Lots of Husbands and Wives Thrust and Parry, but the D'Asaros Do It with a Difference
Foil in hand, mask pushed back to reveal a rakish black mustache and goatee, he looks like a modern-day musketeer. In her white fencing jacket, pale blond hair cascading over her shoulders, she could be a Dumas heroine.
The name is D’Asaro—not D’Artagnan. Gay, 22, is America’s top-ranked female fencer. Her 39-year-old husband, Michael, himself a former world champion, is now his wife’s swordplay Svengali. He is coach of fencing at San Jose State, where his women’s teams have won the national collegiate championship for the past three years. “I am one of nine national coaches,” Michael notes. “What Ansel Adams is to photography,” he adds, sounding more like Muhammad AM than the celebrated photographer, “I am to fencing.”
Since June, when Gay received her B.S. in physical education, the D’Asaros have trained for this week’s World University Games in Sophia, Bulgaria. They are representing the U.S. as part of a five-woman, 12-man, two-coach squad. The D’Asaros practice four hours a day, drilling in precision, balance and accuracy. In mock battle, Michael usually wins, but he says confidently that Gay “is just now coming into her prime.”
Perfect foils in many ways—she the California girl, he strictly Brooklyn—the D’Asaros occasionally find that marriage and their teacher-pupil relationship collide. Michael has to prod Gay to peak performance. “When she’s concentrating she’s unbeatable,” he claims. “But sometimes her mind wanders and she goes to pieces.” That happened three years ago after Gay won her first national title.
Her slump was exacerbated by marriage to her mentor in November 1974. “At lessons Michael screams and hollers at me a lot,” she says. “I started to take it personally. Before, I had accepted it as part of the learning process. For two years I wasn’t able to win another competition.” Michael analyzes: “Gay was brought up to please. She did everything her mother and father wanted. When we were first married she felt she had to please me as well. I had to assure her,” he recalls, “that win or lose I’d love her just the same. That was hard for me to say and to really believe. Now she is starting to believe it, too.”
Still, Gay has to compete with her teammates—not only on the strip (the long rectangular area of competition) but for her coach’s attention too. “I try to take time with each woman, and to be strictly objective,” Michael explains, “but Gay says, ‘Look, I need a personal relationship with my husband.’ The other girls seem to understand, because they have their boyfriends around for support.”
The coach-athlete roles end at the front door of the D’Asaros’ modest house, even though it is filled with reminders like trophies and antique foils. “We’re equals at home,” says Gay, who enjoys cooking and needlepoint. Her city-bred husband, meanwhile, is “thrilled with having a little plot of backyard. I just love to get my hands dirty.”
Fencing has done a lot for Michael. “It took me out of the streets of Brooklyn,” he asserts. “When I was a kid I was always in trouble. My family is just happy I have a job and I’m not in jail.” The son of a hospital maintenance worker, he belonged to a street gang called the Red Hook Stompers. He discovered fencing in high school—”I had always loved Douglas Fairbanks movies”—and suddenly, “for that same hostility, they gave me medals.”
Michael won a bundle of them at New York University, which he chose because “it had the best fencing team in the country.” He was an intercollegiate saber champion and his team took a fourth at the 1960 Rome Olympics. After a year at an advertising agency, D’Asaro was drafted into the Army, where he won the world military saber title in 1963. Mustered out, D’Asaro kept up his fencing while pursuing an art career—”I was pretty good at op art, enormous re-creations of the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.” He also divorced his first wife, by whom he has a 13-year-old son now living in New Jersey.
In the late ’60s Michael was lured to the flower-child mecca of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. At one point he was denied a berth on a U.S. team going to the Pan American Games because his hair was too long. As a private fencing instructor in San Francisco, he met Gay when she was 14, youngest in a family of four children from Ripon, Calif. She had begun the sport in a local teacher’s garage. “At night,” Gay remembers, “we’d play Errol Flynn and attack the cars.”
Gay was, contends Michael, “a 14-year-old with good basic technique but no competitive spirit.” While he instilled fight in Gay, she became the adoring pupil (but she also had time to be a cheerleader and high school homecoming princess). “He was like a god to me,” Gay admits. At 17, her first international meet gave her a glimpse of “the striving for excellence” of world-class competition. She was also getting serious about her coach. “When he started showing interest in me,” she says, “I thought, all right, why not?” Michael kept his guard up—”I had a champion on my hands and I didn’t want to blow it”—and Gay made the first overtures. “I explained our age difference,” Michael recalls. “But she’s very mature, and I feel 18 years old. And her parents did not object.”
Both D’Asaros thrive on their days together on the road. “I love to travel and this is the perfect way,” says Gay. “I’ve been to Buenos Aires, Madrid and Turkey already.” Michael prefers to dwell on the sport’s esthetics. “There is a mind-body harmony, a beauty in the fine intricate moves of the hand and foot,” he says. “And that blade is real. Though you’re protected, there is such intensity that when you’re touched, it hurts.” Michael will be even more wounded if, three years hence, his prize pupil does not win Olympic gold in Moscow.