The Sound of an Olympic Medal
by Jason Rogers
That is the sound Tim Morehouse made as his body crashed to the ground. You wouldn’t have heard it though, as chaos erupted in the fencing hall at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Keeth Smart had just scored the winning touch, 45-44, in the USA v. Russia match, securing our place in the Men’s Sabre Team Olympic Final. As he raced around the strip, his arms in the air, James Williams and I stumbled over the barriers to meet him as the crowd exploded into cheers.
Rewind just a few moments. Tim, James and I stood anxiously on the sidelines as Keeth faced down the most feared man in men’s sabre, Stanislav Pozdnyakov. What’s more, Keeth (and all of us) had just come back from the dead. Pozdnyakov had scored what appeared to be the winning touch for Russia just moments before, dashing our Olympic-sized hopes for a medal. We were all awestruck by Keeth’s poise and uncompromisable equanimity considering the circumstances. But in a stroke of luck, we were resurrected by the referee, ruling the touch invalid as Keeth had just barely edged his toe outside of the strip. Thank heaven for that wily toe. Keeth then evened the score at 44-44, leaving just one touch between us and a medal. Just one brush of the tip to the target would seize a dream born many, many years ago.
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WHAT TRANSPIRED NEXT, I’M STILL NOT ENTIRELY SURE.
The referee said “Allez.” I held my breath and gritted my teeth as I watched the next moments unfold. And what I saw was nothing short of amazing. After making Pozdnyakov fall short, Keeth Smart literally took flight into a flunge that left the rules of gravity behind. Caught completely off guard, the Russian attempted to slip away. But Keeth hung in the air just long enough to catch the crest of his mask, clutching our place in US men’s sabre history and a permanent smile on our faces for the rest of the Beijing Olympics.
All rules of decorum were immediately thrown out the window as we leapt over the barricades, crashing together into one big cacophony of “Thank you’s,” “Oh my God’s” and “I can’t believe it’s.” There was hugging. There was crying. There was more hugging. We stood together in disbelief of what had been achieved.
Somewhere in the process, I climbed up into the stands embraced my mother, tears streaming down her face as the rest of my family looked on at a loss for words. Our team coach, Yury Gelman, was ecstatic. My coach, Daniel Costin, was so happy he seemed to be dancing out of his skin. It was a moment to remember.
BUT YES, BACK TO TIM.
Little had we known that, as we threw ourselves into frenzied celebration, Tim’s brain had decided it was all too much, and he simply passed out. Luckily it was only temporary, and moments later he was back up on his unsteady feet, running around with us like idiots. It was only later when we were savouring the memory that he told us that his short sojourn on the floor hadn’t just been a private moment, but he was, in fact, unconscious.
By why were we so overcome with emotion? It’s not uncommon for tears of joy to be shed at the Olympic Games. But this victory was special and had been years in the making. Not only was it preceded by another 45-44 victory against Hungary, but this whole experience was a mirror image of our previous Olympic Games.
THE ATHENS OLYMPICS IN 2004 WAS MY FIRST.
I arrived in Greece accompanied by my dear friends; confidence, excitement and anxiety. However, the Olympic gods didn’t waste any time dealing me a crushing defeat on the first day, in my first round of the Olympics by the former World Champion, Luigi Tarantino of Italy. There went my confidence. And my excitement, for that matter. Despite an emotional meltdown after the event, I managed to pull myself together resolving to bring everything I had left to the team event in a few days time.
The day came and Keeth Smart, Ivan Lee, Tim Morehouse and I we were up against Hungary in the quarterfinal, a team that boasted some intimidating talent. I had found my feet in that match and was proud of my ability to overcome the wounds of the individual competition. The match was tight, and we edged our way to victory after courageous performances in the final two bouts by Keeth and Ivan.
We went on and into the semi-finals against France, with Damien Touya, at the helm of their impressive team. Touch by touch, we crept our way towards the final moments, culminating in a showdown between Keeth and Touya, the fencer Keeth had most admired over the years. In a strange twist of fate at 44-43, Keeth’s blade pierced Touya’s hand, leaving not only blood on his glove, but also a sense of fated determination on his face. As they got back en garde for the final touch, 44-44, we waited on the side with bated breath. But that day would not be our day, as Touya tore off his mask and the French celebrated their advancement to the Olympic Final.
BUT THE DAY WOULD GIVE US ONE MORE OPPORTUNITY.
We still had a chance for the bronze medal. However, it was against the defending champions, Russia, led by the aforementioned Pozdnyakov, the Siberian powerhouse. This time, we fenced with millions of eyes on us, in both the stands and at home. We battled all the way, with Keeth stepping up against Pozdnyakov for the final match. Once again we found ourselves at 44-44. But alas, the coin would flip the other way, and Russians would take home the medal.
ONE. MEASLY. TOUCH.
Two times that was the distance between us and a medal in Athens. And so it was with that context that we began that fateful match in Beijing, exactly 8 years ago today. We had narrowly escaped defeat in the quarterfinal against the formidable Hungarians, 44-45, so luck seemed to be on our side. And here we were again with just one touch between us and a medal. Somewhere in my mind, I must have been thinking “It’s gotta go our way this time.” Perhaps it was 4 years of bottled up “what could have been,” but when Keeth began that flunge, and the die was cast, Tim, James and I also felt as if we were hanging in the air. I cannot describe the feeling in any other way, but as the touch landed, it was like the universe ripped open and my reality was forever changed.
Thank you to all my teammates, coaches, family and friends for your role in that thunderous moment.
*Images courtesy of Serge Timacheff / FIE