TINTON FALLS — The sport of fencing has opened many doors for Keeth Smart, leading him to pursue a college education and to win a silver medal in the U.S. Olympics.
The positive influence that fencing has had on his life is something he enjoys telling others about.
“It put me on a completely different trajectory,” over “some of the choices my friends had made,” he explained as he appeared Saturday evening at the Atlantic Fencing Academy, One Sheila Drive.
Smart was on hand to help launch the Central Jersey Fencing Foundation, which was founded to encourage and support those who might not have considered learning to fence or have the means to afford it, and to assist those who show potential and talent progress and compete in the sport’s upper echelons.
Smart, a 33-year-old African American, grew up in the hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, where he said his friends were mostly interested in trying to become the next Michael Jordan. “In my community in Brooklyn we never heard about fencing,” he recalled. But his parents read an article on the sport and thought it would be worth encouraging their son and daughter to pursue it.
“My sister and I just embraced it,” and Smart went on to earn a scholarship to St. John’s University, and an MBA from Columbia University, which, along with his affiliations in the fencing community, helped him launch a career in the financial field.
“It,” he said, referring to the sport, “allowed me to think the world is my oyster.” Thanks to his skill and dedication to the sport Smart was also tapped for the U.S. Olympic Team, winning the silver in Beijing, China, in 2008. “What I did a little better was I worked hard,” he said of his success.
The United States in now considered a top contender in the sport and “It’s a beautiful thing when we can go to a tournament and be a competitor,” he said, “instead of just an easy win.”
James Carpenter, Middletown, president of the foundation, offered a similar story. Carpenter, who was on the 1996 Olympic team, started with the sport in a college physical education course “to keep the pounds off in winter.”
“The first time I tried it I loved it,” he remembered.
Fencing appealed to him, Carpenter explained, because “”The one thing I always really liked, it tests yourself as an individual.”
“We like to think of it as the human chess,” Smart added, noting, “It’s not the strongest or the fastest,” who necessarily excel; sometimes it revolves around the strategies the fencers use. “It’s analogous to tennis.”
And like tennis it “requires discipline, self confidence” and to “learn mental skills,” as the participant stands out there alone facing a challenger with his sword, albeit one with a blunted tip (Participants also wear protective clothing and helmets that are made from the same material used in bulletproof vests, Smart explained.). And those are qualities that would benefit anyone in any arena, he said.
It was through the sport that Carpenter said he met his wife and got his first real job out of college. “And I would like to help others experience it.”
“It’s always been a vision of mine, a dream of mine to see what we can do with this type of organization,” he said of the foundation.
“It’s hugely expensive,” to really pursue the sport, Carpenter acknowledged, as players move up the ladder and begin to compete in elite circles, given the cost of quality equipment and travel to tournament locations (a lot of top-tier ones are in Europe, with players often traveling with their coaches.) Those costs, he said, are “beyond most people’s athletic budget.”
Agota Balot, who owns and manages the Atlantic Fencing Academy, and is now involved in the foundation, estimated that the foundation would need to raise $50-$60,000. “That’s the bottom line,” to get the foundation viable.
Balot, who coaches fencing at the Ranney School, in Tinton Falls, said, “People really started noticing fencing,” and it is in two other schools in Monmouth County–Christian Brothers Academy, and St. Catherine’s, Spring Lake.
Smart excelled with the sabre, one of the three types of swords used in the sport (the other two being the epee and foil, with the differences being where fencers can strike their opponents to score points in matches). And the sword can be just as exciting and beneficial as his youthful friends back in Flatbush thought the basketball would be for them. “In fact there are Michael Jordans [in this sport],” Smart told the gathering. “You just don’t know about them.”