Chapter 11: The Olympics

(Olympic National Anthem)

     Each morning after my ritual of coffee and The New York Times, I stroll through my apartment with the intent to tidy up. Today, I lingered more than usual at Cliff’s old bedroom which was transformed into a den when he set up his own lodgings. I rearranged his fencing trophies and medals, now proudly displayed on shelves and walls, slightly better arranged than when he had them stored in shoeboxes.

I picked up a Lucite hexagon trophy with 5 Olympic rings above the dark red letters, USA, ATHLETE OF THE MONTH, MAY 1999.

Just before Sydney, I recalled, the month Cliff had won the World Cup Championship in St. Petersburg.

My eyes stopped at a letter from President Clinton, addressed to Cliff at the Olympic Village in Atlanta, the day before his fencing bouts:

“July 16, 1996

Dear Cliff,

I am delighted to congratulate you on your selection as a member of the United States Olympic Team.

This is a great accomplishment, achieved in an all-American way – by setting a goal, making the most of your God-given talents, sacrificing much and never losing sight of the prize. You are an inspiration to young people everywhere who want to succeed, not only in athletics, but also in school, in their careers, and in their lives. You are living an American dream….

On behalf of all the American people, I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely, Bill Clinton”

It all came back to me. A wind of memories, making me so queasy that I had to sit down on the couch.

Mica had told us how it all began: the old Volvo station wagon, Mom driving, two brothers in the back seat joking and sipping yellow Gatorade, two large fencing bags in the rear smelling of sweaty t-shirts and knickers.

I drove home slowly so the laughter wouldn’t stop. Twice a week that eventually became every evening. I wanted to hold on to the memory, keep it vibrant before my eyes. I loved every part of it: the boys joking about fencing moves, their laughter at the wins and losses, their respect for each other’s talents. I didn’t want it to end. So I drove slowly before the scene would fade and school and career and life would take them away from me. Away from me.

Greg was older than Cliff by five years, so he paved the way. One summer at sports camp, he chose fencing. His coach was a Russian émigré, a former fencing champ. The sport appealed to Greg’s analytical mind, like chess, setting up the opponent several moves ahead until a final win. He took it seriously that summer when he was ten-years-old and wanted to continue in the Fall. Simion, his coach, was teaching in the evenings at Fencers Club and eagerly accepted Greg as a student.

I’d take five-year-old Cliff with me to pick up Greg. Cliff, of course, wanted to do what the big kids did, especially take a sword and run after the mouse who made a house in the locker room. To keep Cliff quiet while the fencers concentrated, I asked Sue, a student at Columbia University and member of the Olympic Fencing Team, if she wanted to earn some money. “Sure,” she answered, eyeing the mischievous, hyper-kid before her. She took from her backpack a pencil and handed it to the five-year-old.

“I started like this,” she told him. “It was fun.”

It took Cliff many years until it was fun and fun for Cliff meant one thing – to win. Greg continued to fence, at Dalton, at Princeton, and I believe he had more fun fencing than Cliff. Even today, Greg is President of Princeton’s Fencing Alumnae and fences with the college team for the pleasure of the sport. While Cliff, after his second Olympics in Sydney, never fenced again. He clearly stated, “I can only fence to win and to win, I have to practice 5 to 6 hours a day. I can’t do that anymore.”

How wise he was at 23 to realize that life had other challenges before him and he had to begin training for his next successes. He returned to Wharton, finished the 5-year program, and went on to other goals. His trophies are different now.

I eye the dozen of plaques on the walls in the room that was once his and I remember each tournament, each challenge. The traveling with Cliff that my husband took on. Their stories of lost fencing bags at airports, arriving at tournaments without equipment, the snowstorms and delays as they waited on airplanes, the weekends of competitions in different states, in foreign cities, a year off from school to train for Atlanta, a year off for Sydney, early morning practice, evening work outs, lessons, training, traveling, fencing, traveling, fencing, training…. Yes, Cliff was dedicated, obsessed, and we as a family tried to make his dreams become reality.

And dreams they were. Like President Clinton had said, an American dream. Yes, Mica’s sons fenced as part of her American dream, with a determination and rhythm that made their sport become art. And my sons learned the art of competition and strategy. At the same time, my husband and I centered our life around their world.

As I smile at the medals surrounding me, I realize how sports taught our family how to be a team. And how even an individual sport becomes a team endeavor. We all won – each one in our own way.