Slow Start, Smart Finish

By BASN Wire Services
Updated: August 18, 2008

BEIJING — There Keeth Smart was again — a point away from victory, a point away from defeat. His American fencing teammates feared the worst.

“I think we were just bracing ourselves,” Jason Rogers said. “We were in Athens and we had two matches, extremely close, both in situations where we could medal. There was a little bit of a flashback to Athens, but I have to give it to Keeth Smart.”

In 2004, Smart was on the strip at the end of back-to-back 45-44 losses. A win in either would have given his team a medal, but instead the Americans finished fourth. This year, Smart scored the deciding point in two 45-44 wins, and his U.S. saber team took the silver.

The U.S. lost to France, 45-37, in the championship bout Sunday, but this was still the first American medal in men’s fencing since 1984 — and it capped a heartwarming tale of perseverance for Smart.

“It’s been four long years of heartache that we’ve had to relive over and over,” said Smart, who is leaving fencing to go to business school. “For us to go home with a silver medal is truly an honor.”

Smart’s heartache extended beyond sports. Both his parents died since the Athens Games, his mother, this May. He contracted a rare blood disorder earlier this year, threatening his participation in the Beijing Games.

On Saturday, his sister Erinn earned a silver in the team foil event. Sunday was his turn: Smart, Rogers, Brandeis graduate Tim Morehouse, and James Williams reached the podium in dramatic fashion.

In a quarterfinal against Hungary, the U.S. trailed, 40-36, when Smart came on for the final round against Zsolt Nemcsik. The first team to 45 wins, and Smart rallied to tie the bout at 44. On the last point, he retreated slightly before lunging to land the winning touch.

Against Russia, the Americans trailed, 40-35. Smart faced Russia’s Stanislav Pozdnyakov — in an exact role reversal of 2004. That year, Russia trailed, 40-35, before Pozdnyakov rallied against Smart for a 45-44 win and the bronze medal.

Smart outfenced the Russian this time, scoring the winning touch for a 45-44 victory that put the U.S. in the gold medal bout.

“You know when you’re a little kid and you’re dreaming about baseball and you’re thinking about hitting the home run or the grand slam in the ninth inning?” Morehouse said. “Well Keeth did that twice.”

In the final against France, Smart took over with the U.S. behind, 40-28. He outscored Julien Pillet, 9-5, winning a point by running him to the back of the strip.

After conceding the winning touch, Smart took off his mask and grimaced. Then he started nodding his head, knowing the loss wouldn’t come close to ruining a remarkable day.