I don't think it ever got in the newspapers. There was no interest in minor sports."

As a result, Gilbert said he wishes his honors would have gone to the team and fellow members, including Ben Burtt, OSU's lone individual national champion in '42 by virtue of capturing the epee event. Burtt and Gilbert are the only two team members still alive.

"I tell you, I'd prefer they honored the team," he said. "The team should have been honored. It was a wonderful group of guys.

"Do you have any idea how hard it was to go down and fence Harvard and Yale and the University of Chicago and Princeton, all of whom had big-time coaches and kids who had started when they were 8 or 9 years old taking fencing?"

Of the six team members, Gilbert said, three went to medical school, two others earned their Ph.D. and the other, as he said, "was a failure who went to law school."

Gilbert also described the intensity of the tournament that went from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day.

"In fencing, it's mano a mano," he said. "It's not a team sport. Every time you got on that mat, you had to beat that guy or else. You had to continuously bring your adrenaline up, then you'd sit for 20 minutes and bring your adrenaline up. It was very tiring."

The work paid off for what is surely one of the most decorated fencers in OSU history. Among Gilbert's honors include being named Ohio State's Male Fencer of the Century by the Columbus Touchdown Club and the more recent election to the athletics hall of fame. Gilbert was also an All-American in 1942, finishing third in the foil competition won by Byron Kreiger of Wayne State. In addition, he was invited to the trials for the '42 Summer Olympics in London before the games were canceled.

Gilbert said he was ahead during 3-0 during his semifinal match against a fencer from Yale when the Bulldog's sword broke. Gilbert said it took 15 minutes for his opponent's coach to fix the blade. Moments later, it broke again, and again the coach took 15 minutes to replace the blade. By then, Gilbert said, he was cooled down and out of momentum.

"Their coach outsmarted me," Gilbert said. "He really did."

His story is made even more amazing by his rapid ascension to the varsity team. When he arrived at Ohio State as a 17-year-old medical student, he had fenced only at camp and said he knew how to stand and that was about it. During his first quarter, he went to sign up for an 11 a.m. physical education requirement and was given two options: take fencing or take wrestling. To him, it was a simple choice.

"I didn't want to wrestle, so I picked fencing," he said. "I guess I was good at it. I had a natural ability for fencing which I wouldn't have been aware of if it weren't for that choice. Life is very funny.

"I had the reflex time and I had the mental attitude. I was very fast, thinking on my feet. That's what fencing is. Fencing is a combination of reflexes, a certain kind of mental agility, and working your ass off."

That natural talent served Gilbert well, as he said at the age of 50 he defeated two of four OSU varsity fencers he faced in an exhibition match. Now at 85, his fencing days are over, but he stays busy in numerous ways. He is the chairman of American Health Holding Inc., the proprietor of Miran Arts and Books and the publisher of "The New Standard," a Columbus-area Jewish newspaper.

"You can change jobs or do something else," he said. "Your work can be play golf, but you have to have a job. Men have to have jobs. You deteriorate very rapidly (if you don't)."

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