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Steele relishes mending his fencing skills

Errol Flynn he's not, but Michael S. Steele swings a meaner sword than your average lieutenant governor.

Reviving a brief and less-than-stellar collegiate career as a fencer, Maryland's No. 2 has picked up the blade again in recent months - dueling students, a fellow politician and even challenging his boss, a gridiron star - and says he is discovering new joys in the ancient sport.

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"It really is like riding a bike," Steele said. "That skill never leaves you."

In March, with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in attendance, Steele thrust and parried with members of the St. John's College fencing club. Despite two decades of inactivity, he came away from that night with a 2-0 record.

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Last night at the Annapolis City Recreation Center, Ehrlich again watched as Steele dueled Annapolis Alderman George O. Kelley Sr., attempting to replicate in a more literal fashion the verbal skewering of Democrats for which he is well-known. Steele won the match, which raised money for the United Way of Central Maryland, two bouts to one.

The lieutenant governor's re-emergence as a fencer comes 25 years after Steele compiled a 9-12 record as a freshman on the Johns Hopkins University's 1977-1978 junior varsity.

Dennis O'Shea, a university spokesman, said Hopkins sports information officials were unable to find much more information about Steele's fencing career. Neither could they locate teammates who could recall exploits of the man who has emerged as the best-publicized former Blue Jay fencer.

Richard Oles, who coached Hopkins fencing for 45 years until his retirement this year, said Steele never played on the varsity squad and doesn't appear in any junior varsity team pictures because he dropped out three-quarters of the way through his only season.

"He was always heavily involved in other school activities," said Oles, who retired in April. "I recall only that our impression was that had he stuck with it, it's possible that he might have been good."

Steele's recollection is different. He said he completed his freshman season and returned for his sophomore year only to drop out late in 1978 because of other commitments. He said he recently returned to the Hopkins gym and was dismayed to be reminded that he missed his team's photo session as a freshman. "I would really have liked to be up on the wall," he said.

While his record was hardly Olympian, Steele's brief foray into fencing has given him a riposte whenever Ehrlich rags his political partner about his supposed lack of athletic prowess.

Ehrlich was a star football player at Gilman School and Princeton University. But while the former linebacker still gets out on the basketball court, he has not been seen delivering any crushing tackles lately (unless one counts his electoral blindsiding of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in November).

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Having chosen a more forgiving sport, Steele is still able to cross swords with rivals at the age 44.

Steele said he originally became involved in the Hopkins fencing program after seeing some of his friends on campus in their fencing gear.

The lieutenant governor said it was difficult to explain to his hometown pals why an African-American kid from Washington would choose that sport.

"I went home and told them I was fencing and they said, 'Do the police know?'" Steele said. "Fencing meant something different in my neighborhood."

Steele said his 9-12 record was not bad for a "a brother who never fenced before."

Largely because of his towering stature, Steele gravitated to the epee - the heaviest of the fencing swords. He said he enjoyed that competition because with the epee, unlike the foil or saber, the entire body is a target.

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"It's a lot like politics," he said. "I think that's why I like it. I can smack you anywhere."

Now that he's had an epee in hand again, Steele said his love for what he called "the art of sword fighting" has returned. He said he hopes to work out with some of the local college teams to polish his rusty skills and prepare for future charity events.

"It's great exercise," he said. "It's a sport you can do well into your senior years."

Steele said he frequently challenges Ehrlich to put on his old football pads and meet him on the field of battle.

"I promise him I'll stick him before he sticks me," Steele said.

After last night's contest, Steele and Kelley agreed to a future charity rematch.

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Kelley, who fenced with a foil at his Brooklyn high school in the early 1970s, said Steele is a "dynamite fencer" but noted that the lieutenant governor had the choice of weapons and picked the epee.

Next time, Kelley said, the choice of weapons will be his. "I'll catch him on the rebound," the Democratic official said.

Arne Backes, a Baltimore fencing coach who refereed the match, said he was impressed with Steele's potential. "Give me a couple of months with him, and I could turn him into a star fencer," he said.

After watching Steele compete in his second fencing match this year, Ehrlich said he still doesn't consider himself a fan of the sport. However, he appeared to be having a grand time - alternately cracking jokes and chanting "Lit Gov, Lit Gov, Lit Gov" in support of his fellow Republican.

Between bouts, Ehrlich walked across the gym to consult with Steele. Afterward, he jokingly took credit as his lieutenant's "offensive coordinator."

And what was his advice?

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"You have to win. Don't come back to the office if you have to lose. And be aggressive."


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