Standing astride the victory platform in August at a World Cup
fencing tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, Cliff Bayer
eyeballed the disbelieving crowd eyeballing him. He had neatly
skewered the world's premier foilist, Serge Goloubitski, 15-6 in
the quarterfinals and 1995 world champ Dimitri Chevtchenko 15-10
in the gold medal match. "I looked into the crowd and saw 500
dropped jaws," recalls Bayer, a three-time U.S. champion. "All
the faces seemed to say, 'What's going on? The best Europeans
just lost to an...American!'"
Bayer's victory was the first ever by an American duelist in any
discipline--foil, epee or sabre--at the world championship level.
Fencing has traditionally been an Old World sport, dominated by
Europeans who devote their lives to it. In the States it's still
something to restrain cattle. "Cliff's result is unbelievable,"
raves Simon Gershon, the Ukrainian-born coach of the U.S.
national team. "He is an amateur who beat professionals on
passion and heart."
For a guy who lives by the sword, Bayer is an affable fellow with
a warm smile and an unassuming air. A 22-year-old senior at Penn,
where he's majoring in business, he sees little difference
between the cutting world of fencing and the cutthroat world of
finance. "They're both about waiting for an opening," says Bayer,
"and pouncing at a moment's notice."
Born in Manhattan to a mother who is a writer and a father who is
a gastroenterologist, Bayer at age five started tagging along
with his older brother, Greg, to a fencing club on the Upper West
Side and got pointers from instructors. "Instead of a foil I used
a pencil," Bayer says. "I liked the idea of stabbing somebody and
defending myself and going one-on-one."
By 14 he was going one-on-one with some of the world's best
adolescent fencers, slashing his way to a bronze medal at the
1991 under-15 Junior Olympics. Two years later he was spotted by
Yefim Litvan, then an assistant coach at Penn. "Cliff was a
short, skinny, mediocre guy," says Litvan, now the head coach at
Rutgers, who was initially unimpressed but started coaching Bayer
in '94. "All I saw was him getting beat up by other mediocre
Under Litvan's tutelage Bayer became the youngest U.S. national
champ (at 17), the first U.S. senior men's foilist to reach the
finals of a World Cup event (in 1996) and the youngest fencer at
the 1996 Olympics. (He lost in the opening round.) Now ranked
14th in the world, he is the American with the best chance for an
Olympic medal in Sydney. (The U.S. has produced only two
medalists in fencing since 1960.) "Cliff went from zero to world
class," says Litvan. "He succeeded because of character, strong
Litvan ought to know. Growing up in the Ukraine, he says that he
honed his own technique by watching the subtitled swordplay of
Tyrone Power in Znak Zoro (The Mark of Zorro) and Gene Kelly in
Tre Mushketiora (The Three Musketeers). He became one of the
shrewdest Soviet fencing strategists, but he fell out of favor
with Ukrainian authorities in 1979 and patched together a slender
living as a masseur until '89, when he emigrated to the U.S. and
started refereeing at fencing matches.
Litvan calls his protege an intense and focused student, a
finicky refiner, someone who will ponder and perfect, ponder and
perfect. Bayer fights with a kind of proprietary
aggressiveness--sometimes sly, sometimes feverish--and has a lot of
what fencers call stealth, the ability to strike deceptively. He
calls the sport an intellectual exercise.
Like great tenors, great fencers tend to posture. They try to
intimidate each other with taunts, gibes, bullying--anything to
shatter concentration. Few foilists are as operatic as
Goloubitski. In St. Petersburg he put on a performance worthy of
Caruso. When Bayer ran off four straight points to go ahead 8-4,
the Russian dropped his foil and shoved him. "You step on my foot
and don't apologize!" Goloubitski shouted. "Step on my foot
again, and I knock you on your ass!"
Bayer remained unrattled. "Serge," he said evenly, "do you want
to fence or not?"
Evidently not. The glowering Goloubitski won just two points the
rest of the match. "I don't want to fence with you!" he told
A thin smile creased Goloubitski's lips. "You too good today," he
said. "Anybody this good, I don't want to fence."
"and pouncing on a moment's notice."