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Sam Cheris, Former USA Fencing President Who Made Unrivaled Contributions at All Levels of the Sport, Dies at 78

12/14/2023, 12:00pm CST
By Bryan Wendell

We remember the former USA Fencing president whose contributions to fencing spanned more than 60 years and made him, in the words of one Olympian, a "champion in our sport."

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Samuel D. Cheris, the former USA Fencing president whose contributions to fencing over more than 60 years included the introduction of age group fencing, the debut of the junior/cadet national circuit, and the development of an objective points system for team selection and tournament seeding, died on Dec. 13, 2023, in Colorado. He was 78.

As president of the USA Fencing Board of Directors from 1988 to 1990, Cheris revolutionized the fencing pipeline in the United States — creating the system of youth competitions and tournament selection through which Mariel Zagunis OLY and Lee Kiefer OLY became Olympic champions. 

This summer in Phoenix, Cheris was inducted into the USA Fencing Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2023. (Watch the induction ceremony here.)

Cheris was present for the ceremony to accept the honor, presented to him by past USA Fencing President Donald Alperstein.

“Sam’s influence shows up in almost every aspect of the sport at home and abroad,” Alperstein said. “He has been a towering presence in American and international fencing for decades. Everywhere one looks in this sport, one sees and feels his contributions.”

In his remarks, Alperstein admitted the impossible task of acknowledging all of Sam Cheris’s contributions to the sport in the two-and-a-half minutes allotted for his speech, but he tried his best to cover the many highlights.

“Youth fencing: Sam did that,” Alperstein said. “Team athlete funding: Sam did that. Pulling USA Fencing out of insolvency and placing it on a firm financial footing: Sam did that. Creating a commission that allows referees to choose their own leadership: Sam did that. Requiring that the business of the FIE be conducted in English and Spanish, as well as French: Sam did that. Taking a random list of rules and codifying them as the FIE statutes: Sam did that.”

With his family and friends in attendance, Cheris took his turn at the microphone to thank those who had been a part of his fencing journey — and to share why he loved fencing so much in the first place.

“Because there’s no bench in fencing,” he said. “Everybody has an equal opportunity on any given day to participate. Because there's no physical body type needed for a participant to be successful. And because meaningful fencing is enhanced by intellectual skill, as well as physical.”

In his acceptance speech, Cheris looked back on his many accomplishments — among them the formation of the USA Fencing Leadership Academy, which Cheris created as a way to prepare future leaders to serve the organization. In true Sam Cheris fashion, he closed his speech with a recruiting pitch, encouraging those in the room to sign up for the Leadership Academy.

“I hope you’ll add that extra turning point to keep fencing as part of your life,” he said. “We need you, and you can be a force for good.”

Putting Athletes First and Using His Voice

Cheris believed that fencing results alone should determine who earns the right to represent Team USA at international competitions, so he created an equitable system to do exactly that.

He also developed direct athlete funding programs to reward top athletes for their domestic and international results, giving fencers some measure of financial support as they pursued their fencing goals on the global stage. 

“Sam worked to champion the athlete voice,” says Kat Holmes OLY, a two-time Olympian in women’s epee and member of the USA Fencing Board of Directors. “He made sure that the athletes have a seat at the table and are heard. From when I first got involved in the Athlete Council, Sam always asked my opinion, encouraging me to get involved and use my voice in all arenas.”

Cheris used his voice, too.

The 2014 inductee to the FIE (International Fencing Federation) Hall of Fame delivered what would become his final speech in front of the federation on Nov. 26, 2022. 

Speaking at the FIE Congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, in front of fencing executives from around the world, Cheris implored his colleagues to maintain the ban on athletes from Russia and Belarus. 

“Speaking against many adamant and intimidating opponents to his words, Sam stood up and told the entire fencing world where we, as USA Fencing athletes and USA Fencing as an organization, stand on the participation of Russian athletes in sport while the War in Ukraine is ongoing,” Holmes says. “That took a level of bravery and courage that few have the chutzpah to step up to the plate and embrace.”

That was simply the Sam Cheris way: the courage to point out what didn’t seem right and the drive and ingenuity to present real solutions.

The Financial Recovery and Beyond

As USA Fencing Treasurer (1986-88, 2012-16, 2021-2023), Cheris directed successful efforts to restore USA Fencing from near insolvency to a firm financial footing with strong credit. 

Those who followed USA Fencing’s financial challenges in the past know that it was Cheris who helped USA Fencing establish the reserve funding that allowed the organization to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and provide funding for the hosting of World Championships. His budget reforms continue to guide the organization. 

“There is not a single facet of fencing, either domestically or internationally, that has not benefited from the wisdom and dedicated passion of Sam Cheris,” says USA Fencing CEO Phil Andrews. “He could look at any situation and find a better, smarter path forward.”

The contributions Cheris has made to American and international fencing would span dozens of paragraphs. Here are but a few highlights:

  • He organized the 1989 Senior World Championships and the 1993 Junior & Cadet World Championships.

  • He refereed foil and epee at World Cups from 1982 to 1996.

  • He was a member of the USA Fencing Referees’ Commission (RC) (formerly known as the Fencing Officials Commission, or FOC) from 1980-2023, including twice serving as the RC’s chair.

  • He served as FIE Chief of Protocol six times and was a member of five World Championship Directoire Techniques, or DTs. 

  • He expanded referee gender and nationality representation at World Cups, championships and Olympic Games.

  • He led the modernization of the FIE’s bylaws and administrative regulations, adding English and Spanish as working languages.

  • He wrote the FIE Disciplinary Code and the FIE “SafeGuarding” Policy.

  • He represented the United States at more than 25 FIE Congress gatherings and was a member of the FIE Executive Committee (1996-2004), the Publicity Commission (1989-92) and the Legal Commission (1996-2023), where he served as president for 21 years.

Cheris’ service on the Legal Commission tapped into the skills developed in his “day job.” (Yes, even given all the time he devoted to the sport of fencing, he did indeed have one.)

The Great Beginnings and the Personal Touch

Cheris was born on Nov. 14, 1945, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He fenced foil at Brooklyn Technical High School and then for three years at Brooklyn College.

As an assistant fencing coach at Stanford (where he got his juris doctor and MBA degrees), Cheris elevated the women’s fencing program from a PE course to eventual NCAA varsity status — a status it still holds today.

As an attorney, Cheris was named a “Super Lawyer” and specialized in the fields of mergers and acquisitions and closely held businesses. 

But through it all, he always returned to fencing. And for all the seismic, necessary and lasting changes he brought to the sport, he never lost sight of the personal connections that are a vital part of fencing.

During her first year serving on the USA Fencing Referees’ Commission, Holmes remembers talking with Cheris, who was then the commission’s chair. 

“I expressed great admiration for the dobos torte [Hungarian sponge cake] that his wife, Susie, made for our annual meeting dinner,” Holmes says. “Sam ensured that for the following years, I had my own, personal cake so that I could fuel my muscles with glycogen to my heart’s content for the upcoming season.”  

But their connection was far deeper than culinary. 

“Sam fought tirelessly to ensure that me and my team had the best opportunities to succeed,” Holmes says. “At the 2018 World Championships where my team and I won gold, there was some confusion around when we needed to arrive at the call room that resulted in us getting a yellow card before we even stepped out on the strip. Without even having to ask for help, Sam arrived in the call room to help us sort out the situation, getting the yellow card removed and allowing us to go out on the strip and win.

“Those types of acts are what made Sam a champion in our sport.”

Donald Alperstein (left) presents Sam Cheris with his Hall of Fame plaque. (Photo by Serge Timacheff)

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