By Charles Curtis Monday, May 7, 2012
Ben Bratton, left, beat Jean-Michel Lucenay of France to help the U.S. win the epee world title.
The Queens, N.Y., native was a member of the U.S. men’s epee team that won the first-ever American team gold at the World Fencing Championships in Ukraine last month. He’s also the first African-American to do so and the youngest.
But due to a cruel twist of fate, he won’t head to London this summer. Bratton has spent years making checklists with an Olympic bid as one of his life goals.
A trip to the Games will remain unchecked for the moment.
In recent years, fencing has added a number of other disciplines — women’s sabre was added in 2004, for example — to its list of competitions. Because the International Olympic Committee limits the number of medals the sport can receive, one team from men’s and women’s fencing is eliminated every four years as part of a rotation.
This year, men’s team epee — in which fencers use the tip of their sword to score points by striking any part of their opponent — isn’t an Olympic event.
Still, as his mentor, landmark African-American fencer Peter Westbrook, pointed out, the world team gold is an honor, especially to those who look up to Bratton.
“It gives an injection to the children — dignity, pride, ‘I want to be the best I can be in whatever I do,’” Westbrook said. “That’s what that does.”
His mother, Deborah Bratton, saw the world title as an honor that transcends race.
“The sport is just so difficult. Just to rise in this sport, how I look at it, it wasn’t an issue of color,” she said. “There were so many other things that were greater — physical ability, stamina. … It came beyond color.”
Bratton admits he almost never felt out of place.
“There are a lot black fencers internationally,” he said. “I didn’t feel uncomfortable because the best guys in the room were black.”
With Bratton and his teammates clinching their recent victory, they would have been an Olympic lock this summer. But that odd quirk in the rules prevented them from heading to London.
Still, the country’s first team world gold medal is a pretty good consolation prize, as is the possibility of competing in the 2016 Games.
“Everything’s happened very quickly,” he said. “I’m always looking forward. I don’t have much time to reflect right now, there’s still a lot of things I need to do.”
When Bratton was just 5 years old, his mother met Westbrook, the first African-American to win an Olympic medal in fencing, a bronze, in 1984. He handed her his card and told her about his foundation that, as he described, uses the sport of fencing “to develop life skills in inner-city youths.”
Deborah was looking for something special in each of her three children, and understood an education could be paid for with talent, athletic or otherwise.
Though Ben was too young at the time, she kept Westbrook’s card and sent her son to the foundation five years later, where he flourished almost immediately despite the challenge of a sport where a tournament win is rare and learning how to bounce back from a loss is part of the culture.
In a career replete with successes, he’s had to learn from bigger losses. After graduating from St. John’s University in 2007, he thought the next step was the Beijing Olympics a year later.
He failed to make the team and took a break, working various jobs including at a beer distributor, in finance and as a real estate agent. But he missed the travel and competition. Slowly, he worked his way back into shape and eventually made the national team.
By then, Bratton knew what he needed to do. “It’s about sacrifice,” he said. “The Olympians we have here, you talk to anyone who’s ever done it, that will be the common thread.”
He traded in his day jobs for twice-a-day training and moved back home to sleep on his mother’s couch. When Bratton found out the team epee event was left out of medal contention this year, he tried to make the team as an individual competitor — but fell short.
With the country’s first team world championship in his rear-view mirror, he said he now understands the kind of training and focus necessary to be an Olympian.
“Now I have the tools to get there. I’ve gone through all the ups and downs and know what can be thrown at me in an Olympic year, completely,” he said. “I feel more prepared for the next go around.”
Ben Bratton, who said he’s “always looking forward,” is eyeing the 2016 Olympics.