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Team USA suffers pair of tough losses

8/19/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Twice Keeth Smart charged, his opponent
attacked and both lights went off. Twice, Smart was left standing
on the strip, helmet in hand, after U.S. losses.

The American men's saber fencing team lost on the final touch
two times Thursday, losing dramatic matches against France in the
semifinals and then Russia.

While the French went on to beat Italy to win the gold, Smart
and the U.S. team -- stung by the deciding call in the semifinal --
regrouped for the bronze-medal match, only to lose again to the
Russians, 45-44.

"This one really hurt," said Smart, who was in tears after
losing out the medal. "It wasn't meant to be for whatever
reason."

Tied at 44, Keeth Smart tried to attack, but four-time gold
medalist Stanislav Pozdniakov got the touch first to win the match.

Smart had entered the final rotation against Russia with a 40-35
lead, meaning that he needed to score five touches off his opponent
before Pozdniakov could score 10 off him. Pozdniakov scored five of
the first six points to tie it, and when Smart went ahead 43-41,
the Russian ran off three straight to take the lead.

On the brink, Smart avoided Pozdniakov's attack and scored to
tie the bout at 44, setting the stage for the deciding point. After
neither scored on a double-touch, Smart attacked but hesitated for
split-second, which gave Pozdniakov an opening.

"The one thing I did was pull back my arm," said Smart, who
last year became the first U.S. fencer to be ranked No. 1. "As a
saber fencer, when you pull back your arm, you're automatically
going to be punished."

After Pozdniakov scored, Smart took off his helmet and gave a
dejected look upwards. As he walked off, he was consoled by his
teammates.

"I can go to sleep tonight because I know I lost on my best
action," Smart said.

The loss to France, however, was a bitter pill to swallow.

After upsetting Hungary, the Americans trailed France 40-38 in
the semifinals when Smart came in to fence Damien Touya. Smart
rallied to tie it at 44. On the next play, no point was scored, but
Smart's saber went through Touya's glove, piercing his hand at the
webbing of the fingers, and exiting through his palm. The match
stopped so Touya could receive treatment, while France's
replacement athlete, Boris Sanson, started to warm up.

With the 10-minute injury timeout set to end, Touya chose to
return to the match with his injured and bandaged hand instead of
being replaced.

"He was especially courageous since we were tied at 44-44,"
said Philippe Omnes, the technical director of the French fencing
federation.

The two fencers attacked two more times but no points were
awarded. On each play, referee Jose Luis Alvarez of Spain
determined that the fencers attacked simultaneously.

On the fourth attempt at a deciding point, Smart and Touya both
recorded touches, but Alvarez ruled that Touya caught Smart while
preparing to attack, giving the Frenchman the victory.

"France ... you know ... man, that hurt," Smart said.
"Everyone was there, everyone saw it. For whatever reason the
officials didn't want to help us out."

Smart stood in the middle of the strip, his helmet off and mouth
agape, after the referee awarded the final point to Touya, who had
bloodstains on the leg of his white suit.

"The last touch with France, I think it was a bad call," said
Smart's teammate, Ivan Lee.

In the hours between bouts the U.S. team of Smart and Lee, both
from New York, and Jason Rogers of Los Angeles, regrouped. Against
Russia, they turned an early five-point deficit into a five point
lead, before Pozdniakov rallied for the win.

"I went into it knowing Stas is a legend in fencing," said
Rogers, who lost 7-1 to Pozdniakov in his bout.

"Sometimes the guy just outfences you."