Nick Bravin is not Errol Flynn. He has never saved a damsel in distress by leaping off a banister, swinging from a chandelier and dispatching a foe with slick swordplay. He's a fencer, not a swashbuckler. And here's a warning: Bravin loathes such comparisons, and he regularly carries a sharp object.
Bravin is, according to himself, America's boldest, brashest and brightest fencing stud, and his evidence for this conclusion includes the NCAA foil championship, which he won as a Stanford sophomore in 1990 and again last month as a junior, and the '91 national foil title.
All this success is, he feels, as it should be. "I remember sitting by myself in the hotel in St. Charles, Illinois, right after winning [the nationals], and thinking it was no big surprise," Bravin says. "I probably shouldn't talk about it, because I have enough enemies already. But even though I wasn't the favorite, I was expecting to win."
Bravin, 20, tends to tick people off when he says stuff like that, but he doesn't much care what other people think. In fact, his attitude is one of his greatest strengths. If Bravin weren't so darn stubborn and cocky, he probably wouldn't be a fencer at all. When he first tried the sport, at age 11, his mother, Shawn, predicted that those silly swords would soon be collecting dust in his closet, along with the model airplanes, the violin, the saxophone and all her son's other childhood fancies. "I guess one of the reasons I'm still fencing today is that my mom never thought I would be," he says.
By the time Bravin had arrived at Stanford in 1989, the height of his self-esteem was widely known in fencing circles; it was as if he were sporting a big, fat bull's-eye on his forehead. Cardinal coach Zoran Tulum nearly tossed the insubordinate Bravin off the team twice during his freshman season. Then Tulum discovered that his prodigy's talent was inextricably tied to his ego.
"I realized that here was somebody who didn't have much respect for anybody on the strip, somebody who put his mask on and didn't care who was behind the other mask," Tulum says. "I came to understand that his attitude was what set him apart. Nick says, 'O.K., you're world champion, but I'm going to beat you.' "
That's exactly what Nick says. When he loses to, say, a well-known European, Bravin might dismiss the match as a miscarriage of justice. "There are times when I lose that I know I wouldn't have lost if the other guy wasn't wearing a German flag or an Italian Hag," he says. "I remember once in Italy, I'm killing this guy, getting touches left and right. And [the judge] is screwing me, cheating me.
"You have to fight tradition. Europeans are biased and prejudiced against non-Europeans."
Carl Borack, captain of the U.S. team, which finished 16th in team foil competition at last year's world championships in Budapest, is a Bravin fan, but not a Bravin apologist. "Nick has rankled many fencers, coaches and officials with his arrogance and his mouth," says Borack. "He has never been much for popularity contests, which is good because he wouldn't win one."
No, he wouldn't. The folks in the fencing fraternity were not exactly doing the Wave at last year's nationals in St. Charles when Bravin breezed into the finals. In the championship match, against unheralded Alan Weber of Philadelphia, Bravin, overconfident, lost the opening bout 5-1. This excited the crowd. But Bravin settled down and won the last two bouts 5-3, 5-0. "When I won, I wasn't elated," recalls Bravin. "People say I'm cocky, but I'm not a ham, and I felt silly standing there for pictures holding that cup over my head. It wasn't the best feeling I've had in fencing."
That feeling will come, Bravin says, when he wins an Olympic gold medal, something no U.S. fencer has done since 1904. Last August, Bravin thrust himself to the fore of international fencing by getting the bronze medal in foil at the Pan Am Games in Havana. He is likely to earn a spot on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, but what he is really pointing toward is the Atlanta Games in '96. By then, says Bravin, "I will honestly feel that I can beat anybody in the world."
Borack likens Bravin's outlaw pose to Jesse James's: "Everybody wants to face him and shoot him down. But he's the fastest foil in town."
Bravin has a ready parry. "Jesse James?" he says. "Are you kidding? Jesse James got shot in the back, didn't he?"