Great Ehrlich-Steele debate comes to a point

Lt. governor tries to prove fencing's merits to boss

March 19, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

With tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, they call it the real battle inside the nascent Ehrlich-Steele administration.

"It's not abortion. It's not guns. It's not the death penalty," said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, wearing a uniform that looked remarkably like a long-sleeved version of a ladies swimsuit. "It's fencing vs. football."

Steele was a two-time member of the Johns Hopkins University fencing team. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was a more traditional athlete - a football player at Gilman and Princeton. As governor, Ehrlich is a regular in a Tuesday night pickup basketball game at St. John's College with some of the younger legislators - though they question whether he is much of a shooter.

Last night, before the hoops, Steele suited up and sparred with members of the St. John's College fencing club, a coed team of students at the Annapolis school. Steele hadn't picked up a foil in 20 years, but he was intent on proving to Ehrlich that fencing is, indeed, a sport.

"I'm trying to bring the governor around to a sport that has a rich tradition," said Steele. "It's an Olympic sport. Football is not an Olympic sport, last time I checked."

"It's not like what you'd see in The Princess Bride or other movies," said fencer Adam Johnson, 21, a sophomore from California. "It's not light sabers in Star Wars. It's two people fighting with swords."

In the old days the swordsmanship of a state official would certainly not have been the object of ridicule. If Ehrlich could get his slots bill passed by having Steele challenge opponents to a duel, he would probably win - at least judging by last night's display.

There are three kinds of swords in fencing: foil, epee and saber. And each sword comes with its rules. "As you can imagine, the basic object of the sport is to hit the other guy," Johnson said. "It's not really dangerous. It occasionally happens there's a freak accident - the tip of a sword will break off and someone will be stabbed with it before anyone notices. But it's extremely rare."

No one was injured last night, though, as Steele took on two St. John's fencers in succession - and won. It was actually kind of exciting, the governor had to admit. "Is it OK to clap?" Ehrlich wondered after a hard-won point. "We've got to do the wave."

Fencing may not be a sport as far as Ehrlich is concerned, but the governor said he was impressed with whatever it was Steele was doing with that sword.

Still, Ehrlich was not ready to try it.

"I have no desire to get stabbed," he said. "I'll tell you one thing, though. I'm not giving Lt. Gov. any grief anymore."

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