From the Streets to the Piste

Almost half of the fencers on the U.S. Olympic team are African-Americans from the inner city -- all students of one remarkable man.

 

 

THIS could have been Peter Westbrook's whole story: A young black man born into vicious poverty discovers fencing, a sport typically the domain of upper-class whites. He masters the saber, wins an athletic scholarship to New York University, gains a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the first time in 1976, and takes a bronze medal in the Los Angeles Games in 1984, becoming only the second American sabreur ever to earn an Olympic medal. By the time he retires from competition, in 1996, he has dominated American fencing for twenty years, qualifying for six U.S. Olympic teams -- an achievement only three other fencers can claim. His would be a remarkable story -- a classic American sports tale -- even if it ended there.

But the heart of Westbrook's story lies not in his own success, or in the perseverance and sacrifice behind it. The heart of his story lies in Keeth and Erinn Smart and Akhi Spencer-El -- young African-Americans who learned fencing from Westbrook, free of charge, and who make up almost half of the squad that will fence for the United States at this summer's Olympic Games, in Sydney. It lies in the many students from the inner city who crowd around him every Saturday morning for lessons at the New York Fencing Club, courtesy of a nonprofit foundation that Westbrook has run single-handedly since 1991.

 


Peter Westbrook was born in 1952, to a mixed-race family that was struggling to survive amid the bleakness and violence of the Hayes Homes housing project, in Newark, New Jersey. His father was African-American, his mother Japanese -- a heritage that in the wake of World War II and the Korean War earned Westbrook repeated beatings at the hands of his peers. At home he watched his father batter his mother, until one day his father simply left.

A life in the projects was not what Mariko Westbrook, the daughter of a Japanese bureaucrat, had bargained for when she defied her father, married a black GI, and left her country forever. And it was not a life she wanted for her son. By the time he was fourteen, she had mapped out his escape. To persuade him to go along, she resorted to anecdotes about her ancestry -- and to bribery. "Five bucks," Peter Westbrook says. "My mother could trace her lineage back through many samurai. This was a source of great honor, great pride. For her, fencing was a sport of nobles. She thought, If I get Peter into fencing, he'll meet noble people. But it wasn't all that stuff about her family that got me interested. She told me she'd give me five dollars if I took a fencing lesson."

Westbrook took his first lesson, at Essex Catholic High School, from a fencer named Samuel D'Ambola. "The first time I held a sword, I thought, Wow, I'm a sword fighter," he says. "This is bad. If I get in trouble, this will help me kick some butt." Westbrook was already a fighter: he boxed in the Police Athletic League and scrapped in the streets. But fencing is also an intellectual battle, and Westbrook quickly mastered the art of strategizing several moves ahead of his opponents. Meanwhile, his mother cleaned bathrooms and washed floors at the local Catholic grammar school, so that Westbrook could study at Essex and keep fencing. He quickly became one of the best high school fencers in New Jersey, and drew the attention of recruiters from NYU, who offered him a full athletic scholarship. Suddenly he found himself in a world dramatically different from Hayes Homes. "It was culture shock, being among all those white people five days a week," he says."I just wasn't used to that."

THE New York Fencing Club sits atop a five-story building in Chelsea, in lower Manhattan. At most fencing salles in this country, when the action ceases and the face masks are peeled back, the faces are almost without exception white. Here the faces are primarily black, though there are Latino and Asian and white students, too. On a bitter Saturday morning last February some eighty Westbrook Foundation students ranging in age from nine to twenty-one streamed into the salle. Some had been in transit for an hour or more, having taken buses and trains across town.

Eyes gleaming with energy, they formed neat lines and began working through calisthenics and footwork drills. This is the part of practice that most fencers hate: the rote conditioning, the boring warm-ups. Westbrook's students worked out with barely contained glee. One girl gasped, "This is like coming to boot camp." But there was pride, not resentment, in her voice -- and she shows up every Saturday for more.

Westbrook's frame is not much larger than those of most of his students. He is slender and lithe, with an incongruous wad of muscles high on his right forearm. His legs are slightly bowed; he moves in quick, precise steps. He has a round face, a high forehead, and piercing eyes. Once the warm-up ended, the students gathered in a semicircle at his feet.

Although the Westbrook Foundation is a fencing program, it is fundamentally about education and character. Each student must write an essay every other month, generally on a topic of his or her choice. On Saturday mornings Westbrook and his students spend a half hour or so discussing the essays, and sometimes talking about schoolwork or report cards as well.

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