New Duke fencing head coach Omar Elgeziry is shining a light on the role of mental health in college sports

Duke fencers celebrate at the Penn State Duals in January 2023.
Duke fencers celebrate at the Penn State Duals in January 2023.

Every season brings a new set of questions. Players move on, newcomers find their footing and competitors get stronger. Going into the 2023-24 season, however, the Duke fencing team faced one question bigger than the rest: Who is new head coach Omar Elgeziry?

When former head coach Alex Beguinet announced his retirement in early April 2023, there was no doubt that whoever succeeded him would have big shoes to fill. Beguinet led the Blue Devils for 38 years, establishing the program as one of the best in ACC and NCAA history. With Benuinet at the helm, Duke qualified over 100 fencers to the NCAA Championships and brought home three ACC titles across the men’s and women’s teams. Beguinet also brought up two Olympic medalists in his time at Duke in Becca Ward (Beijing 2008) and Ibtihaj Muhammad (Rio de Janeiro 2016). Following the end of such a successful era, it is certainly not easy to find an equally remarkable head coach.

Duke athletic director Nina King, however, identified something remarkable in Elgeziry. The Cairo native’s extensive experience as both a coach and a fencer has more than prepared him to take on this new role.

“Stepping into the legendary Alex Beguinet's shoes brings excitement and responsibility, but I'm ready to embrace the challenges and build upon Alex's strong foundation,” Elgeziry told GoDuke in July.

Elgeziry didn’t always know he wanted to be a fencer, let alone a coach. Originally a swimmer, he was inspired to try the sport after watching his older brother compete in modern pentathlon at the Sydney Olympic Games. He quickly became just as victorious, winning the Junior World Cup and two Egyptian championships in epee. He also had the chance to compete in the Olympic Games himself, making history in 2016 as the first Olympic coach to qualify for the same games as an athlete.

After moving to America in 2011, Elgeziry planned to leave fencing behind and start a new career in civil engineering. But when he took his first coaching job, he quickly changed his mind. He began his collegiate coaching career as an assistant coach at Cornell before going on to spend four seasons as the head coach at Air Force. There, he achieved a program record by qualifying 10 athletes for the 2022 NCAA Championships.

A fresh perspective

With such a unique background, it’s no wonder that Elgeziry has brought a fresh perspective to Duke’s prestigious program. His emphasis on promoting mental wellbeing among his fencers stands out as the most innovative step he has made with the program so far. According to senior and co-captain Christina Ferrari, Elgeziry has done this by strengthening not only the technical abilities of the team, but also the relationships between fencers. 

“He's focusing a lot on that team aspect, bringing us all together and making sure that we're working towards one goal throughout the semester and throughout the season,” Ferrari told The Chronicle. “That's been a good emphasis to have.”

Elgeziry’s goal to cultivate stronger support systems for the Blue Devils goes hand-in-hand with the mental health practices he has implemented since arriving at Duke. He has worked to arrange weekly or biweekly sessions for Dr. Joanna Foss, Duke Athletics’ assistant director of mental health and performance, to talk with the team and lead team-building activities. Elgeziry also encourages fencers to schedule one-on-one meetings with Dr. Foss and other mental health professionals. In the future, Elgeziry plans on arranging for Dr. Foss to travel with the team to the NCAA tournament and continue providing mental health services that will allow fencers to perform to the best of their ability.

“Duke has a lot of amazing resources that I didn't experience in any other colleges that I worked with,” Elgeziry said. “The fact that we have professionals here who work in the mental health piece and we have designated professionals who work with a team one-on-one — that's another thing that I added. I don't think it was utilized or publicized to the team at all.”

In addition to bringing on mental health professionals, Elgeziry has also implemented meditation exercises before and after every practice. For two to three minutes, the team comes together so the athletes can close their eyes and think about what they want to work on that day.

“It's nice to come in at the start of practice and have an exercise that we all do together, instead of just filtering in and getting started,” Ferrari said. “It brings us to focus at the beginning and then also at the end, and I think that's been pretty beneficial for us.”

Elgeziry explained that these exercises were pivotal in his own career as a professional fencer.

“Something that I learned when I used to train and when I competed was I felt that [mental well-being] was a part that they always neglected,” he said. “I didn't buy into it until I met with my life coach. She introduced that to me and immediately it had a huge impact on my performance. It made me qualified for the Olympics and made me become a world champion — a huge change. It taught me a big deal about inner peace and how to regulate my thoughts in my mind.”

Since then, Elgeziry has been able to integrate meditation into his everyday life and now passes the practice onto the Blue Devils. He hopes that these short moments of reflection will benefit them in the same way, especially as they balance the stress and pressure that comes with being student athletes.

Changing the narrative

Studies conducted by the NCAA in 2020 found that student athletes are more likely than average college students to experience anxiety, depression, and mental exhaustion. Especially at an academically rigorous institution like Duke, student athletes may struggle to balance their athletic commitments with full course loads. This is in addition to the stress that comes with missing classes, constant visibility on campus and not having enough time for social interaction. Elgeziry’s efforts help address these concerns, as well as the stigma surrounding mental health in athletics.

Sport, so often, fixates on the perception of strength. Athletes that persevered to overcome the odds are celebrated by audiences for their bravery. For example, Kerri Strug became a teenage phenomenon after helping the United States gymnastics team win the Atlanta Olympic Games on a sprained ankle. This has created a taboo around seeking help. Not wanting to be seen as “weak” or “cowardly,” athletes may be pressured to hide their struggles with mental health. Ultimately, this can cause them to burn out or even be put in physical danger.

That said, the world’s most accomplished athletes are currently shifting the narrative surrounding mental health in sports. Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open, struggling from anxiety and depression. Simone Biles sat out from several events at the Tokyo Olympic Games after her mind and body fell out of sync. Michael Phelps spoke out about his struggles with substance abuse following his retirement. Now, more than ever, athletes are embracing and prioritizing mental health. Elgeziry is no exception.

While the Blue Devils’ season only began last month, Elgeziry is already leaving a lasting impact on the team. His efforts, in particular, have allowed fencers to be more intentional in their preparation process for meets and taking care of their mental health more broadly..

“I feel that by doing that kind of purposeful visualization, it's allowed them to leave some of the other distractions of the outside world and train just a little more seriously. We're all bringing our whole selves to work,” said assistant coach Darius Wei. “Obviously you can't shut out the entire outside world, but I think it has been a nice change and I feel like it's made progress in that direction.”

So far, the team has not just picked up where it left off, but also exceeded expectations and pulled off quite a few stunning upsets. Perhaps the changes spearheaded by Elgeziry have made the team more conscious of the role mental health plays in athletic performance, and have subsequently improved results.

“I think that he's bringing a lot of attention to both our energy and what we're putting in on the strip just from heart but also mind and making sure that we know what we're doing on the strip and really emphasizing both,” Ferrari said.

While Elgeziry’s efforts have focused the fencing program more closely on mental health, he acknowledges that these changes need to be made across the board. There is still work that needs to be done in the world of college sports to completely eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health. It is his hope that coaches, staff and administration can continue diversifying the ways that they support student athletes.

“In order to be able to excel academically and athletically, you have to be happy with yourself and mentally strong and enjoying what you're doing and enjoying the place and the space you're working in,” Elgeziry said. “I think it's very important to focus on it. I believe that we, as in college athletics, are doing a better job every day. I don't think it's 100% yet, but I think we're getting there.”


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