Five decades of the UNC Fencing and the North Carolina fencing community mourn as news of the death of former UNC Coach Ron Miller spreads. USA Fencing announced Miller’s passing on June 5th, 2023.
“One of Coach’s strengths was his ability to see more in you than anyone else, even you, could see. He inspired me to do things I couldn’t imagine being able to do, starting with day one of practice at UNC.”
Mike NicholsonFoil Coach
Miller’s death was not unexpected. Mike Nicholson, a former UNC fencer and coach at Forge, visited coach the Friday before his death. “We watched and discussed videos of the Olympics together.” Even though Miller had had a long battle with cancer, the news still hit hard. Spontaneous grief was expressed across social media as teammates shared memories about a man seemingly larger than life.
Because of Miller’s grassroots efforts to develop fencing in North Carolina, Forge exists today. Mike Nicholson and Jen Oldham, two UNC alumni and Forge staff, became coaches under his reign and worked locally in his shadow. Forge would like to take a moment to recognize Miller’s legacy, and focus on our shared love of the sport fencing and his legacy impact.
Nicholson was one of a handful of UNC fencers developed as a youth athlete by Miller and stands out among alumni for being a lifetime student of Miller’s in addition to his continued work as a coach and referee. Miller’s club, where Mike learned to fence, shared space with the UNC varsity fencing program. The club was known as the North Carolina Fencing Development Program, or NCFDP.
Pre-pandemic, NCFDP was where fencers drove from all over the east coast to fence some good bouts and participate in local tournaments sanctioned by USA Fencing. The community gathered on Tuesday and Thursday nights to share fencing lore and catch up on marriages and births. If ever there was a watering hole for fencers in North Carolina to gather, this was it.
Annual fall tournaments hosted by NCFCP brought fencers from up and down the east coast. These tournaments offered valuable training experience for USA Fencing members, the UNC team, and for referee development.
There are a few things most folks don’t realize about the UNC team which impact this grassroots mentality. A 1986 UNC System policy mandates that no more than 18 percent of first-year undergraduate students enrolling on most UNC campuses may be from out-of-state. The intent of this mandate was to ensure equal access to higher education at the University of North Carolina as a state-supported school.
With this mandate, only a handful of fencers could be recruited each year from out-of-state. Miller was forced to build fencers from scratch. His recruitment often centered around hoping athletes could get into UNC on their own merits and searching for those developed North Carolina fencers from a very underdeveloped Region 6 in United States Fencing.
Both Coaches Oldham and Nicholson were part of the underdog legacy which fueled the magnetic Carolina spirit of the 1990s and early 2000s. Coach Oldham came to Carolina from a town with the population of just under 10,000 in Moore County, and was recruited to try out for the team out of a fencing class taught by Miller. Oldham’s experience, and the benefits experienced as a member of the UNC Varsity Team, motivated her to change the local competitive climate.
Mid-South Fencers’ Club opened in 2007. Oldham set out to use her knowledge gained as an athlete competing with USA National Team and while working as as coach in a national training center under Olympic coach Ed Korfanty in order to help the team. “The journey has been rewarding and I have loved contributing to the team in what little way I could as a former athlete,” says Coach Jen. Seven of her students have gone on to compete for Carolina Fencing.
Coaches Oldham and Nicholson are no strangers to seeing the evolution of a team and fencing in the United States unfold. Miller was known to be a huge advocate for the inclusion of women to fence all three Olympic-style weapons in the NCAA.
Under Miller’s leadership, the addition of epee and saber squads to the Carolina women’s team happened while Coach Jen was an athlete. By the time Jen graduated from UNC, she and other women across the United States had a choice to compete in foil, epee or saber, just like the men. UNC women were allowed to lead the way.
Today, Oldham and Nicholson see much of the work Coach Miller started happening in their own club. This work continues Miller’s history of expanding coaching education and referee development in North Carolina. Nicholson and Oldham work with organizations like the USA Fencing North Carolina Division, Forge Teams, and WFencing to accomplish these goals.
“We are in another team evolution, and the needs of the team have changed. My grief at learning about Coach’s death is multidimensional. I yearn and grieve for Carolina Fencing.”
Jen OldhamForge Teams Leader and Coach
Coaches Jen and Mike would like to acknowledge the whole team’s power and love. The spirit of Carolina Fencing can be felt with the shared outpouring of grief and adoration for our coach.
Coach’s wife, Susun Miller, has asked in lieu of flowers please consider a contribution in the name of Ronald C. Miller to these organizations:
Memorial gifts can be made to the UNC Fencing Operating Endowment. Checks should be made payable to “The Educational Foundation” with “In Memory of Ron Miller” in the memo and mailed to P.O. Box 2446, Chapel Hill, NC, 27515 (phone 919-843-2000).
UNC Skin Cancer and Melanoma Program.
AuthoraCare Collective, A Nonprofit Organization. Formerly Hospice of Alamance-Caswell & Hospice of Greensboro. 914 Chapel Hill Rd, Burlington, NC 27215.