Monday, August 18, 2008

African-American Sibling Fencers Win Silver Medals

The Williams sisters aren't the only African-American siblings who will be taking medals back home from Beijing.

Meet Keeth and Erinn Smart. Keeth and Erinn are the trailblazing fencers from Brooklyn, NY who were the first kids that walked through the doors of the Peter Westbrook Foundation's fencing program when he started it in 1990.

Peter Westbrook was the last American man to win a fencing medal and the first African-American one to do so. He captured a bronze medal in the men's sabre event at the 1984 LA Games. The Smarts are competing in their third Olympics, and as the old saying goes, the third time was the charm. But they've had a rough year just getting to this point.

Their parents unfortunately weren't there to witness it. Their father Thomas Smart passed away in 2005 from a sudden heart attack,. Their mother Audrey Elizabeth died recently in March after battling colon cancer for two years.

Keeth contracted a rare blood disorder that put him in intensive care for two weeks while competing in a fencing tournament in Algeria. The disorder not only threatened his participation in the Beijing Games but put his life in jeopardy as well.

The Smart's roads to their respective medals were just as rocky. In the women's team foil event Team USA was ranked seventh out of eight teams. They upset Poland and then held off Hungary 35-33 in the semifinals as Erinn held off a furious late charge by the Hungarian fencer to send them to the gold medal match versus Russia.

Unfortunately Team USA lost to Russia 28-11 in the gold medal match, but in the process they earned the first US medals in the foil event since 1960.

Keeth's run to a medal was just as dramatic in the men's team sabre event.

Smart took over in the quarterfinal with the USA trailing defending world champion Hungary 40-36. In the team event, first one to 45 wins, and the Americans had their backs to the wall. Smart rallied to tie the match at 44 all, then scored the winning touch to send them to the semifinals against the Russians.

In the semifinals, Keeth found himself not only facing a 40-35 deficit, but a personal demon as well. At the 2004 Athens Games he came on the strip in the bronze medal match against the Russians with a 40-35 lead. Russia's Stanislav Pozdnyakov rallied to lead them to a 45-44 win and the bronze medal. The loss bothered him to the point that he took a two year sabbatical from the sport.

Smart was now ironically facing the same man in the reverse situation and rose to the challenge. He outfenced Pozdnyakov and led Team USA to a 45-44 win and the gold medal match against France.

Unfortunately in the gold medal match Team USA fell behind 40-28 before Smart took over. Despite the twelve point deficit, he almost pulled it out with another miracle rally against France's Julien Pillet. He outscored him 9-5, but the deficit was too much to overcome as Team USA lost 45-37 to France for the silver, the first fencing medals for the men's sabre program since 1984.

Congratulations Keeth and Erinn for making history in the fencing world, being trailblazing role models and finally earning those well-deserved medals while persevering through a tough year for both of you off the strip.


imogen said...

I did some fencing in the late nineties- went to some tournaments, was pretty okay- and I met Keeth and Erinn a few times. I mean, we weren't friends or anything, but I have got to say, two nicer folks could not be winning silver medals. I remember both of them as kind of gawky, skinny, very sweet teenagers- and I especially remember that Keeth had the longest reach, and the most sloppy-looking-but-actually-very-precise footwork. So thank you for posting this! I'm so glad for them and now I'm off to youtube to watch them.

Monica Roberts said...

My roomie is a sabre fencer, so she was on my computer watching the streaming video of both matches live, then watched the replay when it came on TV a few hours later.

She been doing major trash talking since the sabre fencers won five of the six medals US fencers won in these games.

VĂ©ronique said...

What a great story! Congratulations to Keeth and Erinn.