Olympic saber fencer Tim Morehouse is a geek gone good — bullied in middle school, he joined the fencing team to get out of gym class in seventh grade. He grew up in Washington Heights in the 1980s, then the murder capital of New York City, and after college returned to the neighborhood to work in a public middle school with Teach for America. While teaching during the day, he trained evenings at the Manhattan Fencing Center and traveled the word on weekends and breaks to scrape together enough points to make the 2004, 2008 and now 2012 Olympic teams.
Don’t miss him in the livestreaming of the men’s individual saber, starting at 5:25 a.m. ET on Sunday morning with semifinals and finals (knock on wood) at 12:55 p.m. ET. Men’s team saber streams live at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, August 3, with semifinals and finals at 1:00 p.m. The U.S. team took silver in 2008 and is poised to make another strong run this year.
Morehouse’s new book is American Fencer: Modern Lessons from an Ancient Sport. (Disclaimer: I helped Morehouse write the book. Also, I have a massive GeekDad man crush on him.)
Sundem: Can you tell me about middle school and how you got into fencing?
Tim Morehouse: Well, I didn’t get along so great in gym class — had the unfortunate nickname “nerdy birdy,” something to do with my, um, stately Roman nose… And I saw this flyer one day that said something like, “Join the fencing team, get out of gym class!” I had no idea what it was but me and my friend Ying signed up. At first I just goofed off and thought it was kind of awesome to beat on people with a sword, and, actually I almost got bullied off the fencing team. This older kid on the team, I call him Malfoy in the book, took me out to the track one day and ran behind me, slashing me with a foil when I slowed down. It’s funny to think the defining moment of my life came in seventh grade, but after the track, I was sitting alone in the locker room with red marks all over my back and I just started screaming, “You can’t make me quit! You can’t make me quit!” I’ve been fencing seriously ever since.
Sundem: You say fencing’s a geeky sport. What’s so geeky about saber fencing?
Morehouse: Because you can slash with the side of the blade, saber fencing is pretty much institutionalized LARP-ing. I mean, at least in the United States, it tends to attract people you wouldn’t think of as basketball or football players. In other countries it’s different — my friend, Italian fencer Aldo Montano, is an underwear model and national superstar. I’ve eaten a lot of ramen. But, actually, I think competing against athletes from Russian and Italy and Hungary and places where fencing attracts the top talent makes U.S. fencers find their own styles.
Sundem: What’s your style?
Morehouse: I’ve always been a little awkward. I don’t look like a classical fencer and I’m not as quick as some of the other guys on tour, so I’ve had to find my own thing.
Sundem: For example…
Morehouse: Coaches named one of my best moves “Dog peeing on a fire hydrant.” I let an opponent come at me down the strip and instead of retreating or trying to parry and score on riposte, I kind of wave my body to the side and try to catch him in the wrist. My back leg comes up. I guess it looks like a, well, like a dog, you know? I spent a lot of years trying to fence French or Italian or Russian, but it was only when I started fencing according to my own, funky strengths that I started getting results. I was ranked 19th coming out of college and everyone said making the Olympics was impossible. Then I started getting national results and everyone said I couldn’t compete internationally. Then I started doing pretty well at World Cups. It’s been a struggle but it’s been worth it, not just in terms of the sport, but in using the sport to grow into myself. It used to be I didn’t have a whole lot of, I guess, confidence. Then I had confidence behind the mask, on the fencing strip but not in school in the hallways. And finally I’ve learned to trust myself — to appreciate my own funky skills and my body and my mind and I’ve been able to capitalize on some of these strange, unique things that make me, me. It’s affirming, I guess.
Sundem: Do you have a defining moment of your career? What’s your best fencing memory?
Morehouse: My best memory? Hmm. It’s gotta be the semifinals of the team competition at the 2008 Games in Beijing. We were fencing a strong Russian team. The winner would fence in the finals and be guaranteed a medal and the loser would fight for the bronze. We hadn’t medaled in the event since 1948 and Russians had won every gold since, well, they’d won like every gold. I remember feeling like I’d fenced strong and then the last match came down to our closer, Keeth Smart, versus the Russian closer, Stanislav Pozdnyakov, easily the best in the world at the time. When Keeth took the final point, I passed out cold. Literally. You can find the YouTube video [note: 9:02] of Keeth running over, everyone on the team hugging, and then when we all let go, I just fall straight down to the ground. I’m lying there and I guess everyone thought that was, like, my way of celebrating, just lying there with my eyes closed. But then I got up and realized we had at least the silver and just started hugging everyone again. The rest of the Games, I’d wake up every morning in a panic and have to root through my suitcase until I found the silver medal to make sure the whole thing hadn’t been a dream. It’s pretty amazing, you know, I mean you work so hard and you come so far. It’s been a long journey since seventh grade gym class.
Sundem: What’s next?
Morehouse: Well, the Olympics are next! This year’s team is looking really good. Everybody should watch! And I have the book and a new foundation called Fencing in the Schools that I hope can bring some of the lessons I’ve learned through fencing to other kids who could maybe use them. Even after all these years, I’m psyched about the sport and about what it has to offer — the focus and strategy and commitment and sense of self that come from trying to do something the best you can do it. I hope kids who watch this week will be inspired to pick up a sword!