Siblings making inroads in fencing world

Updated: August 9, 2004, 3:16 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

In "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," Francie and Neeley grow up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the early 1900s dreaming of a better life. The tree in front of their low-rent apartment symbolizes hope.

Move up the timeline about a century, substitute six-time Olympian Peter Westbrook -- the last American man to win a medal in fencing (bronze, saber) -- as the tree that nurtures hope and you have a rough version of the remarkable lives of Keeth and Erinn Smart.

Family Affair
Greg Garber looks at America's sibling sensations competing in Athens:

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Dumais: Perfect harmony
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Hamm: Leading the way
Paul and Morgan Hamm hope to take U.S. men's gymnastics back to the medal podium.

Kirk: Getting along swimmingly
Tara Kirk's resume suggested she was a more logical Olympic choice than sister Dana.

Smart: Making a point
Fencers weren't exactly common in Brooklyn where Erinn and Keeth Smart grew up.

Thirty-three years ago, an 18-year-old woman named Liz Smart came to Brooklyn from Jamaica and raised her children there. Their father Tom was the one who spotted the advertisement recruiting minority children for the Peter Westbrook Foundation. It was Erinn who tried it first. Keeth, who was busy playing more typical sports like basketball, baseball and football, wasn't initially interested. But seeing Erinn come home each day, equipment in tow, he grew curious. "I showed him the moves and ... he got excited about it," Erinn said recently at New York City summit of U.S. Olympic athletes. Every week they would carry their swords on the subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The other kids in the neighborhood didn't understand swordplay as their choice of sport. "Brooklyn is a very weird borough," Keeth said. "It's very close-knit, but it's also very isolated from the rest of the boroughs. ... once they saw that we were traveling they started to respect it." And so, Erinn, then 11, and Keeth, 13, got serious about the elite sport fencing. The mastery of their sport carried them into prestigious universities; Keeth won two NCAA titles while at St. John's and Erinn earned All-America status at Columbia. Thirteen years after their first exposure to fencing, along with three others from Westbrook's foundation, the Smarts will represent the United States in Athens.

Keeth participated in Sydney, but Erinn was an alternate there who remained on the sideline. Last month, brother and sister virtually guaranteed that they would fence for America with medals on the line. Keeth, a sabre artist, qualified in a tournament in Bulgaria, then Erinn landed the only slot on the women's foil team in a tournament in Russia.

In Sydney, Keeth placed 30th in the sabre competition that features a modern version of the slashing cavalry sword. Back in March, Keeth became the first American fencer, man or woman, to attain the No. 1 ranking in the world. The site of the competition, perhaps fortuitously, was Athens. Not only is he a medal contender 20 years after Westbrook's bronze in Los Angeles, but the men's foil team -- fresh from its upset of the favored Russians in the World Cup in June -- remains a medal possibility.

"This past year, Keeth has made amazing strides," Erinn said.

The United States' best chance for a medal -- the country's first fencing medal earned by a woman -- belongs to Sada Jacobson. Fencing is one of only four sports that has been contested in every modern Olympics, but there has never been a woman's sabre event. Until now.

The U.S. has two combatants -- Sada and Emily Jacobson. Sada, 21, defeated Emily, 18, by a narrow 15-13 margin in the national championships back in April.

"I think it's like fencing any other opponent," Sada told The Associated Press. "But we're training partners, so we know everything about each other. I know her strengths and weaknesses and she knows mine."

Said Emily, "I fence her just like I would fence anybody else. I try to win as hard as I can. After the bout, no matter who wins, we're still sisters. It doesn't carry over."

Like the Smarts, the Jacobsons had an introduction to the sport under the practiced hand of an expert. Their father, Dr. David Jacobson, fenced at Yale and was a member of the U.S. team at the 1974 world championships. A reunion with his former college coach, Henry Harutunian, led to a return to the sport. By 1998, the two sisters were going at it at the Nellya Fencer's facility in Atlanta, a short commute from their Dunwoody, Ga., home.

Sada is technically a junior at Yale, but she is in the midst of a three-semester sabbatical to train for the Olympics. Last year, she became the first woman from the United States to achieve the No. 1 ranking and won the overall World Cup title. Emily, for her part, was the 2004 junior world champion and just graduated from high school.

This is, by all accounts, is the strongest Olympic fencing team the United States has ever produced.

"We are very excited about our prospects," said Michael Massik, executive director of USA Fencing. "Two of our fencers have reached the No. 1 ranking in the world standings. We are very proud of this team and their accomplishments."

Europe has dominated the sport for years and Erinn says the Italians are the women's foil team's main competition in Athens. But she likes the Americans' chances. "The U.S. in the past couple of years, we've made significant results," Erinn said. "In 2001, we won a bronze medal at the World Championships and that was incredible for us to show the Europeans that we're fierce competitors."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Olympics editor Cynthia Faulkner contributed to this report.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.