Pity the fly that buzzes past Peter Cox, who will snatch the pest in midair with his bare hands. The chiropractor is a former Olympic fencer who polished his reflexes on the 2- by 14-meter strip that has been his second home since the sixth grade.

Cox, the highest-ranking American fencer in the 1996 Olympic Games (he placed 28th of 50 competitors worldwide), took lessons from a grade-school teacher, though he'd been nurturing swashbuckling dreams since he was a tyke brandishing a plastic sword. He eventually graduated to a Zorro-like saber, the modern version of the cavalry sword. In preparation for the Atlanta Games, he trained for four years while attending chiropractic school full-time.

The goal of fencing is to touch your sword 15 times above your opponent's waist. Cox calls the sport "an intense dance that requires the speed of a sprinter, the endurance of a boxer, and the mind of a chess player." As a mostly mental sport, injuries aren't common, though Cox, 37, was once stabbed in the chest, requiring a butterfly stitch from a premed student in his fencing group. Cox treats patients too, as founder and director of the $1.4 million, 12-employee Chiropractic Care Center in Charlotte, N.C. He believes his powers of perception honed on the strip -- watching his opponent for the slightest movement -- help him zero in on patients' needs.

He's since hung up his sword professionally, but in the spirit of that sixth-grade teacher, Cox gives free lessons at local fencing clubs. "My goals were to be No. 1 and to make the Olympic team," he says. "It seemed appropriate to step down when I was at the top."