An internationally renowned fencing coach and longtime leader of the U.S. Women’s Saber Team has resigned in the aftermath of an Inquirer report that he was upset one of his past mentees had filed a sexual-misconduct claim against an assistant fencing coach at Pennsylvania State University.
USA Fencing confirmed Monday in an email that Ed Korfanty stepped down as national coach, but did not respond to questions about the reason for his resignation. Korfanty, a coach in Portland, Ore., could not be reached for comment this week.
His resignation came within days of an Inquirer report last week that detailed sexual-misconduct allegations by Jennifer Oldham, a North Carolina fencing coach. Oldham said she had been grabbed and sexually harassed by George “Gia” Abashidze, a former assistant Penn State fencing coach, while they sat next to each other on a December 2017 flight — and that she later reported the attack both to Korfanty and Wes Glon, head fencing coach for Penn State.
In a complaint to Penn State, Oldham accused Glon of failing to report her abuse claim to the university as he was required. It wasn’t until Oldham’s husband notified the university last summer that Penn State launched an investigation.
In an interview with The Inquirer for that article, Korfanty said he didn’t know whether to believe Oldham or Abashidze, who denied the allegation. Korfanty also told The Inquirer he was upset that Oldham called him and sparked an investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a Denver-based nonprofit that monitors and examines misconduct claims in Olympic sports.
Korfanty told The Inquirer that Abashidze apologized and that should have sufficed. Korfanty also questioned why Oldham didn’t ask a flight attendant on the plane for help or to have her seat changed.
"Maybe she provoke him,” Korfanty said. “There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know.”
Korfanty remains head coach of the Oregon Fencing Alliance, said Cathy Zagunis, director of programs and media relations.
Korfanty was a top-ranked fencer who came to the United States from Poland in 1990 and became assistant fencing coach at the University of Notre Dame, according to his bio on the alliance’s website. At the alliance, his students have won more than 40 world championship medals, two Olympic gold medals, and three Olympic bronze medals, according to the site. With Korfanty as national coach, the U.S. Women’s Saber team has won multiple gold medals.
Abashidze was suspended by SafeSport last year and fired by Penn State in March. Neither he nor his lawyer has commented, but this week the Canadian Fencing Federation confirmed that it had hired Abashidze to help referee its recent national competition. The federation was not aware that Abashidze had been under suspension by SafeSport when it hired him, said Caroline Sharp, executive director. She said she became aware toward the end of the competition, which is now over.
If the federation had known, it would not have hired him, she said.
“We have to have more dialogue with our U.S. counterparts so we are both aware of these types of issues,” she said.
Oldham’s public recounting of her complaint and Korfanty’s subsequent departure have generated debate in the fencing community.
“So the Woman’s National Saber coach is blaming the victim," wrote one commenter on the Facebook page of a website called the Fencing Coach. "That inspires confidence.”
Another said that such sexual abuse “is found at every level" in the sport. “Good women have been decrying it but it will take good men to stop it because that is the unfortunate state of our world right now.”
One, however, questioned the veracity of the report: “I know Gia for few decades and don’t believe in this story!!!”
Damien Lehfeldt, a Richmond, Va., fencing coach who runs the website and Facebook page, said most in the fencing community “have been in full support" of Oldham and “super appreciative of her bravery” in coming forward. “You still have people who are attempting to victim blame," he said, "but those are small pockets.”
As for Korfanty, Lehfeldt described him as the coach who really gave rise to U.S. women’s saber fencing, but was also critical of his remarks.
“Regardless of his accolades, which are worthy of celebration, it’s kind of a backwards mentality that he’s still promoting regarding sexual assault," he said. “Even with his success, I think the resignation was probably the right thing to do.”
Lehfeldt’s website also has given attention to the issue of sexual harassment in fencing. Coach and referee Annamaria Lu last year conducted an informal anonymous survey of female fencers and published her results on the site. She found that of the 218 responses, nearly 60 percent said they had been sexually harassed by another member of the fencing community and that one out of five said they had been sexually assaulted.
“It’s obviously a problem within our sport, and there’s definitely issues with how it’s handled from all sides,” Lu said. “We need to have a better process for dealing with all of this.”