Milligan strikes gold at National Fencing Championships

To say that Bruce Milligan headed out to this year's National Fencing Championships in Nevada with low expectations would be an understatement.

"I really just hoped I wouldn't humiliate myself," said the 60-year-old Savage resident, who had entered only one previous competition this year.

"I figured, though, that even if I didn't fence well, there are plenty of ways to have fun in and around Reno."

It turns out Milligan wasn't giving himself enough credit.

After a middling performance in pool play of the veterans 60 men's foil competition, Milligan found his stride once direct elimination began.

Winning five consecutive 10-touch bouts, including a 10-7 decision over former Olympian Heik Hambarzumian in the finals, Milligan secured himself the championship.

"I lost three times in the first round and at that point I was thinking 'I was going to be lucky to win even one or two direct elimination bouts,' " he said. "I can't explain how it happened, but I somehow stumbled my way into the gold medal bout."

And once he got to that championship match-up against Hambarzumian, who he had seen success against earlier in his career, the physically-exhausted Milligan willed his way to victory.

"As far as fencing goes, I'm out of shape and the further I got, the more it showed," Milligan said. "In the finals, though, I told myself it was going to come down to motivation. Whoever wanted it more was going to win. Sometimes willpower can take the body where you want to go."

Jumping out to a 5-0 lead and then withstanding a comeback by Hambarzumian, Milligan won his second career veterans national title. He also won the veterans division in 1995 when everyone 40 years old and over were grouped together.

This year's title, though, holds a special place. It showed Milligan, who has been fencing since he was 14 years old, that he still has some of his old magic.

At his peak, Milligan held a ranking among the top 30 fencers in the country. In the late 1980s he achieved his highest finish in the overall US National Fencing Championships, placing 26th.

More recently, he was a member of the 2002 and 2006 U.S. foil teams at the Veterans World Fencing Championships.

In addition to competing, he has also spent a good deal of his time over the last few decades serving as a coach on various levels.

While coaching in New York at Vassar College in 1988, he was named Middle Atlantic Collegiate Fencing Association Coach of the Year.

Since arriving in Maryland, he's been an instructor with the Baltimore Fencing Club. He was on board when the club began in 2000 in Timonium and watched as the club expanded to Columbia in 2007.

The Columbia location off Snowden River Parkway is equipped with six electrical strips for members to use. Milligan has been teaching three classes a week between the two locations.

"I really enjoy coaching ... it's fun to see it from the other side," Milligan said.

For the past year or so, coaching has been pretty much all Milligan has been able to do. A stress fracture in his foot and surgeries for a torn meniscus in his knee, along with other smaller injuries, had kept him primarily working from the sidelines.

The only competitive experience he had this year was in early May at the Mid-Atlantic Championships in New Jersey.

But now, spurred on from his successful trip out to Nevada, Milligan has his eyes on a more active next few years.

"This has definitely re-energized me. I've seen what I'm capable of with only a little practice … I want to keep going," Milligan said. "My goal for next year is to win a medal at the veterans world championships, which is something I haven't done. Beyond that, my ultimate goal is to be the over-80 world champion.

"If I'm lucky, I'll be fencing for as long as I can walk."

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