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The Best Ending in the World

08/17/2008, 5:18am CDT
By No Author

The US fencing team will go home with six medals - which had comprised 10 percent of the nation's total after the men's sabre team captured the silver on Sunday night. But the story behind the story was not about statistics. It was about siblings and spirit.

The team's two captains, Erinn and Keeth Smart were making their final Olympic appearance in Beijing after a harrowing quadrennium in which they lost both parents (to a sudden heart attack and cancer). Keeth had also faced a severe blood disorder this spring and doctors thought he would never return to fencing.

Earlier at these Games, Erinn had been eliminated from the individual foil competition in the round of 32, but on Saturday, she earned a silver in the team foil event - a highly unexpected outcome but ultimately gratifying after decades spent honing the sport their father initiated and mother avidly supported. Keeth, the former world No. 1 had exited the individual sabre event in the quarterfinals, and on Sunday earned a silver medal in his team event.

They were each in the stands to support each other, along with their maternal aunt, Carol Murray, who had accompanied their mother, Liz, to the past two Olympics while Liz was battling colon cancer.

After the US men captured the silver medal on Sunday, the US sabre coach Yury Gelman came up to Erinn, Ms. Murray, and Keeth's wife in the stands and said, "[Keeth] is a hero."

All day, Smart had been the go-to guy, the closer, and the man who rallied back from deficit after deficit to carry the seventh seed in the eight-team tournament to second place.

In the morning, the US upset the reigning world champion, Hungary in the quarterfinals, but only after Smart took a 36-40 deficit and scored nine points on Zsolt Nemcsik to close it out, 45-44 and earn a berth with Russia in the semifinals.

The US- Russia semifinal was a rematch of the 2004 Olympic bronze medal match (a painful defeat in which Smart lost to Stanislav Pozdnyakov 45-44 in Athens), and the Americans seemed to be headed for a certain defeat. Trailing 35-40 (despite a brilliant deficit-narrowing seven-point run by Tim Morehouse), Smart faced his old nemesis Pozdnyakov with little room for error. Smart brought the score within two points, and with the entire match on the line, the10-time world champion Podzniakov scored what he thought was the winning touch but Smart successfully appealed the call to tie it at 44. In the all-or-nothing final duel, Smart earned the closing point to send the US into the gold-medal match against France and guarantee the US its first men's Olympic team sabre medal since 1948.

Fighting France for gold, the US trailed from the beginning and never caught up. Still, Keeth was delighted with the silver - which also made it a match set for the Smarts - even though their parents didn't live to witness the culmination of the family's dream.

"This is all I ever wanted in life in terms of fencing," Keeth said.

The silver not only avenged his back-to-back one-point losses of the 2004 Athens Games (in the semifinal and in the bronze medal match) that left him feeling so guilty that it drove him away from the sport for a year - but he and his sister both has something to celebrate.

"I'm proud of my medal, but I'm even more proud of Erinn's."

Keeth may have been the backbone of the fencing team, but Erinn had become the backbone of their small family.

"She comes home jetlagged from Korea, finds out I might die [from the blood disorder] and came right from the airport to the hospital. Then she flew to Florida because our mother was dying," Keeth said.

Erinn was also at their mother's side when she passed away this May; she had also been the one to get the call from the hospital when their father died of a heart attack while jogging in 2005.

"I knew she wanted this medal so bad," Keeth said of Erinn. "I'm so proud of her. It's the best ending in the world."


Aimee Berg  is a freelance contributor for This feature was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

Tag(s): News