Jun 03, 2014 Allie Wenner Uncategorized
When Lubo Kalpaktchiev arrived in Syracuse from his hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria in 1999, he had nothing – no money, no knowledge of the English language or American culture.
Now, 15 years later, Kalpaktchiev owns his own fencing club in Shoppingtown Mall, called the Syracuse Musketeers Fencing Center. In addition to coaching at the club, he also teaches fencing classes at Syracuse University and LeMoyne College, is a swimming instructor at the downtown YMCA and has held fencing summer camps at Manlius Pebble Hill and the Jewish Community Center. Thanks to the hard work he put in over the years, he’s able to do what he loves every day.
“America is the best country in the world,” Kalpaktchiev said. “If you come here and you work hard, you can have a middle-class, normal life. When I came here I had nothing, but now I live easily and I do what I love to do; for me, this isn’t really work.”
Growing up in communist Bulgaria in the late 1970s, Kalpaktchiev’s early childhood was similar to that of many other kids who came of age under the Iron Curtain. He remembers only having certain fruits – like bananas and oranges – in the wintertime because that was the only time the government would make them available. He said that meat was also scarce, and that no one was allowed to travel to Western Europe.
Kalpaktchiev excelled at swimming at a young age and was sent to an Olympic training school for talented Bulgarian kids at age 10. From fifth to eighth grade, Kalpaktchiev would wake up, practice swimming, go to school, and swim some more. After four years of this, he was burnt out. His mother became concerned and pulled him out of the school.
He attended a public high school and quickly became interested in pentathlon, an Olympic event that features five sports: swimming, horseback riding, shooting, running and fencing. He started training that year and made the Bulgarian Junior National Team.
Kalpaktchiev continued with pentathlon until one day, when he had an accident while getting on the train to go home after practice. His toes got caught in the door and he was dragged along the side of the track for a few seconds. After the accident, Kalpaktchiev spent about three months in the hospital and was not able to train with the team.
When he returned to training, Kalpaktchiev found it to be nearly impossible to get his times in swimming and running back down to where they were before the accident. He was still performing very well in fencing, and the coach suggested that he focus on it full-time. So he did, and made the Bulgarian Junior National Team for fencing at age 17. He remembers that during his time on the teams, he was able to do something almost all Bulgarians were forbidden to do: travel.
“I travelled the world, but nobody else could have gone anywhere in the west – the government was very scared of the west, and us giving out ‘the secrets of Bulgaria,’” he said. “I was 15 years old! I didn’t know anything about the secrets of Bulgaria.”
Looking back, remembers a mysterious man who would always travel with his team. At the time, Kalpaktchiev didn’t think much of it.
“Every time we would travel, there would be a guy with us,” he said. “I never knew who he was; he didn’t really talk to any of us. But years later, I found out that he was part of the KGB and was there to make sure we didn’t try to escape.”
A perk of travelling with the team was the exposure to different foods and products; many of which were banned from Bulgaria. Kalpaktchiev recalls fondly about a time he brought a pair of Nike shoes home.
“It was like I had bought a Bentley or something,” he said, laughing. “Everyone was asking me, ‘Where did you get those shoes?’ It was a big thing, because you couldn’t get those in Bulgaria.”
Once he finished high school, Kalpaktchiev joined the Air Force, as every Bulgarian man was required to join the military at the time. He served for three years, until he turned 21, and was able to practice fencing in the meantime.
And following his military service, he attended college and received bachelor’s degrees in fencing and physical education. At the time, all coaches in Bulgaria were required to have a degree to coach.
“We have a special college in Bulgaria and all of the professional athletes go there to get their degrees to coach,” he said. “My classmates were Olympic boxers, wrestlers, gymnasts – everything.”
Kalpaktchiev began coaching pentathlon after college. During this time, he attended world cups and world championships for fencing. He and his team did very well, but ultimately did not qualify for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, he stayed in touch with his father, who had just moved to a small city in the United States called Syracuse, New York. When Kalpaktchiev was 25, he went to visit his father during the summer, and decided to stay in America to pursue a better life. “I didn’t know a word of English – it was crazy, it was like being reborn,” he recalled.
During the first few years in the U.S., Kalpaktchiev worked odd jobs while learning English. In 2001, he and his father opened a fencing club on Teall Avenue in Syracuse, and ran it until about five years ago, when they upgraded to the current facility in Shoppingtown Mall.
Now, his dream is for his students to be able to go to the Olympics one day. One of his students, 17-year-old Noah Adamitis, of Kirkville, has a very promising future in fencing. He is ranked No. 3 in the junior division in America and recently placed 16th in a world championship competition in Italy.
“He started when he was 12 and didn’t know anything about fencing,” Kalpaktchiev said. “Now, he’s going to St. John’s University next year on a fencing scholarship.”
Kalpaktchiev hopes to one day be able to offer his own scholarships to his students. Because there are a number of expenses associated with the sport, not everyone can do it, and that’s something he wants to change.
“I want to offer scholarships to kids who don’t have the money to travel and compete. I want to be able to pay for them,” he said. “Because if you can’t travel to the tournaments, the college coaches are never going to see you. It doesn’t matter how talented you are.”
For now, Kalpaktchiev teaches fencing to kids as young as 7 and adults who are well into retirement. One of his favorite things about the sport is that it’s something people can do for their entire lives.
“Fencing teaches discipline and to have imagination,” he said. “They call it ‘chess with muscles’ because you have to be able to anticipate what the other person is going to do. It’s a mind game – it’s psychologically and physically challenging.”
Kalpaktchiev is heading to the fencing national championships in Ohio with his students at the end of the month. After that, he’ll be holding two summer camps for kids: from 9 a.m. to noon July 21 through the 25 and again the next week, from July 28 to Aug. 1 at his club in Shoppingtown Mall. For more information, visit syracusemusketeers.org.