Saber Rattling

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The teens loved mocking Keeth Smart as he rode the Brooklyn subways, swords tucked under his arm. “Look, it’s Zorro,” they said. African-American kids from Ocean Ave., in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, weren’t supposed to fence. They played hoops, or tackle football on rock-strewn fields. Fencing? Wasn’t that for Luke Skywalker and Obi-Won Kenobi?

Keeth Smart, 26, now laughs at all the jabs because those swords have thrust him into the Olympics. But he won’t do much bragging today. Smart, once the top-ranked saber fencer in the world, didn’t make it out of the round of 16 on Saturday, falling quietly to Italy’s Aldo Montano, 15-9, at the Helliniko Fencing Hall on the Mediterranean coast in Athens. The match lasted six minutes. “He was very well prepared,” Smart said of Montano after the duel. “He stuck well to his strategy, and caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect to go down so early . . . I’m just very frustrated right now. I’m not going to lie to you – it sucks.”

Fellow New Yorker Ivan Lee, who fenced with Smart at Brooklyn Tech High School and St. John’s University in Queens, didn’t fare any better. At almost the same time that Smart went down, Lee’s Olympic hopes ended with a 15-9 loss to Russia’s Stanislav Pozdniakov. As any old Dodger fan can tell you, Brooklyn’s seen better days.

But the borough’s bearing of two Olympic fencers is a minor miracle. Both Smart and Lee are students of Peter Westbrook, the 1984 Olympic medalist who started a foundation fifteen years ago to attract inner-city children to the sport. Keeth’s father, Tom, had spotted an ad for Westbrook’s clinics and convinced Keeth’s younger sister, Erinn, now 24, to give it a try. Keeth saw how much Erinn enjoyed fencing and soon picked it up. The kid sister is not too bad herself—she duels for the U.S. on Wednesday in the women’s foil competition. (Quick primer: the foil has a flexible rectangular blade, and points are scored with the tip and must land within an opponent’s torso. The saber’s blade is similar, but in this specialty fencers can score from the hips to the head, like knocking a cavalry rider of a horse. A saber fencer can also knock an opponent with the side of the blade. In the third fencing event, the epee, athletes fight with a heavier sword and score with touches in the widest possible target area, head to toe.)

After competing in front of five or six people at high school matches, Keeth won two national championships at St. John’s, in 1997 and 1999. He made the Sydney Olympic team but finished 30th. In March of 2003 Smart won the silver medal at the World Cup in Athens, a performance that propelled him to number one in the world standings. The rise of Smart and fellow African-Americans from the Westbrook clinic raised some eyebrows in the fencing world. Tom Smart heard the whispers in the crowd: who are these black kids?

Keeth says he’s now accepted by the elite European fencers, though he’s not as well-funded—while foreign stars make a living off the sport, Smart is a finance manager at Verizon in New York City. He took a leave of absence in March to train for the Athens games. Despite Saturday’s stinging loss, Smart is not headed back to the cubicle right away—he and Lee will compete in the saber team event on Thursday. The U.S. hasn’t won a team fencing medal since 1948, when men’s saber took home the bronze. Fencing experts say that this is America’s deepest squad ever, though the Hungarians, with their technical expertise, and the Russians, with their sheer aggression, will be tough. “I know a team medal is more realistic,” Smart says. “I can’t dwell on the individual loss.” The Brooklyn kids insist they’ll be ready; on Thursday, they might be waving to all those subway wiseguys from the medal stand.