Mandell gets his point across Poly grad savors U.S. saber title FENCING

June 26, 1993|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Staff Writer

David Mandell began to have grave doubts about his fencing future when, in practice before the 1992 Olympic trials, an opponent's blade broke, penetrating Mandell's protective jacket into his lung.

Mandell spent five days in the hospital. A few months later, he tentatively returned to action but finished 17th in the last of a series of U.S. team Olympic trials.

"I wanted to prove to myself I wasn't afraid of fencing," he said.

That he did. Mandell, 24, a graduate of Poly and Columbia University, capped his comeback by winning the saber in the U.S. Fencing Championships earlier this month in Fort Myers, Fla.

His victory was touched with irony. In a 12-match, one-day march through a field of 100 to the championship, he defeated, in his three final and most demanding matches, a former teammate at Columbia, Chris Reohr, and former Olympians Paul and John Friedberg, also Baltimoreans who had trained under Dick Olds at the Tri-Weapon Club at Johns Hopkins.

"Olds must be doing something right if the top three fencers in the country come from his club," Mandell said, recalling Olds as a "drill sergeant."

Attempting to defuse the grudging compliment, Olds said, "I have nothing to take credit for. It's been five, six years since David left the club, 10 since the Friedbergs left. But they did have solid backgrounds. All blade moves are learned the first two years. Then it's a matter of refining tempo and timing and getting experience."

Mandell, who lives in New York City and develops youngsters' programs for the Children of Alcoholics Foundation, got his first taste of fencing at a Johns Hopkins day camp when he was 6. It wasn't until he was 12, however, that he sought out Olds.

"I was the most uncoordinated 12-year-old you ever saw, 6-2 and 140," Mandell said. "I needed a sport. I remembered that exposure at the day camp and fencing appealed, because it combined the physical with the mental."

At Columbia -- "which is to fencing what Johns Hopkins is to lacrosse, or used to be" -- the Lions won three team titles while Mandell was there and he won the NCAA saber championship as a senior.

Mandell's comeback from the punctured lung officially began last December in the first of another series of national team trials. He finished 35th. In the next trials he was 10th -- "That gave me hope," he said -- and in the third he was second to Peter Westbrook, a five-time Olympian and 12-time national champion.

"He was my idol," Mandell said. "It's hard to fence your idol."

Since Mandell never had finished higher than sixth, some of his colleagues wondered if his triumph over Westbrook was a fluke.

"I went into the U.S. Championships figuring if I finished in the top four, I was back," Mandell said. "I didn't expect to win."

In Fort Myers, Mandell went into his match against Paul Friedberg with the memory of "getting my butt kicked regularly by Paul for 10 years." Not until April did he register his first victory over Paul.

"I thought he'd slug me after the match," Mandell said. "Fencers can be friends, but on the strip they're enemies. You've got to hate your opponent."

John Friedberg was next. Mandell never had beaten him in competition.

"The pressure was on him because he always beat me," Mandell said. "There was none on me. I decided to take chances, use high-risk action to try to shake him up."

Capitalizing on Friedberg's apparent nervousness, thereby combining the mental with the physical, Mandell swept the first two matches in the best-of-three.

Olds would have called it "a combination of boxing and chess. Chess on roller skates. Pingpong on wheels." Any of the analogies suited Mandell.

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