Prêt? Allez! Excitement, History and Life Lessons Abound in American Fencer

Books People

Before the United States men’s sabre team brought home medals from Beijing, you had to look back pretty far to find such a U.S. team with Olympic medals, 1948 to be exact. In total, the American men had only won 12 fencing medals in the history of the Olympics before this improbable lot surprised the world by winning silver and, for fencer Tim Morehouse, it was the pinnacle of a career that almost never happened. Morehouse, who details his somewhat unlikely rise and great successes in his new autobiography, American Fencer, epitomizes what Americans love about sports. He is a true underdog.

Fed up with a decaying New York neighborhood, his family moved to a nicer neighborhood with better schools and more opportunity for a young Tim. Morehouse, like many new kids, struggled a bit fitting in and found a home on the fencing team. His aggressiveness matched up well with sabre, arguably the most entertaining of the three fencing disciplines, but his form kept him from competing at the highest levels. However, as Morehouse matured through college and in the years after, his hard work (all while teaching underserved children in New York public schools) resulted in a steady climb through the ranks and an eventual spot on the Olympic team; first as an alternate in Athens, then on the competing teams in both Beijing and London.

“I’ve always been drawn to challenges,” Morehouse told GeekDad. “If something was easy, it didn’t interest me as much. The harder something is, the more I’m interested in it. I have a reaction like [Marty McFly] in Back to the Future. When someone told him he was chicken, he wouldn’t back down. I’m the same way when told something’s impossible.”

That determination helped Morehouse to represent the United States in 2008 and win its third medal in men’s sabre ever, a battle that was comparable to the famous “Miracle on Ice”, a throwback match to the Cold War. Tim says, “In the 1950s, the Russians created a program that developed their world famous hockey and chess teams. It also created their fencing team. We were facing the remnants of that system.”

In China, down on points, and up against one of the sport’s giants, the Americans dug deep and won. “That match was one of the best stories of the Beijing games and it really didn’t get the attention that it deserved,” said Morehouse. “Everyone talked about the comeback in swimming when Jason Lezak came back from behind to win by a hair in the team relay. Our win was equal to that moment. It was a repeat of [the Russian-American match-up in] Athens, with the roles reversed and with the same two people fencing … it was so special.”

In American Fencer the pages are filled with tension and excitement – surprisingly even moreso than watching videos of his matches. Reading, you can easily imagine yourself sitting in the dark, just removed from the strip, hearing the rapid metal clangs of metal on metal and the loud cries of the opponents as points are won and lost.

“You don’t always know the rivalries that make a sport that much more meaningful. If you didn’t know the Yankees and Red Sox were such big rivals, the game might not seem as intense to you,” Morehouse said. “But when you know the history of that, it adds that much more flavor. And that’s what you get in the book you get the understanding of what that meant; a lot of us scrappy Americans, working full time, going up against a team that was supposed to cream us.”

But American Fencer is much more than just a retelling of tournaments and individual matches. Between the lines, there are recurring themes of slowing down in life, appreciating what you have, and setting demanding but reachable goals. Morehouse revealed “I feel like in a lot of sports books, an athlete faces a challenge and overcomes it or they talk about a coach or parent that helped them get there. In Beijing, we represented a process that included people who were fencing before me and we were carrying the baton.”

In the book, “I really wanted to tell a smart and intricate story about what it takes to achieve. Me winning a medal in 2008 connects to many coaches coming over [from eastern Europe] in the 1980s. I feel like there’s a lot in book to offer, on a personal level, of what you can do to achieve your dreams and also how [the course taken by] an organization or a team is a process and that takes time and [I think the book shows] how to navigate that.”

When asked what other lessons can be found in American Fencer, Morehouse reflected, “One thing I found interesting in my journey is that I think things live in the middle; they aren’t black and white. When dealing with the pressure of a match, on one hand, you really want to win this match and you do everything you can to win. But on the other hand, you have to be OK and not afraid of losing, because if you go into the match afraid of losing, the odds of losing are actually higher. These are contradictory ideas, but I feel like this is where most things live, where you try to find a balance in between.”

It’s an interesting observation and one that Morehouse illustrates in an exchange with his coach. Morehouse wanted to be quick – fencing has an emphasis on speed – but found out he was a better fencer when he slowed down. Tim’s coach, Yury Gelman, in his thick accent, told Morehouse “Good speed is speed when you can control it. If you cannot control your speed, you are stu-peed.” By slowing down and finding a balance, Morehouse improved considerably.

After finishing the book, Morehouse headed to London for another go at the Olympic games. While not as successful as in Beijing, Morehouse remained optimistic. “In Beijing, everything went perfect. We had a strong team [in London] even though we didn’t have a big medal count. Our team was as strong as Beijing and maybe even stronger. Everyone on the team was capable of winning a medal. We were right there in a way where we could have had another very special Olympics, we were all going for it. It would have been great to have the story of winning the gold at the end, but …” Morehouse trails off, pondering possibilities lost.

Since then, he has returned home to promote his book and begin another very special project. Like The Hunger Games has led to archery programs in schools, Morehouse is looking to expand fencing’s reach with his Fencing-in-Schools foundation. After returning from Beijing, he toured American schools and gave kids and faculty fencing demonstrations. “Everyone would get excited about it and want to start a program, but the resources for the next step didn’t exist. My foundation will provide PE teachers with resources to teach, plus fitness standards and everything else they might need.”

And he has his sights set higher, still. “In fencing we have enough of a great thing and if we’re strategic and smart we work really hard, we can support our athletes and get people fencing. We can put fencing on TV and do a lot of things people don’t think are possible for our sport. I’ve made a lot of believers over the last four years and I plan on making a whole lot more in the future.”

Does that future hold another Olympics for Morehouse? “I’m trying to just keep improving my life and my game. I will definitely be involved and we’ll see if that includes being out on the strip [in the Rio de Janeiro games] as well.”

American Fencer is a fascinating, fun, and fast read, offering insight into the mind of an Olympic athlete. While much of the book deals with modern competition, Morehouse pays homage to those who blazed the trail before him — and not just the American fencers, but the immigrant coaches who came to the US and helped grow our fencing program. It is, at times, humorous and, at others, almost subliminally instructional, offering great and motivating lessons. Like many sports books, American Fencer inspires in telling one man’s triumph over adversity. But unlike so many autobiographies, Morehouse has crafted a humble story that offers solid takeaways, while remaining enjoyable to read.

American Fencer can be purchased through Morehouse’s web site and will soon be available on and bookstores everywhere.

All images courtesy Tim Morehouse.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book. Also, Geekdad’s Garth Sundem was the ghost writer of this title.

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