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Noteworthy Graduates

Noteworthy graduates: Erinn Smart, Olympic fencing champion

New York Teacher

“It’s a lot of pressure to represent your country and compete at an Olympics, but with that pressure, it’s a great honor,” said Olympic fencing champion Erinn Smart. A U.S. national champion many times over, Smart took home the silver medal with her team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This Brooklyn-born-and-bred young woman attended PS 107, MS 51 and Brooklyn Tech HS. She credits her teachers with helping her succeed in sports and life. Prodding from a physical education teacher in elementary school led her to compete, and the high bar set by her academic teachers prepared her for the Ivy League education — Barnard College and the Wharton School of Business — that followed. Smart now combines her passion for athletics and her business acumen in her work as business development manager at the DailyBurn, an online fitness service that offers workout videos you can watch on any device.

My parents, my brother and I lived on Ocean Avenue in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood right across from Prospect Park, so most of my childhood was spent in the park, running, biking and ice skating.

My best memories at PS 107 in Park Slope were of Mrs. Lenore Read, who I had for 4th and 5th grades. When she traveled to Germany, she came back with a chunk of the Berlin Wall, which she passed around for the whole class to hold. I remember thinking, this is amazing — it’s a piece of history. She pushed us more than I was used to. I didn’t want to disappoint her so I worked harder.

Joe Sogluizzo was my gym teacher at PS 107. He said, “You need to focus on this.” He pushed my family to put me in the Colgate Women’s Games. He said, “You should practice your running, time yourself, do hurdles.” That was the first time anyone had treated me as a professional.

I wasn’t too inclined on the reading front until I had Miss Karp as my English teacher at MS 51. She inspired me to read. She wasn’t any sort of a pushover — she challenged us. We’d read a book and she’d play clips of the movie. That made it very intriguing.

Science was my main passion. I ended up focusing on chemistry at Brooklyn Tech. I like that there are always solutions to problems; there’s a formula in place. It’s not subjective.

I had two great chemistry teachers in high school. Mr. Melnick taught advanced chemistry. He didn’t beat around the bush. He told us, “This information is hard. You have to sit down and memorize it.” Mr. Malchik just loved being in the lab and doing experiments. He was passionate about what we were doing.

My brother and I were introduced to fencing by my dad, who had read an article about it and said, “You guys need to go try this out.” We were 11 and 12 years old at the time. An Olympic fencer named Peter Westbrook had started a nonprofit foundation to get inner-city kids into the sport.

On my first day at the fencing center, I met Westbrook and Bob Cottingham, another Olympian. These were two African-American men who looked like my dad and competed and won. I was in awe.

I fenced for four years at Brooklyn Tech. Fencing is called physical chess because you have to think about what your move will be and what your opponent’s move will be; you really have to think not just one but two steps ahead.

Fencing is a predominantly affluent, white sport. My brother and I stood out — and we were aware of it. Nationally, most African-American fencers come from New York City. We don’t fit the mold elsewhere. That’s why I’m so grateful to be from New York.

By 17, I was performing at a very high level and felt it was within my scope to become an Olympian. I didn’t partake in a lot of the typical school activities like dances or trips because I was competing. I spent most of my lunch hours doing homework because I had to go to practice after school. I never wanted to disappoint my teachers, and they worked with me to keep up with my academics. I never dropped the ball.

Now I volunteer with the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Every Saturday, my brother, who is also an Olympic fencer, and I lead the workouts and mentor and coach the kids. There are between 65 and 100 kids every Saturday; when we started 22 years ago, there were just 10. We’ve come full circle.

— As told to reporter Cara Metz