by Andrew Garda

Alen Hadzic’s journey towards fencing for the U.S. in the 2020 Olympics began as so many fencing stories do — with a drummer.

Honestly, this will all make sense.

As Hadzic approached his freshman year at Montclair High School, he was an avid soccer player, not a fencer. His plans to play soccer for Montclair hit a snag though.

“My family is from Bosnia and Serbia, the former Yugoslavia,” Hadzic said. “So, I would go every summer to visit my grandparents there, and I missed the tryouts for the freshman soccer team.”

With soccer not happening that season, Hadzic did what anyone who found themselves without a team might do — he started a band.

Which brings us to the drummer.

“My drummer told me to join the fencing team because he was a part of it,” Hadzic recalled. “He said it was cool, that it was part ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ So I gave it a shot.”

It turned out that not only did Hadzic really enjoy fencing, but he also happened to be very good at it. During his time fencing for MHS, Hadzic became a two-time state champion, a three time regional champion, was the captain of the team by junior year and made the U.S. Junior World team by his senior year.

Hadzic said that two things helped him hone his skills with the epee — his weapon of choice. The first was former Montclair coach Mike McTigue. The second was a local club called Lilov Fencing.

“They were affiliated with the high school team and it was actually right up the street from me so I could literally walk to it,” Hadzic said.

That made a huge difference, as most serious clubs were in New York City. Being able to walk down the street made it easier for Hadzic to stay on track.

After high school, Hadzic continued to fence, this time for Columbia University. He again found success, and took a year off from school to fence professionally. He needed to know what that was like, you see, because he had a new goal — to fence for the U.S. in the 2016 Olympics.

Hadzic worked hard, coming in second overall — very good, but not good enough that year.

There are two different qualifications for each country sending fencers to the Olympics — individual and team. When a country qualifies a team, they get to send four fencers — three to fence and one alternate. When they don’t — and for the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. didn’t — they only send one fencer. That left Hadzic on the outside looking in.

Hadzic took a few years off, working on a Master’s degree and living with his father in Belgium. Once he moved back to the states, though, he felt the tug of the sport again.

Eventually he ended up back where he’d started — the Lilov Fencing Academy. Lilov is a much bigger operation now, with a large warehouse, metal strips, grounded strips, and top of the line scoring equipment.

“Everything you can imagine, it’s really amazing,” Hadzic said.

The academy embraced its wayward son without hesitation, and Serge Lilov was quick to help Hadzic continue to pursue his dream.

“He’s always looking to help,” Hadzic said. “He didn’t think twice when I asked. It helped I was one of the top fencers, but he was like ‘look, this is what I can do for you, here’s some money, here are the keys to the club, and a coach to work with.’”

Hadzic thinks Lilov’s generosity is a big reason why the club is launching the Fencing Foundation of Northern New Jersey, non-profit organization with a mission to foster and advance a greater awareness and appreciation of fencing.

“He just wanted to do something on a broader scale,” Hadzic said. “He’s paying fees to keep the foundation open as we’re just looking for donors in order to kick it off.”

The foundation aims to help underprivileged kids and schools who want to fence, but can’t afford the equipment or lessons. Whether it’s through running lessons, or need-based scholarships, the academy wants to make fencing accessible. The academy has helped MHS with its middle school program in the past, and will take what they’ve learned there and apply it to this new foundation.

Hadzic will continue to help out while he trains for the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo.

And maybe through the foundation, Hadzic will inspire a young fencer, the way McTigue and the old Lilov club did when he was in high school.