NEW YORK -- Tim Morehouse is spreading the word to youngsters: If you learn to parry challenges, play to your strengths and aim high, you can find success in whatever endeavor you choose.
The USA Fencing stalwart, a member of three U.S. Olympic Teams (Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012) and an Athlete Ambassador for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow program, brought a lighthearted touch to the inspirational message he delivered last week at the Vanderbilt YMCA in New York City, where he shared his personal story of determination with 200 public school students ranging from elementary school through high school.
Morehouse, an Olympic silver medalist with the 2008 U.S. saber team, emphasized he was never the most talented athlete in his chosen sport. In fact, he said, he was kind of a dork.
“In high school, I was no way destined to make the Olympic team,” Morehouse said. “I picked up a sword and I was not a prodigy. I want to talk about the things I did to become an Olympian, because in your life you can use the same lessons to be what you want to be.”
Lesson No. 1: Set a goal and stick with it.
“I graduated college (ranked) as the 19th fencer in the country in 2000, but I set a goal to make it to Athens in 2004,” he said. “People told me I was crazy.”
Morehouse recounted his odyssey through Europe to compete on the Fencing World Cup, a series of competitions for top fencers. Spending his own money, he kept entering events — and he kept losing. And then he returned — and lost again.
“I lost, lost, lost, and then I went back, and I lost,” he said over the kids’ laughter. “But I had a goal, and since I was driven to do something, I kept trying and guess what? I improved. By 2004, half of the people ahead of me, who were considered more talented, quit the sport. I finally won some matches and made the team.”
Equally important was learning to play to his strengths. For Morehouse, that meant emphasizing his defense over offense and keeping some unorthodox moves, including one he called the “dog pee.”
“Look at me here — my back leg comes off of the ground, like a dog peeing,” he said, pointing at a video of him making an explosive thrust with his saber during a match. “It doesn’t look too pretty. It isn’t what someone would teach, but it worked for me.”
Morehouse closed by urging kids to set the bar high, something he feared he and his U.S. teammates did not do quite enough of in Beijing, when they held a raucous celebration after qualifying for the medal round.
“I looked up and saw the French team, who had also just qualified, and they were calm and cool,” he said. “I realized it was because their goal was not just to make the medal round; their goal was to win gold.”
The favored French defeated the U.S. team handily in the final.
“So we set the bar a little too low,” he said. “You will only get as high as the goals you have set.”
Vivian Anderson, the Vanderbilt YMCA’s Senior Youth and Family Director, believes the Olympian’s words resonated with the kids.
“Having a touchable person, not just someone on TV, expose them to something different and say, ‘This is what you can actually accomplish when you set a goal,’ is so valuable,” Anderson said. “It’s a new opportunity for kids to learn there’s nothing you can’t achieve with hard work.”
Morehouse, a native New Yorker, believes in giving back to the community. After graduating from Brandeis University in Boston, he taught junior high school in Upper Manhattan with Teach For America. He recently founded Fencing in the Schools, an educational organization dedicated to bringing fencing to less-advantaged inner city and rural public schools. The program will launch in five New York City public schools in February, as part of the physical education curriculum.
The YMCA event marked the debut of specially designed fencing kits that will be used by the schools. Created by Leon Paul USA, sponsor of the U.S. fencing team, they include safety headgear, plastic foils and a scoring vest that lights up when a fencer makes contact on his opponent’s chest, scoring a point. After Morehouse demonstrated a few basic fencing maneuvers with a YMCA employee, the fun really started when the kids donned the gear and lined up for some instruction.
“Lunge — advance — retreat!” Morehouse barked. Later, he split some of the older students into pairs and conducted impromptu matches.
“This was a rare opportunity for the kids to be exposed to fencing,” said Anita Harvey, Vanderbilt YMCA Executive Director. “It fits in well with our youth development to view a sport that may not be as accessible.”
One of the students, who earned praise from Morehouse for his deft maneuvers, thinks he just might pursue the sport.
“I just came out with an open mind, expecting the best; it’s nothing I’ve ever done before,” said Evan, a 12th-grader and member of the Vanderbilt YMCA’s teen program. “I do see myself doing it maybe in college or trying to find some way to do it in high school.”
His biggest takeaway from Morehouse’s visit?
“You should go for the biggest goal possible, never sell yourself short, even if the goal seems impossible and work to it eventually,” Evan said. “It’s not like you have to get it done in a day.”