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Volume 77, Number 24 | November 14 - 20, 2007

Gregory Vicenty works the bag, showing the form that made him a Golden Gloves champ.

Fitness coach pounds winning attitude into booters

By Judith Stiles

When former police officer Gregory Vicenty was shot in the back in 1984 during a drug sting operation in Santurce, Puerto Rico, he thanked his lucky stars for the protective gear he wore that day, because he did not die. Bulletproof vests and helmets do not guarantee complete protection, and after that death-defying experience, Vicenty knew that when all was said and done, pure luck truly was a factor in his survival.

Little did he foresee that the theme of being lucky or unlucky in life would haunt him in a new incarnation, 20 years later when he would become a trainer for the New York University men’s soccer team. When he joined the support staff at N.Y.U., he discovered something that every seasoned soccer nut knows — simply that winning games can boil down to a matter of inches. Whether a ball hits the post and bounces away for no goal or flies a mere inches inside the post to score, Vicenty learned that no matter how skilled a striker might be, the result often has something to do with wind, physics and pure luck.

After Vicenty’s stint as a police officer, he went on to try his luck as a boxer, and soon became a Golden Gloves champion in 1978 and 1979. He also embarked on a 17-year career as a military man in the U.S. Army, before he arrived at N.Y.U. to take on the responsibility of fitness training. He brought with him a highly disciplined approach to mental and physical conditioning, and according to Joe Behan, the head coach of N.Y.U.’s stellar men’s soccer team, “Vicenty’s addition to our staff was a key element in the success we have experienced.” Not since 1982 had the N.Y.U. men’s team made it to the Final Four in the N.C.A.A. Division III Tournament. Last season, N.Y.U. competed in the Final Four and was ranked No. 4 in the National Soccer Coaches’ Association of America.

As it turned out, last year’s success was not a fluke because this year Vicenty’s hard work and Behan’s expert coaching have propelled the team to the Final Four for a second time. Success is now the name of the game since Vicenty came onboard at N.Y.U.

“It takes a special kind of man who can step into the ring ready to box when his adrenaline is pumping and he is really nervous. I train my players to have the daring and confidence of a boxer,” said Vicenty, drawing parallels between the two sports.

To Vicenty it sometimes seems like a big leap from boxing and the Army to training young men at a major university’s athletic program. However in 2004, when Vicenty privately trained N.Y.U. soccer player Murad Fahreed off-campus, the rest of the team watched with wide-eyed interest as Fahreed’s level of play radically improved. Behan noticed the transformation, too, and hired Vicenty to work with his entire squad.

“At first the players hated me,” laughed Vicenty. “When I first got there I made it clear we were certainly not buddies, but I did see it as my job to get in their heads so that they would really believe in themselves and their abilities,” he added fondly. Soon after his arrival, “Fit To Fight” became their motto, and they now have a reputation for being physically and mentally tough.

What is Vicenty’s secret formula? He is not reticent about revealing his training strategy, which includes plyometrics and a lot of ball work. But his players will be the first to say his success is not rooted in what he does — it is how he does it. Vicenty has a flair for bringing out the best in each of his players, with a style akin to that of a benevolent drill sergeant. He can be very tough and peppery with his words, but he is also very supportive of his men. 

Nobody knows better than Vicenty and Behan that a coach and a trainer will do everything they can to set the table for a winning season, but when the starting whistle blows, winning or losing is up to the players. This fall turned out to be a great success for captains Nicolas Palmer and Jeritt Thayer, who led them to the Final Four again, with a record of 13-4-1, leading up to the match against Hamilton College. Although the team was psychologically ready and “fit to fight” for the big game, it was not their day when they fell to Hamilton, 2-0. Weather, physics and luck came into play, taking the win out of their hands. The footnotes to the game reveal that N.Y.U. out-shot Hamilton 19 to 5, along with a 6-to-0 advantage in corner kicks. And in the second half, Violets forward Adam Dhanens blasted a shot that hit the crossbar, unlucky by inches for the Village’s hometown team.

At the end of a successful season like this, players and fans tend to reflect on the results in different ways. Some are crushed by the loss to Hamilton while others focus on the impressive accomplishments of these young men. Among numerous accolades, co-captain Thayer earned the University Athletic Association’s Outstanding Offensive Player of the Week award, as well as being named the Metro Region Athlete of The Week. Also Devin Freeman-Roche and Dhanens earned U.A.A. Athlete of the Week awards for defense and offense, respectively, while goalie Chris Wright earned U.A.A. and Eastern College Athletic Conference weekly honors for his work between the posts. And when trainer Vicenty pauses for a moment and tips his hat to these outstanding young men, you can bet he is already thinking of next year when he will introduce the newcomers to the rigors of his trademark workouts. He will warn them not to expect “A”’s right away in his “Fit to Fight” program, and definitely not to depend on luck when it comes to getting fit.

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