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US fencers win medal the same way they lost 1

08/17/2008, 11:11am CDT
By No Author

BEIJING (AP) 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 won a silver medal in the team foil event. Sunday was his turn: Smart, Rogers, Tim Morehouse and James Williams reached the podium in dramatic fashion.

In a quarterfinal against Hungary, the U.S. was down 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 were down 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 around, 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, like, hitting the home run or the grand slam in the ninth inning?" Morehouse said. "Well Keeth did that twice."

Smart said Athens wasn't on his mind.

"When you're competing, I don't think about it at all," he said.

His teammates, on the other hand, understood exactly what was happening.

"To have those two losses in Athens transpire, and then to be able to come out today and be so brave on the strip," Rogers said. "Two come-from-behind victories where it looked like it just wasn't going to happen. For him to be able to do that, and to do it so bravely and so gracefully, was a tremendous accomplishment."

In the final against France, Smart took over with the U.S. down 40-28. He outscored Julien Pillet 9-5, winning one point by running him all the way to the back of the strip. After finally 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.

"This year has probably been one of the hardest years of my life, as well as one of the greatest years of my life. For me to have lost a parent, and then I was hospitalized ..." Smart said. "To experience the thrill of watching my sister win a medal and then coming back the next day and winning a medal, it's exhilarating."

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