Standing astride the victory platform in August at a World Cup fencing tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, Cliff Bayer eye-balled 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, �p�e 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 guys."
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 character."
Litvan ought to know. Growing up in the Ukraine, he says that he honed his own technique by watching the subtitled sword-play 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 prot�g� 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?"