Geza Tatrallyay this year led Harvard's fencing team to its highest finish ever in the Ivy League. With Tatrallyay as captain, the team finished the season in a three-way tie for second place.
Tatrallyay's All-Ivy performance was remarkable for an athlete who has been plagued throughout his career by torn cartilages and weak ankles. Excellent fencing, however, is not his only accomplishment. Next year Tatrallyay will study anthropology at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship.
Tatrallyay was born in Hungary in 1949. Under the communist regime life was difficult for his family. "We were just being constantly hassled by the government. They told my father that if he didn't cooperate with the government, his children wouldn't get past the eighth grade," he said.
In 1956, the family tried to flee the country three times. On the first try, the leader of the fleeing group of families turned out to be a police agent, who led the group into a trap. Several people were shot, and Tatrallyay's family was captured by the Hungarian secret police.
The police then took the family back to their headquarters. "I can remember sitting on a stool," Tatrallyay said. "Big ugly guys were questioning us. I cried the whole time. My father was beaten." The police warned the family that if they tried to escape again, they would all be killed.
The Tatrallyays's second escape attempt also failed. They arranged Hungary by train, but at the last moment the conductor balked on a plan to take them across the border to Austria.
On the third try the Tatrallyays were finally successful. A friend gave the family the address of his old cleaning woman's sons, who agreed to guide them to the border crossing.
A guide accompanied the family to the border clearing, a muddy field. He told them that the bridge located across the clearing lay in Austrian territory. "We just walked across toward the bridge," Tatrallyay recalled. "My mother lost a shoe containing old gold coins in the mud."
The family reached Austria safely and later emigrated to Canada.
Tatrallyay came to Harvard from a school near his home in Toronto. As a freshman he tried soccer, his favorite sport, but he soon became discouraged and decided to concentrate on fencing, where he had a better chance of playing regularly.
Fencing is Hungary's national sport. Tatrallyay began to fence as a child and continued during high school in Canada. He has developed an individualistic style employing courageous charge lunges on offense. On defense, Tatrallyay frequently falls to the ground to avoid the attack of the opposition fencer.
"My style is a function of my bad legs. I'm a terrible fencer stylistically. The only thing that allows me to do well is my quick reflexes," Tatrallyay said.
Fencing is easier in the United States than in Europe, Tatrallyay said. "You have to do 100 lunges for practice in Europe, and every time you don't do a lunge right, the master slashes you across the back of your legs with a sabre," he said.
Tatrallyay has fenced on the varsity for three years. As a sophomore, he attended the Nationals in Raleigh, N.C. The coach had forgotten to get reservations for the team, and Tatrallyay, along with three other teammates, ended up in a room with only two single beds.
"We couldn't sleep so we called up the other teams and played the harmonica over the phone." Tatrallyay said. "We figured if we couldn't sleep, they shouldn't either."