Five months ago, St. John’s graduate Keeth Smart, 30, was lying in a hospital bed in Algeria listening to doctors and hospital staff tell him that his fencing career was likely finished and his 2008 Olympic dreams definitely dashed.
Smart had contracted a rare blood disease from something he ate during the fencing tournament in Africa where he qualified for his third Olympic games, and he spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, including time in the intensive care unit.
Although all of the negative prognostications may have been deflating, Smart returned to the U.S., and after a short period off, resumed fencing activities and his training for the Olympics.
Now, after defying all odds, he is on his way to Beijing as the United States’ top-ranked sabre fencer - fifth in the world - with a legitimate chance to win a medal.
“The crown jewel of fencing is the Olympics because it’s once in every four years, and everyone in fencing remembers who the Olympic champions are,” Smart said.
While overcoming the blood disease is the most recent triumph of Smart’s fencing career, it’s only one of the many stories of inspiration, courage and determination.
“My goals for Beijing are pretty simple, it’s just to win a medal,” said Smart. “I think I’ve achieved everything else possible in my career with high rankings, winning numerous tournaments so at this stage in my career the last thing is winning a medal.”
Fencing in America, and New York City in particular, has never been a very popular sport.
Back in 1991, Smart’s father Thomas, who worked for Sports Illustrated, read an article on fencing and decided to enroll Keeth and his sister Erinn in the Peter Westbrook Foundation to learn the sport. Westbrook, who was the last American fencer to win an Olympic medal when he captured the bronze medal in sabre at the 1984 Olympic games, served as a mentor for Keeth and his sister, but Keeth did not immediately fall in love with the sport.
“When I first started, I was extremely reluctant to begin fencing because I knew no one that did it; the only thing I knew of fencing was from Star Wars,” Keeth said. “It was tough at first dealing with the ridicule of doing something different than what your friends were doing.”
As he continued learning the techniques and nuances of the sport, Keeth showed significant progress, and when it was time to decide on a college, fencing played a large factor in his decision.
“The main reason I chose the college that I did, St. John’s University, was because of fencing,” said Keeth, who was not heavily recruited out of Brooklyn Tech High School by other top fencing programs.
However, St. John’s University Fencing Coach Yuri Gelman, who currently coaches the U.S. National Team, had known Keeth from his training at the Manhattan fencing academy and offered him a scholarship. Meanwhile, the lack of national attention from other recruiters lit a fire inside of Keeth that became clear early in his college career.
“My freshman year, I was just so diligent [at] practicing and working in the weight room that I was able to win NCAA’s as a freshman, which was just unheard of,” he said.
Two years later, Keeth won his second individual NCAA title. But, his proudest moment came during his senior year when he placed second in the individual competition, and St. John’s won the NCAA team title.
“It was only the second team championship in St. John’s athletic history so for the fencing team to accomplish that in my career was truly amazing,” Keeth said.
While at St. John’s, Keeth began to establish himself on the U.S. fencing stage and earned a spot on the National Team that went to Sydney, Australia for the 2000 Olympics. Although he did not go into those Olympics with high expectations, he savored the experience so that when he returned to Athens in 2004 he was a veteran.
In between the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Smart graduated from St. John’s and took a job as a financial analyst at Verizon Communications. After working a full day in Manhattan, Smart would head straight to the fencing club and put in hours of training and practice - a stark contrast from most of the European competitors he faces.
“I would say American fencers always are two strikes behind in the count when competing against European fencers because all of our European counterparts are fully subsidized professional athletes,” Keeth said.
However, that did not matter to Keeth as he focused exclusively on work and training culminating in a No. 1 world ranking in 2003 - the first time in more than 100 years of U.S. fencing that a U.S. athlete achieved that ranking.
Life Changing Moment
After climbing the ladder to No. 1, Keeth went into the 2004 Olympics in Athens with lofty expectations as a serious medal contender.
Although he lost earlier than expected in the individual sabre competition, Keeth had the opportunity to fence for a medal twice in the team competition. During each match, the U.S. team lost by one point, leaving Keeth agonizingly close to the coveted Olympic medal.
“In the team competition, Keeth changed and he fenced extremely, extremely well,” Gelman said. “He showed the best ever fencing and really deserved to win it.
It hurt him a lot, and he was crying.”
While Keeth was certainly disappointed, he was also able to keep the loss in perspective.
“I look at it as a learning experience not to give up,” Keeth said. “A lot of people in sports quit immediately after such an occurrence.”
One more shot at
Gold in Beijing
When he came back from Athens, Keeth was frustrated with the sport and actually quit fencing for nearly two years. At Gelman’s urging, Keeth started fencing again in order to keep in shape, but that competitive streak and hunger to be the best quickly came back. However, after more than two years away from the sport, the road back was not easy.
“I literally had to start from the ground up, work my way back because my ranking had fallen off and I had to prove myself all over again,” Keeth said. “I like that aspect of having to go to all the minor tournaments, basically starting in Single A baseball and working my way up to the majors.”
For the past few months, Keeth has been training with three of his fellow Olympic Team members at the Manhattan Fencing Center - a new club started by Gelman.
“I think training with my Olympic teammates has been the best thing that happened to me because it forces everyone to raise their game,” Keeth said. “We are constantly pushing each other; the practices are very vigorous.”
Keeth is seeded fifth in a 32-person tournament in the men’s sabre category - his highest ranking going into any Olympics.
“I tell you Keeth is ready to win the individual gold medal now, maybe much more than last time,” Gelman said.
In Beijing, Keeth will have a familiar face along for the ride - his younger sister Erinn, 28, who will make her third Olympic appearance on the women’s team and in the individual foil competition.
“What we’re going through is pretty unique,” Keeth said. “Not many friends or family members can understand or empathize with some of the pressure or nuances associated with the sport.”
However, two people who did were their parents - Thomas and Audrey. After Thomas died of a heart attack in 2005, Keeth and Erinn both suffered another devastating loss when their mother died of colon cancer on May 25 of this year. Keeth said that their mother accompanied them on their previous Olympic trips and was their biggest cheerleader.
“I would love to win a medal in memory of my parents,” Keeth said. “To give them something back as a thank you would be amazing with that medal, but regardless of how I finish at the games, I know they are looking down on me and are extremely supportive of my life choices.”