Smart goes from brink of death to Games

Smart goes from brink of death to Games
By Eurosport

06/08/2008 at 11:01Updated

When he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease four months ago, American sabre fencer Keeth Smart thought the Olympic Games were over for him before they even began.

"The doctors thought I was going to die in two days," Smart said after a training session with his Olympic team-mates in Beijing. "Then they thought I'd never be able to fly again on a plane. Just to be here I feel like I won a big match already."

To beat the disease that was threatening him with severe internal bleeding, the 30-year-old needed a full blood transfusion, which would have run foul of Olympic rules. So doctors instead chose a powerful steroid-based treatment that kept him in intensive care for two weeks.

He stayed out of competitions until the steroids left his system and has since passed six doping tests in seven weeks.

"I'm all for it," he said of the testing. "It wasn't something I was doing for performance enhancement, it was something I needed to do to stay alive."

The disease, having a low platelet count, was only one of many hurdles the lanky Brooklyn native with a wide smile was faced with since he wept on television after losing bronze medal matches by one point in both the individual and team sabre events at the Athens Games in 2004.

First, his father, who encouraged him to start fencing at age 11, died. Then his mother died two months ago after a two-year fight with cancer.

"(In Athens) I thought (losing two medals) was the worst thing that could've happened to my life," the former world number one said. "I would much rather trade all my athletic accomplishments to spend one hour with either of my parents again."

His sister, Errin, 28, who competes on the U.S. foil Olympic team, said the Athens experience was tough for her brother.

"But he came through it an decided to try one more time," she said.

This time, Smart said he is more focused, having quit his job in corporate finance two months ago to train full time. He competes on Tuesday in the individual event.

It will be his last Olympics before enrolling in Columbia University's business school to pursue a career in investment banking.

"Four years ago, I felt like I had to win a medal or nothing would matter," he said. "Now I'm able to just relax and enjoy the Olympic experience. I'm more composed, I don't feel so high-strung. The biggest problem that I have is remaining even-keeled. Sometimes I want to win so badly that I just can't contain myself."