It also has had a positive effect on a more local level, introducing countless children in metro Atlanta to the sport.
Under the leadership of legendary coach Arkady Burdan, the west Midtown-based fencing club has amassed a remarkable record of achievement in fencing, with three Olympic medals — a silver and two bronzes — to go along with two world, 42 national and seven junior world championships won by its fencers over the last two decades.
The most notable of the club’s alumni is Sada Jacobson, who won a bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, as well as a silver and a team bronze medal for the U.S. at the ’08 Beijing Games and world titles in ’00 and ’05.
While producing champion fencers is important to Burdan — who is referred to as “Maestro” by his students and members of the fencing community — developing quality people is also a top priority.
“First, I teach kids hard work, [to] be healthy, [to] take them away from streets, from bad habits,” Burdan said. “Second, make them very good fencers; participate in competitions, straight to Olympic Games. Every kid is important. Work hard to respect opponent. Try to make them right people in community.”
Burdan, a native of Ukraine, had already established himself as a world-class coach in the Soviet Union when he emigrated to the U.S. in 1988.
He started Nellya Fencers in College Park in 1990, and then moved it to Forest Park in ’95, before it settled in its current location in west Midtown in ’05.
Burdan has made his mark on the sport in his adopted country as the coach of the U.S. Olympic fencing team in 1996, 2004 and ’08.
He was also selected the U.S Fencing Association’s coach of the year in ’02 and was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame in ’09.
While producing champions has been a hallmark of the club, simply introducing fencing to Atlanta-area children who never have had exposure to the sport before is equally a source of pride.
Burdan took that a step further when he introduced the Arkady Burdan Foundation, a nonprofit that provides an opportunity for underprivileged children to take up the sport.
“Many people helped me in my life in America,” Burdan said. “I came here 25 years ago and I had nothing and I want to give back to community. [I want] to help people who can’t afford this and try to help them be like the kids in the club — make them right people, teach hard work, take them away from bad things and try to find somebody in future who can join the club and go to high levels and make it to the Olympic Games, too.”
One of the big success stories of the foundation is Christian Fernandez, a 14-year old Virginia-Highland resident and a freshman at Grady High School. He has begun to make his presence known on the national junior level.
For Fernandez, it is the mix of physical and mental attributes of fencing that appeals most to him.
“It’s like a physical demand,” Rodriguez said. “You have to be strong, but you have to think and train your mind for every single touch. You may have to change your mind in the middle of that. You have to be a strategist.”
The club continues to produce champions like Sandy Springs resident Noa Allen, a 17-year old senior at Paideia, who recently won two gold medals — in the individual junior women’s sabre and team women’s junior sabre — at the 19th Maccabiah World Games in Israel.
Allen said Nellya Fencers is an important part of her life.
“I’ve developed a second family here,” she said. “It’s like a way of life. It’s like a lot of who I am.”
Sandy Springs resident and Westminster sophomore Alex Walker, another one of Nellya’s most promising prospects, said the club has given him a focus to his life.
“I guess it’s given me a real routine in my day,” Walker said. “It’s given me something I can do right after school.
“I come to fencing, do my homework, go to bed. It’s something that’s done every day.”
While Nellya Fencers is known as a producer of champions, it is ultimately a diverse community with people from different walks of life — a microcosm of the society at large.
“It’s the diversity, the tolerance, the generosity, the discipline of being very competitive with one another while still being friends — it’s a tough line to negotiate,” said Nellya community manager Becky Douville, who is also the executive director of the Arkady Burdan Foundation and has been with the club since 1992. “A lot of life skills are learned doing what they’re doing. They’re working really hard. They’re isn’t anybody out there who isn’t vulnerable. Somebody is not feeling good about themselves out there, somebody’s feeling a little arrogant, somebody’s dominating.
“Everybody goes through all those feelings in this community and it’s really very life affirming for them.”