He twice led the Columbia Lions to the NCAA Fencing Championship. But Bob Cottingham's career didn't end there as he twice represented the United States at the Olympics.
When Bob Cottingham arrived as a freshman sabre fencer in 1984, Columbia fencing had not won an NCAA title since 1971. When he graduated in 1988, the program just won its second straight championship and would go on to win five titles in seven years.
Cottingham was key to the revival of this elite program.
Growing up in Orange, New Jersey, he "played football and lacrosse, which is my favorite sport," he says. "I can also remember watching other athletes on television in the Olympics." He would soon join those athletes on the Olympic stage.
Cottingham began fencing at Monclair Kimberley Academy under Columbia grad Carmen Marnell and was named all-state. When it came time to pick a college, he knew where he wanted to be -- New York City. "Lots of powerhouse fencing comes out of New York, lots of opportunity for good bouting," he explains. "I wanted to be fencing against the best fencers in the country." He chose Columbia because it had "the best fit for my personality. I felt good about the school and the academics."
Cottingham settled into a routine of academics and fencing, at Columbia and at the other clubs -- Fencers Club and New York Athletic Club -- downtown. Founded in the nineteenth century, both clubs have long been an implicit part of Columbia fencing, with fencers and coaches gravitating to the clubs, where many of the worlds best train.
"I trained at Fencers Club with Pete Mikael," he says, "and would get a day pass to New York Athletic Club to train with Aladar [Kogler, Columbia fencing's co-head coach]. The clubs gave me access to the best fencers in the country." As for academics "it was difficult in the beginning, but once I settled in it became easier because I was either doing one (school) or the other (fencing). My teammates made it easier because that was the environment of the fencing program."
He quickly established himself, going 28-2 with a 14-1 Ivy record and earning first team All-Ivy and All-American honors. His sophomore year Cottingham went 15-0 against the Ivies, and won the USFA Collegiate Open title en route to helping the Lions finish second in the NCAA tournament.
Columbia won its first NCAA title in 16 years his junior season. "My most memorable fencing experience had to be winning the NCAA championships the first time," Cottingham remembers. "We had done well before and after but winning the whole thing as a team was great. There was pressure and the team pushed through strongly." The team repeated as NCAA champions the next year and Cottingham helped lead the way, winning the sabre individual championship. Columbia had a triumvirate of individual champions that season, with Jon Normile taking the epee title and Marc Kent winning in the foil. This was the first time all three champions were from the same school since 1961, and the trio was named NCAA Fencer of the Year.
Coming off a stellar college career, the Olympics loomed as Cottingham's next big challenge. "The trials were nerve wracking," he says. "I didn't make the team until the last trial." But "It was a completely different place once you made the team. You never saw such support. All this stuff you had to scrape for, you got."
This was just a prelude to the Olympics itself. Held in Seoul, South Korea, Cottingham was the subject of a television piece because his father had fought in Korea. "We went back to where he fought," he says, and the exposure made him recognizable to other athletes. "[NBA star] David Robinson came up and wanted my autograph," he remembers. He also competed in the 1992 Games.
After Columbia Cottingham earned a law degree from Rutgers University-Newark, and worked for Congressman Donald Payne (D - NJ), eventually becoming district director in charge of New Jersey operations, according to Cottingham. He is currently Vice President Government Affairs & Northeast Director for Phacil, an engineering technical services provider. "I head up government relations," he explains, "we're making sure policymakers are aware of issues facing small business, and funding issues affecting our customers."
He's also Administrative Chair of the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Founded by fellow Olympic sabre Peter Westbrook, the foundation "promotes the development of young people via an integrated approach of fencing, academic excellence and life skills development initiatives." Alumni of the program include former Columbia fencer Erinn Smart and former Princeton fencer Kamara James, two of the five Olympians the program has produced. "We have 120-130 kids every day, they're really thriving," he says.
The Westbrook Foundation's goal is to help New York-area inner-city kids "realize their own dreams through fencing." Sounds like Bob Cottingham has done just that.
— Stephen Eschenbach