Fencing brothers split in Barcelona bid

July 30, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Robin Hoods, they're not.

They look more like wild bulls protected by wire-mesh masks and armed with fencing sabres.

Stocky legs. Muscular arms. Spitting images of each other.

The Friedberg brothers are swashbucklers who have followed a path from the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore to the Olympics. Paul leading. John following.

Now, John, 31, is in Barcelona as part of the U.S. Olympic sabre team. Paul, 33, a 1988 Olympian, stayed behind, the first alternate for a five-man team.

"I don't feel as if I've left him in the dust," John said. "Right now, I feel I'm at the top of my game. But I also feel I can get better."

For two brothers to compete in sabre is one of fencing's ironies. The event is the sport's dramatic discipline. To score points, you must charge. To defend attacks, you must never leave the piste -- the narrow field of play. To ensure judges count each point, you are often required to argue your case with the logic of an attorney, and the fury of a bar bouncer.

"It's the sword for aggressive people," John said.

When the Friedbergs clash, it appears to be a game of keepaway. One charges. The other feints. John, 5 feet 8, 155 pounds, is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than his older brother. To tell them apart, you look at their hands. John leads with his left. Paul counters with his right.

"I suppose they got all of their fighting out of their systems as kids," said John Normile, a U.S. team member in epee. "There is no sibling rivalry when they compete. There are no outbursts. It is just a competition. But when they face each other, everyone watches."

The Friedbergs have met some dozen times in competition. But who's counting?

"Just say we don't like to lose to one another," Paul said.

They learned the sport in a JCC youth program directed by Richard Oles, a Johns Hopkins University coach. Paul began as a 14-year-old, and John joined the program two years later, after an unsuccessful fling with judo.

"I guess, subconsciously, I knew I would get more attention in fencing," John said. "The first year I fenced, I didn't like it much. I just didn't click with it. My brother said, 'Don't worry. Finish out the rest of the year.' He consoled me. It worked. After he graduated from high school I was able to grow into my own and mature. Then, I found more of an identity."

Their careers are so similar, it's eerie.

Paul won two NCAA titles while attending the University of Pennsylvania, earned four spots on world championship teams, gained a silver medal at the 1987 Pan American Games, and was part of a seventh-place U.S. sabre team at the 1988 Olympics.

John won one NCAA title while at North Carolina, claimed spots on two world championship teams and took a team silver at the 1991 Pan American Games.

Sense a pattern?

Their personalities are as evenly matched as their fencing styles. Both are reserved, earnest even. Paul is an analyst for the New York Power Authority. John works for an advertising agency, buying network commercial time for clients.

The Friedbergs' goal is to compete on the same Olympic team. Back surgery limited John's training time in 1988. Paul was simply edged out in 1992.

There's always 1996 in Atlanta.

"Growing up, I used to beat John up," Paul said. "But it has always been special for us to be involved in something as a family. We know each other inside out."

Brothers in arms. Beautiful.

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