Olympian Ivan Lee (far left) and Senior World Team member Jason Pryor with F.L.A.M.E. participants Marisa Bast and Michelle Goto.
(Colorado Springs, Colo.) – Athens Olympian Ivan Lee (Brooklyn, N.Y.) will tell you that life is all about choices.
The choices that we each make every day impact our lives, the lives of others and what our next set of choices will be.
On July 15, Lee returned to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to serve as a mentor to 29 college students who had been selected to participate in U.S. Olympic Committee’s Finding Leaders Among Minorities Everywhere program.
An alumnus of the program himself, Lee remains involved in the five-day annual event as a speaker and mentor.
“It’s important because the program did so much for me and it helped me grow so much as a person that I feel it would be selfish to keep the information I’ve gained and not share it with others. I think it would be one of the most selfish things that anyone who’s been successful can do is to not pay it forward,” said Lee who stays involved in the sport as both a coach and referee.
Lee played baseball as a child, but it was his mother who suggested he try fencing on the recommendation of a colleague whose son and daughter had taken up the sport. At 11-years-old, the Brooklyn native found himself at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in Manhattan with Keeth and Erin Smart (Brooklyn, N.Y.) who would become first his childhood friends and, later, Olympic teammates.
Started by six-time Olympian Peter Westbrook (New York City, N.Y.), the foundation was opened in 1991 to create opportunities for inner city youth to be introduced to the sport in which he won bronze at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Lee took to the sport quickly and joked to the F.L.A.M.E. students that “every little boy wants to be able to hit people with swords and not get in trouble!”
But, although he fell instantly in love with the saber and beat everyone in his class within the first week, Lee’s focus continued to stay on baseball.
While his mother often encouraged him to concentrate on fencing to do something “different than what anybody else can do” and his father looking ahead to the potential of a college scholarship that seemed more likely in fencing than baseball, Lee played both sports through his freshman year of high school after which he put down his bat and focused on fencing.
It was that choice that led Lee to the podium in 1998 where he won bronze at the Cadet World Championships, becoming the second African-American to medal at a World Championships.
Now deemed a rising star in the sport, Lee was offered scholarships to 10 schools and selected St. John’s – following in the footsteps of his PWF teammate Keeth Smart.
As a freshman, Lee won bronze at NCAAs and placed third at the Junior Worlds in both the individual and team events.
In 2001, Lee and Smart led St. John’s to its first NCAA Fencing Championship.
“Everybody knows St. John’s for basketball, but do they have an NCAA title?” Lee joked. “Nope. It’s in fencing – second NCAA Team Championship for St. John’s in any sport.”
After the Red Storm won it all in 2001, in the midst of the celebration, Lee told Smart that there couldn’t be anything better than that moment.
Winning a medal at the Olympic Games was the ultimate goal for Smart who returned from Sydney to finish his final year of NCAA eligibility.
Together, Smart and Lee became two of the best fencers in the world and Lee told the students in the fencing gym that he learned another valuable lesson – that it’s easier to get to the top than to stay there.
“All of a sudden, everybody’s looking at you. It used to be that it was good to draw an American. Now I was a target,” Lee said.
By 2003, Lee had hit his stride. Within a span of three months, Lee graduated from St. John's with a journalism degree and won his second USA Fencing National Championship gold and his first international title at the Pan American Games.
The following year, he qualified for the Athens Games where he and Smart were together again with Jason Rodgers (New York City, N.Y.) who won gold with Smart at the 2001 Junior Worlds.
The team fell one touch shy of bronze and Lee added three more Senior World Team appearances and another national title to his resume before retiring in 2008.
As one of Team USA’s greatest athletes, Lee told students that the lessons he learned in fencing have transferred into areas of his life with the biggest one being patience.
“You can’t score right now. You might have to score in 10 seconds. It might take a minute. It might take two minutes. It might take the entire bout to do what you need to do. Just be patient. Everything will happen in its time. It can’t happen before and once it’s the past, it’s the past,” Lee said.
A five-year veteran of the New York Police Department who once used his fencing footwork skills to escape a mugger on the way home from practice, Lee said the critical thinking skills he developed on the strip are ones he uses daily in his career.
“As a police office, when you encounter a situation, I have to stop, step back and think ‘What’s the best way to handle this situation without anybody getting hurt where I can reach the desired goal?’ Maybe I need this person to comply with my orders or maybe I need that person to come back with me without any incident. What’s the best course of action to take? It’s the same thing I’d do if I was fencing. I would think ‘What’s the best way to get this fencer to react to whatever it is that I’m doing so I can score?’”
Following his talk with the F.L.A.M.E. students, Lee suited up for a fencing demo with 2013 Senior World Team member Jason Pryor (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
“This is a really great way to expose people to the sport. You don’t see a lot of African-Americans doing fringe sports, so they come here and they meet Ivan and see he’s one of the greatest fencers ever to come out of the United States and I’m here at the Olympic Training Center as a resident athlete and they realized that this is something that it’s something they can do,” Pryor said. “Ivan’s always doing his talk about choices and people realize that you can become a ‘professional fencer’ and it’s not something people are told they can do, much less black kids are told they can do, but, guess what? You can.”
While many minority youth don’t necessary consider fencing as an option when choosing a sport, Pryor said that fencers like Smart and Lee have paved the way for athletes of all ethnic backgrounds.
“I think the demographics started shifting before I started competing. Now, if you go to a national event, it’s extremely diverse and if you were to take a cross-section of the national team, you’ll see that,” Pryor said.
After the students had a chance to learn footwork and basic bouting, Lee said that a number of the participants reminded him of himself as a young fencer.
“There’s several that you can tell are pretty competitive and you can see that out there,” Lee said. “You can teach people how to fence, but you can’t teach people how to fight and that fight and competitiveness is what will help make them successful down the road.”