“There are always going to be adversity and challenges in your life. The most important things that you can do are stay positive, believe in yourself, and never, ever give up.” This was the main piece of advice that three-time Olympic fencer, Keeth Smart, gave during his Grio interview. This sounds like a cliche, but Keeth has a powerful story to back up his statements that would make a great movie. Keeth overcame disappointment, death, and sickness to become one of the best fencers in the world. Now a seasoned executive, he seeks to give back.
Keeth’s life began in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he and his sister Erinn were born to working class parents, Tom and Liz Smart. “I grew up in a neighborhood that was 99 percent black. Most of my friends from my early life stayed in Brooklyn,” Keeth told theGrio. His dad was not formally educated, but always asserted that “he was educated from [reading] The New York Times,” the three-time Olympian added. It was the “mother wit” of his mom and dad that would help Keeth and his sister grow way beyond those humble beginnings.
His parents’ value of knowledge was passed down their kids, who they constantly struggled to protect from the wrong neighborhood crowds. In 1991, Keeth’s parents discovered an organization to assist in this goal: The Peter Westbrook Foundation, which was founded by Peter Westbrook, a six-time Olympian and winner of a 1984 Bronze medal in sabre fencing.
“Peter is an African-American and wanted to start an organization that teaches disadvantaged and underserved minorities fencing as a way to transform their lives,” Keeth explained about the group that would change his life. The Smart siblings were part of the first class in the foundation’s history.
“I had Peter Westbrook, who is one of the greatest fencers in history, as my mentor. That helped a lot,” Keeth said about the Olympic win that would eventually germinate from that fateful family decision.
Soon, the Smart siblings began to invest every waking hour to their academic studies and fencing. Keeth and Erinn had to rely on each other, because they were picked on by their classmates who often assumed they thought they were better for their interest in fencing.
Even in those early days, the siblings knew they wanted to make the U.S. Olympic team — a first for their neighborhood. To achieve their goal, they both became even more determined.
Nine years later, the Smart siblings’ hard work paid off. They both made the 2000 Olympic team and headed to Australia.
For Keeth, that first Olympics “was a dream come true… Going to a completely different country in Australia and experiencing a completely different culture and meeting so many interesting people is the thing that really opened my eyes to all of the opportunities in this world. I also realized that there was so much more work that I needed to do if I really wanted to be a top-level athlete. Even though my goal was to make an Olympic team, once I got there I realized that so many athletes had a [bigger] goal. They had not lowered the bar to just making an Olympic team. Their goal was to be an Olympic medalist or to be known as the best in my event.”
Australia ended with Keeth’s team finishing 30th; he did not qualify for the individual competition. With his sights set higher, Keeth took a more professional approach to his training to prepare for the next Olympics.
At this point, Keeth took a job with Verizon Communications in its corporate finance department. This allowed him the necessary time to compete on the weekends and train at night. Keeth also grew professionally. “I used best practices from my [fencing] to excel in my job. I was one of the youngest people in Verizon to get a promotion [at the time]. It took three years. I had a team reporting to me, which was pretty cool.”
Approaching the 2004 Olympics in Athens, work was going well — and Keeth held the number one ranking in the world in sabre fencing, the first American fencer to hold that title. Verizon even gave him a leave of absence so that he could train harder to bring home Olympic Gold.
But the surrounding excitement turned to disappointment as the 2004 Olympics unfolded.
“We finished fourth in the team event and we were one point away from going to the gold medal match. It was I who lost it. This is because I didn’t know how to manage pressure,” Keeth stated with regret. “I started to think more of the result instead of the actions that I needed to execute. Once you starting thinking ‘what if I am champion, or if I’m going to be first, second, or third?’ — then you have already started to become paralyzed. This is because you are not thinking about what your opponent is doing. You are thinking about things that are totally irrelevant to what is going on at that very moment.”
Keeth, as a result, felt personally responsible for losing the team’s Olympic medal and wanted to train even harder for the next Games. Yet, while Keeth did not know it, he was about to face the most difficult circumstances of his life.