- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

ATHENS — They might as well have carried lightsabers. Darth Vader himself would have drawn fewer stares.

Every day following middle school, siblings Keeth and Erinn Smart rode the New York City subway from their Brooklyn neighborhood to a Manhattan fencing academy, swords in hand. And nearly every day, the taunts came like untrained saber thrusts, less rapier wit than clumsy swipes.

Hey, Zorro!

Yo, Luke Skywalker!

Don’t stab me now!

“We had to deal with a lot of stupid questions,” Keeth recalls. “In Brooklyn, basically everybody does the same few sports, like basketball and track. So [fencing] took a lot of explaining to my friends: ‘OK, we’re not really trying to kill each other. This is a sport. You won’t get injured.’”

Keeth laughs.

“After a few months, our parents got us a bag [for our blades].”

A decade later, there’s no dropping a duffel around the truth: In a sport long dominated by European professionals, the Smarts come to the Athens Olympics as improbable medal contenders, part of the strongest United States fencing team in a generation.

Erinn, 24, is America’s sole entrant in women’s foil, a three-time national champion who finished 11th at last year’s worlds. Keeth, 26, began fencing six months after his sister but has made up for lost time, becoming the first U.S. fencer to rank No.1 in the world following a World Cup silver medal in saber last year.

Not bad for a couple of city youngsters who still inspire double-takes when competing overseas, confounding Continental expectations of where elite fencers are born and made.

“It’s a great thrill for me to see the expressions on [people’s] faces when they’re like, ‘What? An American? How can they violate our sport?’” says Keeth, who will compete in Saturday’s individual saber. “It’s sort of like an Eskimo coming to America and being in the NBA. How did that happen?”

The Smarts didn’t start out looking to party crash. Their father, Tom, simply wanted his children to play a sport that would set them apart when the time came for college applications.

And never mind athletic scholarships: Dad was thinking resume builder. Like joining the glee club or mock United Nations.

“With the top schools, you need something to separate you from the rest,” Keeth says. “My father’s original plan was for us to stop once we got into school.”

A production manager for Sports Illustrated, Tom read an article about Peter Westbrook, a 1984 fencing bronze medalist who was starting a program for urban youth. Smart brought his children to Westbrook’s new club, then located on West 71st Street.

Erinn fell in love. A gifted junior hurdler, she was thrilled by fencing’s nuances — the minute technical details, the endless repeating of thrusts and parries. The blade cut to her perfectionist heart.

Keeth was a different story. Awkward and hot-tempered, he frequently lost to his sister and often struggled to beat opponents five and six years younger.

Impressed by Keeth’s raw athletic ability — and quietly enamored of his fighting spirit, untempered as it was — Westbrook suggested that his pupil switch from foil to saber. Inspired by the calvary fighting maxim of “kill the man, spare the horse,” saber allows hits from the waist up with both the tip and the blade, rewarding speed and aggression.

Early on, Keeth proved a slow study.

“His first time fencing in saber, my dad took his jacket off and stuffed shoulder pads in it,” Erinn recalls with a wince. “He couldn’t take the hits that he got.”

That didn’t last. Keeth endured the bruises — Westbrook was right about his pluck — and quickly improved. So did baby sis. Still, few outside the Smart household noticed.

At Brooklyn Technical High, Keeth and Erinn fenced in a cavernous auditorium before crowds that, on a good night, numbered in the high teens. Though their high school classmates wouldn’t diss fencing outright, most couldn’t grasp why the siblings favored an activity that ranked somewhere between lawn darts and competitive hot dog eating in the national sporting consciousness.

Keeth didn’t care. Never has, never will. He may be the only red-blooded male in America — or anywhere else — to watch the James Bond flick “Die Another Day” and not pay attention to Halle Berry.

“I was actually watching if [a fencing scene] was technically accurate,” Keeth says. “They pretty much got everything right. The one difference is that we don’t fence in libraries with mahogany furniture. It’s a gymnasium.”

Speaking of gyms: Keith and Erinn spent as much as five hours a day at Westbrook’s school, traveling to tournaments on the weekends. The work paid off. As younger teens, the two had rare athletic ability — their mother, Liz, played tennis, and an aunt ran track for Jamaica — but lacked experience. No longer.

Keeth earned a fencing scholarship to St. John’s, where he won two NCAA titles and was named to four All-American teams. Erinn was an All-American at Columbia and won a national title in 1998.

The siblings’ skin tone occasionally raised eyebrows in the overwhelmingly white fencing community. Keeth and Erinn put up with what they could. Overseas, however, their nationality caused a stir. The sport’s European powers expect overmatched American opponents to fold early and often, like Angola in men’s basketball. Worse still, international refs cut the lightly regarded Yanks little slack.

When Keeth began to buck the odds — medaling in five of his past 10 World Cup competitions and helping the U.S. saber squad to an upset of Russia in a recent World Cup team event — it came as a major shock.

“I was at a tournament in Russia last year, and they had the Russian equivalent of Ricky Martin come out to warm up the crowd in this big auditorium,” Keeth says. “Then, in front of thousands of people, an American is beating all these Russian guys on the finals stage. They were all aghast.”

The siblings’ success is even more unlikely given that neither treats fencing like a full-time gig. Keeth worked for Verizon after graduating from college with a finance degree; Erinn took a job with Celine, a French clothing company. Both recently quit their jobs to train for the Games.

“[Celine] is owned by Louis Vutton, so I was getting big discounts,” Erinn says with a laugh. “That was kind of hard.”

Staying on wasn’t an option. While his European rivals are full-fledged professionals — they practice year-round, receive generous stipends and don’t have jobs save fencing — Keeth is anything but. Following his 30th-place finish at the Sydney Games, he found himself capping long days at the office with three-hour practices at the Fencers Club of New York.

“That was draining,” Keeth says. “I told Erinn, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’”

Little sis wouldn’t hear it. The two practice together. Travel together. Lean on each other — never more so than when Liz Smart flew to Sydney while receiving chemotherapy for colon cancer, a condition now in remission.

Having experienced Sydney as an alternate, Erinn was determined to make the final cut for Athens. She didn’t want to go it alone.

“I’m his number one fan,” Erinn says. “He would probably say the same for me. It’s great to have someone who you know has your best interest in mind.”

Keeth rededicated himself to the sport, and both siblings have since enjoyed the best stretches of their careers. Either could medal in Athens. And after years of banging on the door, the pair has finally earned a measure of fencing acceptance.

While sitting with his girlfriend in a French cafe, Keeth was startled when a waiter asked for his autograph. Startled in a good way.

“You’re constantly signing autographs over there, taking photographs,” he says. “There are diehard fans in fencing, believe it or not.”

France, of course, is a long way from Brooklyn. And farther still from those quizzical looks on the subway.

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