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A Foil to His Foes : Fencer Nick Bravin Intimidates, Attacks, Offends--and Wins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To better understand Nick Bravin, the Olympic fencer from Los Angeles, you need to know that one of his favorite athletes is Charles Barkley--not so much because of Barkley’s aggressive style on the basketball court as his outspoken talk off the court.

“Barkley says what he thinks, and he doesn’t care whether anybody likes it or not; that’s the way it is as far as he’s concerned,” Bravin said during a moment of rest in his Olympic training program at Stanford’s Roble gym. “I like his aggressiveness and the way he intimidates other players, but what I really like is the way he talks.”

Bravin, 21, a graduate of Hamilton High in Los Angeles and a senior at Stanford majoring in human biology, will represent the United States in men’s foil at Barcelona.

He talks a lot like Barkley and, although he is only 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds, he is aggressive and intimidating in the Barkley manner.

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“He’s a street fighter in a match,” Stanford Coach Zoran Tulum said. “He has the psychology--the mind-set--to do anything it takes to win.”

Bravin, who talks so quickly it is sometimes difficult to keep up with his thoughts, enjoys fostering that image. After winning his second NCAA championship last March, he said: “I got by by being a punk. I had to. I shouted in the guy’s face after I scored. I treat a match like war. That’s been my reputation. I believe in aggression.”

In a fashion advertisement in Rolling Stone magazine last April, Bravin said: “I think I have always done well because of my inbred cockiness.”

That attitude has not always endeared Bravin to fencing associates. Carl Borack, captain of last year’s U.S. world team, told Sports Illustrated: “Nick has rankled many fencers, coaches and officials with his arrogance and mouth. He has never been much for popularity contests, which is good because he wouldn’t win one.”

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Bravin dismisses the criticism:

“The guy who wrote that called up everybody I knew, trying to get them to say something bad about me, and that was the worst he could find. He started the article with the idea of ripping me, and he wasn’t going to change it.”

On the other hand, Bravin does say things that are not exactly diplomatic:

--On his decision to red-shirt his junior year at Stanford and train in Italy for the Olympics: “I wanted to see if I had the ability to reach a higher level than I could achieve in the United States. I didn’t want to settle for mediocrity, and I had exhausted my opportunities for challenge. I felt I needed a higher challenge in Europe.”

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Strong words, yet his record indicates he was probably right. Last year, at 20, he became the youngest fencer to win a national championship. During the 1990 season, when he won his first NCAA championship, his individual record was 29-1. This year it was 48-0 as he won another NCAA championship and another national title.

--On why he choose Stanford: “Fencing was the biggest strike against it. I had scholarship offers from Penn State and Notre Dame, two of the best fencing schools in the country. I choose Stanford for academics. I felt I was taking a step down as far as competition was concerned.”

Bravin, who had been competing on an international level since he was 14, lucked out. In 1988, the year he enrolled, Stanford hired Tulum, a veteran of the Red Star Club in Belgrade and an eight-time Yugoslav national champion. He came from Harvard, where he had been an assistant. In four years, Tulum and Bravin have made the Cardinal a force in fencing, finishing sixth in the last NCAA meet, the highest ever for a West Coast school.

--On selecting foil over epee and sabre, fencing’s two other classes: “My philosophy is that if you can’t do foil, you go to one of the other ones. Foil is the most elemental of all.”

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In foil, points are scored when the end of a whippy, 35-inch foil touches the opponent on the trunk of the body, between the collar and the hip bones. In epee, the entire body is the target. In sabre, touches can be made on the head, arms and trunk.

--On his athletic style of fencing: “The Europeans fight among themselves, but they gang up on non-European fencers, especially those stuffy French and Italian 70-year-olds (officials) who want the sport to stay more classical. They’re more concerned with whether you’ve got your hand in the right position than they are seeing you score a point. They don’t like new-generation fencers.”

Bravin said one of his main objectives while training in Italy last year was to mingle with European officials and competitors so that they would know who he is at Barcelona.

“It’s not realistic to think that I’ll win a medal this time, but by the time I get to Atlanta (for the 1996 Olympics), I expect them to be well aware of me. I expect to be a force by then.”

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Those are lofty ambitions, considering the United States has never won an individual gold medal in fencing.

“If I didn’t think I had the potential to win the World Championships or the Olympics, I’d quit,” Bravin said. “The objective in sports is to keep moving up from one level to another until you reach the top, and that’s what I plan to do.”

--On his strong points: “I don’t think I have any weaknesses.”

Charles Barkley would love Nick Bravin.

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Life as a fencer started for Bravin when he was about 11, and his brother Jess, seven years his senior, did a little sparring in recreational leagues and the Renaissance Fair on weekends.

“Like all little brothers, I idolized my big brother, so after Jess left home and went to Harvard, I called up one of his friends and asked how I could get into fencing and be like Jess,” Bravin said.

“He told me about the Westside Fencing Club in Culver City, so I took some lessons that summer and joined the Salle Gascon club. Chris O’Laughlin (a fellow Olympian from Van Nuys) belongs to the same club.

“At first, I thought it was kind of dumb, just learning basics, mostly practicing footwork and different drills. In December, 1983, I entered my first under-14 tournament and won it. That gave me the impetus to stay with it, although I never thought I’d make it a career. It was just something to do to have fun.”

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Ted Katzoff, who was Bravin’s first coach at the Westside club, sensed he had something special.

“Coach said to me that I had great potential for fencing,” Bravin recalled. “I remember my thought at the time was, ‘How can he possibly tell?’ ”

Katzoff said: “You could see (when he was 12) that he was a fighter. It was just there.”

Fencing wasn’t the only thing in Bravin’s sports portfolio at Westside Alternative School and later at Hamilton High. He was a Little League all-star infielder and in high school played baseball and football, as a 150-pound linebacker and pulling guard.

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“By the time I was 14, fencing had become pretty important,” he said. “I practiced just about every night from 6 to 10. I was lucky to have two good friends, Al Carter and Derrick Cotton, who worked out with me about 25 hours a week. We had some great competition.

“I went to my first international meet, the Trofeo Milo in Mexico City, in 1985, and that really hooked me. It was heady stuff for a 14-year-old to start traveling all over the world and meeting so many different people with a common interest.”

After enrolling at Stanford and coming under the guidance of Tulum, Bravin’s career, at least nationally, took off. In 1989 and 1990 he won gold medals in team foil at the Olympic Festival, placed fourth in the under-20 foil in the 1990 Junior Olympics, finished 27th out of 144 in the Junior World Cup in Budapest in 1990 and 12th at the 1991 World Junior Championships.

Last year, after training in Italy at the club that produced gold medalists Mauro Numa in 1984 and Stefano Cerioni in 1988, Bravin won a bronze medal in individual foil and a silver medal in team foil at the Pan American Games in Havana.

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“The most important lesson I learned in Italy was finding out how human (the best fencers) were and how hard they worked to get where they are.”

Bravin, an avid sports fan, often peppers his machine gun-like conversation on fencing with comparisons to other sports.

“In terms of strategy, fencing is somewhat like tennis in that you’ve got to out-think your opponent as well as out-hit him. In another way, it’s like a pitcher in baseball keeping the batter off balance. The universal elements of fencing are footwork and timing, but you can’t allow yourself to develop a set pattern because if you do, your opponent will be ready for it.

“You need to change speeds, change tactics, the way a pitcher does, and you’ve also got to study your opponent and find if he sticks to a set pattern. If he does, your job is half over, like a batter sitting on a fastball and getting one.”

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Studying and competing in Europe was an eye-opener for Bravin.

“In Italy, fencing is treated like we treat gymnastics and swimming,” he said. “There are thousands of 4- and 5-year-olds fencing. When they get older, the good ones are backed by the government or big business. In Germany, for instance, the fencing team is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, and all the members drive new cars.

“As far as the difference between here and Europe, fencing is something like motorcycle racing. There is little interest in this country, but Americans like (world road racing champions) Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey are well known in Europe.

“I don’t mean fencing is as popular as motorcycles over there, but it sure gets more attention than it does here. In Germany, you see huge posters of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf and also (world foil champion) Ingo Weissenborn.

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“I would say 70% of the people know who the top fencers are. How many do you think know who Peter Westbrook is over here? Practically no one, but he’s on the Olympic team for the fifth time and he was the only American fencer to get a medal at Los Angeles.

“I don’t know why, it’s sort of like the chicken and the egg. The fencers say there’s little interest because they don’t get any coverage in the media, and the media says the reason they don’t have coverage is because there’s no interest. It’s all interrelated. Every four years, the Olympics create a little stirring of attention, but in between it’s back to just about zero interest.”

In this year’s national final in suburban Chicago, Bravin defeated seven-time champion Michael Marx of South Bend, Ind., 5-3, 2-5, 6-4.

“It was a big win for me because Marx wasn’t there when I won the year before and a lot of people thought my win was a fluke,” Bravin said. “It was probably the best fencing I had ever done in a tournament because he was at his best. He had just come from five months training in Poland.

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“At the time, we both knew we had made the Olympic team, so we were both loose.”

Barcelona will be Marx’s fourth experience as an Olympian.

Another memorable moment for Bravin occurred in the Pan Am Games when the United States met Cuba in the team final. Cuba had whitewashed all its opposition, 36-0, en route to the finals and won eight of its nine matches against the Americans.

“The Cubans had just come from winning the world championship, beating Italy, Russia and Germany in a row,” Bravin said. “In preliminary rounds in Havana, no one had come close to scoring a point against them. The place was a madhouse. There was a rumor that Fidel Castro was coming for the finals, and there was so much noise you couldn’t hear yourself breathe. I decided I had to keep us from getting skunked. I scored the point against the Cubans. “

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Bravin also won the bronze medal in individual foil as Cubans finished 1-2. Bravin lost his semifinal to Elvis Gregory of Cuba, 2-1 (6-4 in the final game).

“Now I can’t wait to get to Barcelona,” he said. “I’ve worked my butt off to get there. I’ve spent the last nine years of my life with a foil in my hand. I want to find out where it’s led me.”

If anyone wonders about his dedication, take a look at his right leg. From the pressure of continually shuffling back and forth--advancing and retreating--along the strip in fencing matches and practice, Bravin’s right thigh is three inches thicker than his left.


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