The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

Storm hits Beijing

St. John’s University’s is at the center of the fencing world.
Coached by the same man who leads the Red Storm onto the strip, Yury Gelman, the United States men’s team won a silver medal in team sabre at the Olympics in Beijing. It was the U.S.’s first medal in the sport since 1984.

Anchoring the Americans was an athlete Gelman is very familiar with. Keeth Smart, who won the national championship in sabre with the Storm in both 1997 and 1999, led two improbable comeback victories over Hungary and Russia on the way to the gold medal match against France.

Smart’s heroics could not be repeated in the final match, a race to 45 touches. He was nicked by France’s Julien Pillet for France’s final point, sending the U.S. home with silver after the 45-37 loss.

“This is the greatest performance in American fencing and I am proud to be part of it,” Smart said. “It was an emotional moment for me. An emotional day. And, really, an emotional four years.”

In the four years between the 2004 Athens Games and arriving in Beijing, Smart, 30, has battled more hardships than he has opponents. In 2005, Smart’s father passed away from a heart attack.

Then this spring after competing in Algeria, the veteran fencer contracted a rare blood disease that depleted his body’s platelets, the cells responsible for clotting blood. After two weeks in intensive care, doctors feared Smart’s athletic career would be finished.

In May of this year, Smart’s mother died from cancer, a long battle that the Smart family feared would end in tragedy. Shortly after the funeral, and with the deadly blood disease beaten, Smart got back to training with more focus and drive than ever.

Gelman, in his third Olympics as a fencing coach, was reunited with his former university pupil in Manhattan to train for the Olympics. The United States was ranked seventh out of eight teams in the Olympic meet going into the Games.

“I can’t tell you we expected it,” Gelman said of the silver medal. “We had a much stronger team last Olympic Games. This time we had a bigger team. What happened was Keeth Smart did unbelievable things.”

Smart’s unbelievable bouts in Beijing completed his rebound from a disappointing 2004 Olympics. The last time the Americans picked up an Olympic sabre, they made it to the semifinals only to lose twice. The French and the Russians both defeated the U.S., 45-44. Gelman and Smart traveled home without a medal.

In the bronze medal match against Russia in Athens, Smart held a 40-35 lead against Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who Gelman calls the best fencer of the last 20 years. The Russian would charge back at Smart and eventually edge out the Americans, 45-44.

However, in Beijing, Smart got a chance at redemption against Pozdnyakov in the semifinals. This time, Smart was the one who had to come back from 40-35. Smart outfenced his Russian rival, 10-4, playing the hero in the dramatic 45-44 win.

Gelman also had to endure a Smart-led comeback in the opening round of fencing. Zsolt Nemcsik of Hungary was up last with his country leading 40-36 against Smart. The former St. John’s fencer got the clutch touches and advanced his team.

“It’s so much nerves,” Gelman said of winning in comeback fashion. “It’s very hard and it doesn’t happen very often. There’s a lot of stress. The touches happen very fast in sabre. But Keeth was very calm and very in control. But it’s difficult for me to watch.”

Gelman is proud to acknowledge that St. John’s fencing has found itself in the middle of the United States rise to prominence in the sport. Gelman has coached the Red Storm since 1996.

“This is definitely the pinnacle for this country in fencing,” Gelman said. “We never even counted on a result like this. All the work in the past 16 years now shows.”

Gelman has also coached Olympic fencers Dagmara Wozniak and Olga Ovtchinnikova on the Red Storm fencing team. This year, Wozniak made the American team as a replacement and did not compete for a medal. Ovtchinnikova fenced for Canada and reached the round of 16 in the women’s individual sabre.

Gelman and the Red Storm get back to their weapons on September 27. The amateurs on the team and all amateurs he mentors, he says, are some of the most impressive athletes in the world.

“To be second at the Olympic Games and not being professionals, it’s really amazing,” Gelman said. “It shows to the world that you don’t have to be professional to do good things.”

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