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Acting Career Foiled by Love of Swordplay : Fencing: Van Nuys native cuts wide swath in U.S. circles with an epee, but international success proves elusive.

July 26, 1990|VITTORIO TAFUR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lost dreams are a common story line in Los Angeles, but Chris O'Loughlin might be the first aspiring actor to lose his dramatic ambitions to a sword fight.

O'Loughlin, just back from the world fencing championships in France, is the son of actor Gerald S. O'Loughlin, best known for his role as Lt. Ryker on the popular 1970s television drama "The Rookies." Like any kid raised near a Hollywood studio, O'Loughlin, a native of Van Nuys, entertained thoughts of show-business stardom.

He took acting lessons and was well on his way, he thought, to a career like his dad's. That is, until he picked up a sword--or, more precisely, an epee.

"One of the things that I really like about fencing is that you get out of it what you put into it," the 22-year-old O'Loughlin said. "That's not true with acting."

After taking fourth in the Division I men's epee competition in the 1990 United States Fencing Assn. national championships in June, O'Loughlin attended the world championships last week in France. He and the four other U.S. fencers who constitute the national team fared poorly, placing 19th. Individually, O'Loughlin finished 119th out of 140 competitors.

"I'm very, very disappointed in my performance," said O'Loughlin, who now resides in New York. "It was my first time at the world championships, and I'm just starting to get my bearings internationally. It was a long season, and really I was training with the nationals in mind. I was setting my sights on peaking at the nationals."

There are 12 World Cup competitions every year between October and May that fencers use to prepare for the world championships. While most foreign fencers go to all of them, O'Loughlin and his counterparts made it to four last season.

"Fencers from other countries are essentially professional athletes," O'Loughlin said. "They are subsidized very well and are able to go to all the World Cup events. There is definitely a comparison, though, between fencing in the United States and other countries. I mean, good fencing is good fencing. The difference right now is the (limited) exposure that our fencers have to international competition."

O'Loughlin's specialty, the epee, is one of three swords used in competition; the other two are the saber and the foil. The epee, called the gentleman's sword, is the longest and heaviest of the three; in competition, the target is the entire body.

Fencing bouts are limited to six minutes for men, five for women. They are directed by a president, who awards a touch, and a jury of four that determines the degree of a touch, which in turn determines its worth in points. In foil and saber, an attack or threatening action has the "right of way" and must be parried before a counter action. In play involving the epee, the contestant who hits first, scores.

Two of the prerequisites to fence are hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes, which, according to O'Loughlin, are his strengths. A fencer also needs the desire to stand on his own, with no backup or supporting defense to turn to.

How does one become exposed to fencing in the Los Angeles area?

While most kids stayed after school to play basketball or baseball, O'Loughlin was busy making like Zorro. Oakwood School, a private institution in North Hollywood, offered fencing as a club sport and O'Loughlin jumped at the opportunity.

"I had a little bit of experience with it before that because a friend of my father's was a fencing master," O'Loughlin said. "I didn't start thinking about it seriously until the 10th grade. That's when I started thinking about where I could go with fencing."

The first place O'Loughlin went was the University of Pennsylvania, where he won the NCAA championship as a freshman. He went to the USFA national championships that year for the second consecutive year but failed to qualify the next year.

"Fencing has taught me a lot about life in general," O'Loughlin said. "Here I started off my college career like a prodigy kid and it was looking like I was going to make the 1988 Olympic team, and I didn't make the nationals that year. Everyone was touting me as the next great American champion, and I just needed a little more time, a little more experience.

"It taught me patience. Everything you do, you have to take one step at a time."

This year he graduated from Penn a four-time All-American and went on to his best finish at the nationals in June.

"I am partial to individual sports where nobody can blame you and you can't blame anybody else," O'Loughlin said. "The epee is more of a game-type competition than the other swords in that there is probably more thinking involved. And as far as fencing goes, it is a very fulfilling sport.

"You have total control over your own destiny."

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