One Saturday morning 11 years ago, Michael Lofton was roaming his neighborhood looking for adventure when he dropped in on an elementary school recreation class and spotted something.
"Wow! Swashbuckling!" he said. The instructor offered the 9-year-old a foil. From then on the boy embraced fencing not just as a sport but also as a mission. Young Michael was planning to make history. "I thought I was the only black person in fencing in the whole wide world," he says. For six years Lofton believed he was the Jackie Robinson of the sport.
Then, at age 15, Lofton saw men's national saber champion Peter Westbrook practicing in New York. "I thought he was spectacular," says Lofton, "but I couldn't see his face under the mask, just his eyes." For a second Lofton was worried.
" 'Naw,' I said to myself, 'he's Japanese.' " When the match ended and Westbrook took off his mesh helmet, Lofton realized he was too late to be Jackie Robinson. Peter Westbrook already was.
Westbrook and Lofton are now teammates, No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, on the five-man U.S. Olympic saber squad (the others are Steve Mormando, Phil Reilly and Joel Glucksman). Westbrook recalls the first meeting with Lofton: "This young kid with a baby face and his head tilted to one side is looking up at me saying, 'You're my hero.' "
The hero, at 32, is the most accomplished U.S. fencer, with eight national titles and a Pan Am Games gold medal. Lofton, 20, is the most promising young fencer in the country. He was 57-1 last season as a freshman at New York University and was undefeated in the NCAA championships at Princeton, winning the individual saber.
This isn't to say that Westbrook or Lofton has much of a chance of winning an Olympic gold medal. The strong Soviet bloc countries may have bowed out of the Games, but Italy and France are formidable, too. The last time the U.S. won a team medal in any of the three fencing weapons (foil, epee, saber) was in 1948. And no American has won an individual medal in saber—Lofton and Westbrook's event—since 1904.
For Lofton, the path from Freeport, a lower-to-middle-income Long Island community, to the Olympics has been lined with kindly strangers. That morning in Freeport when he looked in on the class, the woman who handed Lofton his first weapon was Tanya Adamovich, a former junior national champion in the Soviet Union. Adamovich knew Lofton had potential: He was tall, dedicated and patient, and he didn't care for football, basketball or baseball. "If students don't like American sports, then I work with them," says Adamovich. "And then, only if they are special people."
There were setbacks. The first few times Lofton was outfenced by girls, he cried. His mother, Inez, couldn't afford all his expenses on her salary as a clerk at the Nassau Medical Center library. "Sometimes I didn't have the money, but somehow he never missed getting on a plane or making an event," she says. Michael is her only child. Her husband left home when the boy was 13.
For a time Lofton asked his mother not to watch him compete. Now he is ashamed of behaving that way. "I was a knucklehead," he says. "It was about the time my father left. Fencing was something that let me have my space. It let me take my aggressions out alone." He liked "the mystique of going out to have a duel, the idea of cutting somebody to ribbons."
His mother approved of fencing because it kept Michael off the streets. "I told him, 'Don't go out there with the bullies, 'cause if you get in trouble, I don't have the money to get you out of it,' " she says. She assumed that in fencing her son was dealing with fine people.
When Lofton was 17, Adamovich decided he was ready for more advanced instruction. She took him to the New York Fencers Club in Manhattan to meet Csaba Elthes, a Hungarian fencing master and a six-time U.S. Olympic coach. Elthes, 72, remembers Lofton as "a little foilist who wanted to be a saberist. I saw he was a talented boy."
Whenever Lofton could manage it, he had a lesson with Elthes, who waived the usual $10-per-session coaching fee. One of Elthes's teaching methods is to hit students with the sword on the arm or the leg when they make a mistake. "He constantly tests your character to see whether you're a real man or a wimp. He asks himself, 'Can this guy take what I'm dishing out, or will he flee?' " says Lofton.
After graduating from Freeport High in 1982, Lofton was rejected by NYU, so he worked for a year. The next year he reapplied. Fencing coach Steve Kaplan, a former Olympian and Elthes pupil, argued Lofton's case before the board of directors to accept him and grant him a scholarship. And NYU's fencing team, once a national power, is on the upswing again. The team was 3-8 in 1983 but 7-2 this year, Lofton's first. For Lofton to improve he needs more strength in his hands and a more relaxed posture, says Elthes. At 6 feet, Lofton is tall for a fencer, which is an advantage in reach, yet is usually a disadvantage when it comes to reflexes.
Thanks to fencing, Lofton has already seen much of the world. In Budapest last summer, after the Junior World Championships, several of his teammates planned to travel through Europe. When they learned Lofton couldn't afford to join them, they kicked in so he could come along. It has worked out just as his mother suspected. Fencing has introduced Michael to many fine people.