Commentary

Smart's silver medal the silver lining to a difficult year

Updated: August 17, 2008, 10:54 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Lugging a sword around the subways in Brooklyn was, looking back, rather comical. The kids used to make fun of the Smarts, call them Zorro. They did it, at first, for Dad.

Saturday, Thomas Smart wasn't there. His daughter was on the verge of history, of helping the Americans medal for the first time in foil since 1960, but everything was falling apart. Erinn Smart had just given up seven straight touches against Hungary. With the clock winding down, her opponent charged at her. Smart stuck out her arm, closed her eyes, and Aida Mohamed ran into the blade.

[+] EnlargeErinn Smart
Jerry Lai/US PresswireErinn Smart, left, Hanna Thompson and Emily Cross won the silver in team foil on Saturday.
"It's pretty much unheard of in fencing," said her brother Keeth. "It was a last resort, you know? Sort of like shooting a 3-pointer from half court.

"It was like a higher being called Erinn to give her that last touch."

They did not think they would be part of history. On Saturday morning, the Americans were ranked seventh out of eight teams in women's team foil. They upset Poland, then Hungary. By the end of the night, they stood on the medals stand, winners of silver, holding hands and giggling and waving to the crowd.

Three months after losing her mother to cancer, three years after her father died of a heart attack, Smart finally celebrated late on Saturday night in Beijing. Keeth leaned over a wall of bodies, pointed his digital camera in the air and snapped wildly.

For a moment, it seemed as if the calendar had flipped and the worst year of their lives was finally over.

In April, Keeth was in an Algerian hospital's intensive-care unit for two weeks, ill from a rare blood disease he contracted from something he ate at a fencing tournament in Africa. Doctors said he might not make it to Beijing to see his sister, let alone compete again.

"My brother is my best friend," Smart said. "Usually when I'm fencing, I can hear his voice."

Against Hungary, in those final seconds, he wasn't nearly as loud. He was crying. Keeth didn't want his sister to go through his pain in Athens (he came within a point of medaling there), to spend four years second-guessing. He stopped fencing for nearly two years after that, before his coach pulled him back.

Saturday afternoon against Hungary was their moment, but Saturday night, was a little hard to watch. The Russians towered over the United States and beat them 28-11 in the gold-medal match. At one point, a group of young men in the stands started mocking the Americans after they finally scored a touch after a long drought, chanting "USA!"

When the Americans quickly fell behind, Smart said, they started to hesitate and rush, and they couldn't do that with a team as powerful as Russia.

When it was over, the Russians, who won a hard-fought match against Italy in the semifinals, took a dig at the Americans.

"We won gold," Svetlana Boyko said, "not against the USA, but against Italy."

It didn't matter to the United States ... or to the Smarts. They consider themselves trailblazers, young African-Americans who got into a sport that was unknown to most of their teenager friends in Brooklyn. Their dad responded to an ad recruiting minority kids for the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Westbrook was the last American man to win a medal in fencing.

But late Saturday night, history seemed to be the last thing on their minds. They locked glances as Erinn celebrated.

The year was finally over.

"She's been dealing with one setback after another," Keeth said. "For her to win a medal here is the best way to just say, 'You know what? Everything is going to be OK.'"

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.