Obituary: Bela Imregi
Wednesday 17 September 1997
Bela Imregi was arguably the greatest fencing coach to teach in Britain since the Second World War; only different styles over the decades set a limit on the judgement. By the time he finally stopped teaching, in November 1991 aged 83, he had produced an Olympic and world champion, a world finalist, a world youth finalist and a countless number of other internationals.
His dedication to his chosen sport was phenomenal. In "Belarese", as his fractured English became known, he would say, "Necessary you sleep with sabre under pillow." To Imregi, fencing was not merely a sport but a way of life.
He was born in 1908 in the unpronounceable village of Satoralkavjhely, in north-east Hungary close to the Russian border. His surname was originally Ivanicsko, but both he and his father made the name-change in the early 1930s to avoid the Russian-sounding original.
He never fenced as a competitor, but enrolled in the famous Honved Club for fencing coaches in Budapest. He already excelled in other sports, having been ranked in the top ten of his country's decathletes and reached national level as a coach in both skiing and tennis. At Honved he not only passed out top in foil and epee but also at sabre, defeating the star sabre pupil 5-0 in the coaches' tournament at the completion of the course.
After he was awarded his Master's certificate in 1935 Imregi's rise was swift. He soon made himself a reputation for teaching women foilists, Ilona Elek, Olympic Champion in 1936 and 1948 and world champion in 1934, 1935 and 1951, being foremost amongst many outstanding pupils.
During the war Imregi was called up into a reluctant Hungarian army and was for a brief interval at the end of the war a prisoner under the Americans before being released when it was realised that he, along with many others, had been forcibly conscripted.
Back in Hungary, he continued his army career, becoming a major. He took an active part in the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and was a member of the revolutionary committee for sport. As such, he was condemned to death by the Russians.
With his family he fled to the West, and by the end of 1956 was in London, where he joined Salle Paul, then the premier fencing club in Britain. The reputation of Hungarians for sabre meant that he was asked by his new pupils for lessons in what was effectively his third weapon, and for the next 35 years that was never to change. He taught all three weapons, but Britain used him as a sabre specialist.
Not long after his arrival in Britain, Charles de Beaumont, doyen of British fencing and the then British team captain, cajoled Imregi into moving to the London Fencing Club, Salle Paul's nearest rival. He worked there in a purely freelance capacity until the mid-1960s, without payment from the club, and had to ask his pupils to pay him personally for any lesson. The usual fee was six shillings. Eventually he asked for a proper retainer, which de Beaumont refused. Enough signatures were garnered to force an extraordinary general meeting, but de Beaumont would not give way, and Imregi reluctantly decided to move.
He was already teaching at the London Polytechnic in Regent Street on a one-night-a-week basis, but he now made it his centre of activities, eventually teaching from 5pm till 9.30pm four nights a week. According to one club member, LFC fencers were told by de Beaumont, "If you move to Imregi at the Poly you will not be picked for the British team." The threat worked, and Imregi had to build up his cadre of fencers from scratch.
To the Polytechnic he soon added Westminster School and Oxford University, and then Brookhouse School in Hackney, proving he could create schoolboy champions from the state sector as well as the private.
His list of pupils included Sandy Leckie, British champion at all three weapons, and five times at sabre; Richard Oldcorn (British team captain), Mike Straus, George Birks, Peter Hobson, Ralph Cooperman, Sue Green, Linda Martin (finalist at the 1982 World Championships), Jim Philbin (five times national sabre champion), Martin Beavers, Steve Netburn (an American who lived in London, who under Imregi became US champion, was runner-up to Bill Hoskyns in the Martini epee and reached the last 16 of the 1968 Olympics), David Eden (Commonwealth sabre champion in 1974), Katie Arup, Sue Lewis, Richard Jaine, Johnathan Lewis, John Zarno, Mike Price, David Martin, Rocco Forte (whom Imregi took on at Oxford and encouraged to a top-12 placing in the National Sabre finals), Christopher Bland (another Oxford pupil, now Chairman of the BBC, who represented Ireland at epee in the 1960 Olympics), Andy Martin, Nick Halsted (team epee silver medallist in 1965, whom Imregi shared with Bill Harmer-Brown, his co-teacher at Westminster) and John Deanfield, sixth in the World Under-20 championships in Madrid in 1970.
Deanfield's result was the best ever by a junior British sabreur, and his career perhaps more than anyone's epitomises Bela Imregi's gifts as a coach. He was taught by Imregi from his earliest days as a Westminster schoolboy, and in 1970 won the British Under-20 and Junior Sabre titles. He was chosen for the British team the same year, aged 19. By 1974 he was the finished article, fast, tactically astute, and with such a complete technique that he would plan several moves ahead before scoring a hit. Only a bad knee injury in 1975 stopped his progress, although he was still good enough to make the Olympic teams of 1976 and 1980.
The telling point is that in 1972, in the run-up to the Munich games, Imregi took him to the Lake District with his family, giving him lessons free of charge throughout his summer holiday. Deanfield duly defeated the silver medallist - a Hungarian.
I joined the Polytechnic in 1977. I was already over 30, but under Imregi's tutelage enjoyed my best results, including Commonwealth and French Open titles. One evening, having won the British Sabre championship the previous weekend, and feeling pleased with myself, I went to the club for my normal lesson. Imregi sat me down and demonstrated that I had yet to learn the correct way to hold a sabre.
Imregi had little interest in personal advancement, almost none in financial compensation. Pupils would be invited back to his house in Peckham Rye, where they would be given lessons in his tiny garden or in the house itself: the ceiling of his living room was scored with the marks of ill-directed sabre cuts. Passers-by would also stop to marvel at the Peckham Park bandstand which Imregi regularly used as an impromptu salle, the clash of steel replacing more familiar melodies.
To Imregi it did not matter if you were of international class or just a club fencer: if you truly loved fencing then he loved to teach you to fence. In his latter years at the Poly, his roster of lessons for an evening would range from the club's many British team members to octogenarians such as Dorothy Knowles and Anthony Hyde or young hopefuls just starting the sport.
Imregi's ascendancy in the Sixties was followed by a period of relative exclusion from national squad responsibilities. His concentration on technique made some administrators feel his teaching was too static for the world of constant fleching and high-speed footwork. Despite this he accompanied the team to the Munich Olympics in an unofficial capacity.
Up until shortly before the 1976 Olympics he was once again the National Sabre Coach but on the direction of the Sabre Committee was superseded by their newly arrived protege from Hungary only months before the games. Typically, Imregi was not invited to the games themselves and watched what was available on television.
Bela Imregi was stubborn, quick to anger and passionate in his beliefs. You crossed him at your peril, and once crossed Imregi was slow to forgive. He had a formidable list of enemies, even if the perpetrators themselves were ignorant of their elevation. He was also generous to a fault to his pupils, and endlessly loyal.
Beneath those famous beetle eyebrows the eyes were full of mischief. On one occasion, when Jim Philbin playfully slapped Imregi on the back, the 78-year-old coach executed a perfect pratfall, seeming to die of an immediate heart attack. A few anxious seconds later he had jumped to his feet, delighted with his trick. Another time, in hospital for checks and with various tubes and wires attached to his chest, he pointed to them and observed "What this? One BBC2, one ITV?"
But then Imregi's English was one of his trademarks. "Littly faster, littly faster" would ring out of salle or school gym, or, if a practice "stationary" fleche led to an incorrectly raised back leg, the admonition "What you do? Not one little doggy thing!"
He was three times married. His first wife died of cancer and his second marriage was dissolved, by which time he had two sons and two daughters. In 1957, one evening teaching at Paul's, he met Audrey Adams, a secretary in a travel office, and they married in 1964. It was often a tempestuous partnership, but a rock-solid one, and Imregi at last had a companion who understood his devotion to fencing and who helped to make it possible. Their one child, Nicky, was the only one of his children who took up fencing seriously, reaching the Under 20 sabre team and the Olympic training squad.
Imregi never poached pupils; they came to him of their own volition, and if ever they entered the salle without first saluting in his direction they soon received the sharp edge of his tongue. A week of training missed, and one would be met with "Hello. My name Imregi. Who you?" He was not interested in his fencers winning: they had to fence well. Born into the Russian Orthodox Church, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and was a devout practitioner. But fencing was always his main religion.
Bela Imregi was buried on 1 September. At the funeral service, held at St Thomas More's, Dulwich, the Catholic priest who gave the address, Fr John O'Connor, told the parable of the talents. In Imregi's case, he said, it was particularly appropriate: Imregi had made the most of his very special talents, as both fencer and teacher.
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