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North Haven fencing alum Jim Harris is back at his old school for his second tenure as head coach of the fencing program. A Guilford resident, Jim initially served as North Haven’s head coach from 2001 through 2008. (Photo courtesy of Jim Harris )
Jim Harris’s life has revolved around fencing ever since he first picked up a sword during his junior year at North Haven High School. Now, Jim is returning to where his journey through the fencing world began as he was recently named head coach of the North Haven fencing program for the second time in his career.
Jim, a Guilford resident, initially served as the head coach of North Haven fencing from 2001 to 2008. For the past few years, Jim was an assistant coach with the fencing team at Morgan.
When the head coaching position at North Haven opened up, Athletic Director Steve Blumenthal reached out to people who he thought might be interested in taking the job. Jim had interest in the position and, with the support of with wife Emilie, decided to return to his alma mater to coach the fencing team again.
“It feels really good. I grew up in North Haven, I fenced for North Haven, I coached with North Haven. In some ways, I kind of never left. I’ve always tried to help out the team here and there,” Jim says. “There’s some folks on the team that I worked with when they were much younger. I knew I wanted to get back into coaching at the high school level. When the job opened up, the timing was perfect.”
Jim joined the North Haven fencing team in his junior year of high school. Jim had been playing golf, but had a couple of friends on the fencing team, and decided to give it a try. As soon as he stepped on the strip, Jim discovered that he loved both the physical and mental side of fencing. In his senior season, Jim served as a captain for North Haven.
After graduating in 1996, Jim attended the University of Notre Dame, where he majored in political science and was a four-year member of the fencing team. Jim didn’t win a single bout in either a practice or a match during his freshman season. He came home discouraged for winter break and spoke with his former high school coach Lucienne Coifman. Jim wasn’t sure if he could hang with the athletes at Notre Dame, but Coifman encouraged him to compete in North Haven’s alumni fencing event that year, and Jim turned in an excellent performance. Jim’s spark for the sport was suddenly reignited, and he went on to have a solid college career, leading Notre Dame as a captain in his senior season.
“Notre Dame is competing for national championships every year. They’re one of the top two or three programs in the country. It was an eye-opening experience. You don’t know what you don’t know until you see the people who are the best,” says Jim. “From the moment I got there, I was a part of that team. I had 18 months of fencing experience, and I’m now competing with All-Americans and Olympians. I worked my way up. It was an awesome experience.”
Jim graduated from Notre Dame in 2000 and then promptly started his coaching career by joining Coifman’s staff at North Haven that year. When Coifman retired the following year, Jim became North Haven’s head coach. Jim never expected to get into coaching, but he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity when it was presented to him.
“I had no intention of doing any coaching. I was going to be a lobbyist in Hartford. My high school coach said she had an opening for an assistant coach and asked if I’d be interested,” Jim says. “I felt, and still do, like I owed a tremendous debt to the fencing program at North Haven. I got into it and loved working with kids and loved coaching just as much, if not more, than competing.”
In 2005, Jim opened up Iconn Fencing Club as a way to get deeper into the sport and become more technically proficient in fencing. However, between teaching history, being a head coach, and running Iconn, Jim found it difficult to find time to balance everything.
Following a successful run that included numerous state titles, Jim stepped down as North Haven’s fencing coach in 2008. By 2016, he had sold Iconn, married his wife Emilie, and bought a house in Guilford. At this point, Jim was planning on spending his free time away from the sport.
However, just one year later, Jim received a call from Morgan fencing coach Jim Barnett, who asked him if he wanted to join the Huskies as an assistant coach. Jim hopped aboard and it felt like he had “never left” the fencing circuit. Jim quickly realized just how much he loves coaching.
Now, Jim has come back home and is excited to begin his second tenure as the head coach of North Haven fencing. Through the first few practices, Jim has seen a great work ethic from his fencers and looks forward to seeing what they can achieve this season. Jim also likes that he’s reconnecting with his fellow coaches at North Haven, bringing back good memories from his first go-round at the school.
“It has been great. I’ve been talking to the custodial staff. I was talking to Marc Celmer, the track coach. When track leaves the gym, the fencing team comes in, and that’s how it has been since the old high school,” says Jim. “It’s really great to see all of those guys. It’s a great situation with Steve Blumenthal. We have an awesome senior class and a great group of kids that are excited to do some fencing.”
As North Haven works its way through the 2021 season, Jim is emphasizing both fencing fundamentals and a positive team atmosphere. Jim wants his athletes to focus on the finer points of the sport and do those things correctly on a consistent basis. In the end, Jim is looking for North Haven’s fencers to represent the town proudly through their hard work and determination.
It means a lot to Jim that he found a sport he was passionate about and could excel in with fencing. Now back at the school where it all began, Jim feels honored for another opportunity to pass on what he’s learned to the newest generation of North Haven fencers.
“It’s something I’m incredibly proud of. It’s the best of what sports should be. It requires dedication, it requires hard work, it requires being respectful not just of your opponents and teammates, but of tradition,” Jim says. “Those things are very important to me. It’s great to have played a small part in the building and continuation of those traditions. It means a lot to be a fencer and a coach.”