November 18, 2009

MBA Olympian Keeth Smart ’10: Learning to Fail — and Win

Keeth Smart ’10, who led the 2008 U.S. Olympic Fencing Team to a silver medal in Beijing — the first American men’s fencing medal since 1984 — was featured in a documentary on Showtime.


Keeth Smart ’10, who led the 2008 U.S. Olympic Fencing Team to a silver medal in Beijing — the first American men’s fencing medal since 1984 — was recently featured in a documentary on Showtime.

Now in his second year at the School, Olympic silver medalist Keeth Smart ’10 was recently featured on Showtime in “Beijing 2008 — American’s Olympic Glory,” a documentary on the personal journeys of several American athletes at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

Smart’s story is epic. At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, he lost the bronze medal matches by a single point in both the individual and team events. Just four months before leading the 2008 U.S. men’s team to a silver medal — the first American men’s fencing medal since 1984 — Smart beat back a rare blood disease that nearly killed him.

The documentary has footage of you fencing when you were just 15. Fencing has never been a mainstream sport, and it’s not the easiest game to follow. How did you first get involved?

My father saw an article about the opening day of the Peter Westbrook Foundation [a nonprofit dedicated to empowering underserved youth through fencing] and thought it would be a fantastic idea for my sister and me to try fencing. [Smart’s sister, Erin, who is also featured in the documentary, won a silver medal in Beijing.] He also thought it would keep us busy! I was 11. At the time all I thought I knew about fencing was from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back — and lightsabers aren’t exactly accurate!

I wasn’t one of the better athletes when I started fencing; it took a while for things to click for me. Falling in love with the sport was a slow process. But as soon as I started to see how I could improve after each practice, it really drew me in. I enjoyed the challenge.

Insider knowledge is also fun for a kid, and nobody in my family knew anything about fencing. My parents would take me to tournaments and they would clap for my opponent because they didn’t know where the points were being awarded! My sister and I were able to teach them about the sport.

How do you think fencing informs your MBA education and business career?

The most important skill I’ve learned through fencing is how to deal with failure. It’s earth shattering when you lose, and you feel terrible for your teammates too. I’ve had a lot of failures, and I’ve really learned to shake them off, not dwell on them and to learn from my mistakes. This is something that the best fencers are constantly looking to do.

People don’t talk a lot about failures, but it’s so important to be able to learn from a loss and move forward — in any situation. I loved that I gained this ability through fencing. I don’t make excuses.

Are you still fencing? Any plans to return to the sport after you graduate?

I’m still really involved with the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Every Saturday morning, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., I lead 300 kids, ages 9 to 17, through fitness routines, fencing-related conditioning and small group fencing drills. It’s really fun and rewarding to work with kids who, like I was, are completely new to fencing.

As for my immediate plans, I’m focusing on venture capital and entrepreneurship. One business idea that I’m developing now is a fitness center staffed by Olympians. I think I have some connections on that front.

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