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.

The students endure all of this because they want what follows. They want the swords, the action -- "the cheese," Westbrook calls it. They sit through a short lecture as well, containing life lessons couched as fencing adventures. This morning there were two such lessons -- one aimed at encouraging girls to enter sports, the other about overcoming jealousy and striving to be genuinely happy for the success of others.

Westbrook seemed to sense exactly how much the students would absorb. Soon he released them, and they bounded to their feet, donning masks and jackets and clustering in groups according to weapon and ability. Nine-year-old girls jabbed at each other with épées; teenage boys swung sabers at their friends' heads. Westbrook moved among the dueling pairs, exhorting them in terms of pure combat. "I'm looking for warriors," he cried. "I don't want chumps. You've got to destroy your opponents. This is war!"

In any fencing competition the goal is to strike your opponent with your sword. In bouts using épées or foils -- slim thrusting weapons with blunt tips and no cutting edges -- only blows with the tip of the sword are counted as "touches." Saber touches can be scored with either the tip or the sharp edge of the blade, anywhere on the opponent's body from the waist up -- a nod to the weapon's history, wherein a cavalry soldier would strive to kill an opponent without injuring his horse, a valuable spoil of war. Modern fencers begin a match by taking their marks face-to-face on a strip of matting -- the piste -- clad in full face masks, metallic jackets called lamés, gloves, and tights. The equipment is wired to record touches electronically. The motion of a bout is mainly forward and backward, with one fencer advancing to the other's retreat. Each time a touch is scored, the fencers return to their marks to begin again. Fifteen touches wins a bout.

Westbrook's plan for his students is hardly complicated: Let them belong to something, and show them what it takes to remain. Hook them on the action, the adrenaline, the flash and grace. Pay attention to them. Praise them. But don't let them play unless they write their essays, unless they've done their schoolwork, unless they listen to the lectures. Then show them more.

Show them, for instance, Keeth and Erinn Smart and Akhi Spencer-El. All three got their start at Westbrook's Saturday-morning sessions and moved on to an after-school program run by the foundation. Each year Westbrook selects thirty or so of his most promising Saturday students to attend the after-school program, where they receive one-on-one instruction from internationally renowned coaches and competitors, including fencing masters from Ukraine, Hungary, and Cuba -- nations that dominate the sport. The foundation pays the instructors' salaries, equips the athletes, and provides money for travel to competitions -- all on a shoestring budget of around $170,000 a year, which Westbrook raises on his own. Donors range from the United States Olympic Committee to the Philip Morris corporation to Bill Cosby. The students must chip in something, but their contributions -- never more than $20 a year -- are purely symbolic, intended to teach them the value of investing in themselves.

Those investments are clearly paying off. Erinn Smart, age twenty, will be one of the women representing the U.S. Olympic fencing team in foil. She flies to competitions in Europe every other week or so, and is a student at Barnard College. Her brother Keeth, age twenty-one, is currently the top-ranked American sabreur. He attends St. John's University on a full scholarship. Keeth Smart has traveled to World Cup tournaments in Hungary, France, Italy, Russia, Germany, and Cuba, gaining experience for this summer's games in Sydney. Competitive and athletic from an early age, the Smarts were the first fencers to join Westbrook: their parents brought them to the foundation on the day it opened.

Akhi Spencer-El -- who also has been offered a scholarship to St. John's -- is a less likely star. By the age of sixteen he was spending his afternoons drinking on street corners with drug-dealing friends; he nearly flunked out of high school. Spencer-El came to fencing at the urging of his mother, an acquaintance of Westbrook's, when he was fourteen. He struggled with destructive behavior even after joining the foundation, and some of the instructors wanted Westbrook to evict him from the after-school program. But Westbrook saw his potential and persevered, and Spencer-El responded by becoming the first American fencer ever to achieve a No. 1 world ranking: he topped the under-twenty division in 1998, only six years into his fencing career. Although he has a commanding physique, his mind is the key to his success. "He's always thinking four, five, or six moves ahead," Westbrook says. "He plays chess with his body."

Spencer-El is also a sabreur; he and Keeth Smart may have to compete against each other in Sydney. The top-ranked male sabreurs at the games will be two Russians, Stanislav Pozdniakov and Sergei Charikov, and a Frenchman, Damien Touya; the Italians and the Hungarians will also field strong teams. The Americans are decidedly not among the favorites: Keeth Smart currently ranks forty-ninth in the world. A medal win by Smart or Spencer-El would be a phenomenal upset. Erinn Smart will be competing only in the team portion of her event; her teammates will include Iris Zimmerman, a three-time women's world champion in foil.

Westbrook wants Spencer-El and the Smarts in his class on Saturday mornings: their example is the most powerful lesson he can offer. Harvey Miller, a lanky eighteen-year-old African-American from Queens, is proof. Like Spencer-El, Miller used to spend most of his time hanging out on the streets or playing hoops. His father left the family long ago. By the time Miller was in high school, he seemed poised to share the fate of one of his friends, a gang member who had been shot in the head. During his sophomore year he failed every class except one: phys. ed. When his mother heard a radio feature about a fencing program run by a black man, through which black kids were winning college scholarships, she sat her son down. "It's boot camp or fencing," she said. "Choose."

One Saturday at the fencing club Miller watched an exhibition bout between Keeth Smart and Spencer-El. "I saw their speed," he recalls. "They were so graceful." The next Saturday he fought a practice saber bout against a boy who was ranked eleventh in the country in his age group. Miller won the match, and then defeated an older boy as well. "Tell you the truth, I think they let me beat them," he says, "because they knew I'd get hooked."

Westbrook fenced with Miller and recognized that he had an unusual aptitude for the sport. He encouraged Miller to join the after-school coaching sessions; Miller thrived on the attention and discipline. Eighteen months after he first picked up a fencing weapon, Miller won the U.S. Junior Olympic Championship in the saber class. "It blew our minds," Westbrook says, "but I'm far more impressed by what he's done with his life."

Miller fences four afternoons a week and on Saturdays. He made his high school's honor roll. He went to night school to make up the courses he previously failed, and finished an SAT preparatory class; he will be going to St. John's in the fall. Four years ago Miller didn't know what computer science was. Now he's determined to earn a master's degree in it.

Westbrook wants Miller to address the other students one of these Saturdays. "He complains, 'Naw, Pete. I don't want to do that,'" Westbrook says with a laugh. "But it's important for him to do it. It will help the other kids, and it will help him to reflect on what he's doing with his life. Verbalize it and express it; that helps all of us to understand it a little more. What he's doing in fencing is exactly what he's doing in life."

PETER Westbrook understands from experience that unique talents lie buried in the kids wandering the streets of New York. He describes his own drive as "running away from inner demons, like being poor and black and not having a father and living in the projects." He knows that poverty breeds fighters, and he understands the inherent anger that makes them fight. Westbrook knew that if he could channel this rage to the piste, he could produce world-class athletes, and especially champion sabreurs. Fencing is, after all, a martial sport, and saber is the most aggressive of the fencing disciplines. Foil and épée consist primarily of stabbing thrusts delivered with finesse and grace. Saber consists of the visceral slashing and slicing of Zorro and Blackbeard; it was sabreurs whom Tennyson's raw language celebrated in "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

The saber evolved from the curved scimitars of the Persians. It arrived in Europe in the sixteenth century, brought to Hungary by invading Turks. Historical evidence suggests that a form of fencing was practiced in Egypt as early as 1180 B.C. However, the origin of modern fencing is generally dated to the fourteenth century, when the debut of firearms in battle ended the use of heavy armor -- it was no defense against bullets -- and opened the field to extensive swordplay. Initially the weapons of choice were various types of straight swords, including thrusting swords that could pierce light armor. The Hussar cavalry introduced saber fighting to the rest of Europe in the eighteenth century, providing the brutal lesson that the saber could deliver devastating wounds with less strength than some other swords required.

A modern saber bout consists of cautious stalking punctuated with flurries of blows. The sequences of action are truncated and violent. The discipline demands an explosive energy, and a hefty amount of attitude as well. "Saber people have big mouths," Westbrook says. "They're like boxers or hundred-meter sprinters. It's the adrenaline; it's juice and spark. You need that personality. Inner-city kids are so slick, so competitive. It's a natural fit."

THERE is a fencing term, "choice in time," that has to do with the precise moment when a competitor finds his opponent neither physically nor psychologically able to defend against an attack. Such instants occur repeatedly throughout a bout, created by the precise degree of the fencers' movements, by speed, by position, by timing. A fencer who recognizes the instant when an attack can succeed is said to make a positive choice in time. One who makes a movement that results in an opening for his opponent makes a negative choice in time.

"In time" concerns rhythm. It is borrowed from music, as is much of the language of fencing. Fencers refer to a completed series of actions -- thrust, parry, riposte, remise, for instance -- as a "phrase." A competitor's "tempo" is the pace at which he attacks or reacts. Tempo is what sets Harvey Miller's style apart. "Harvey can go slow and still hit you," Westbrook says. "He's not crazy fast, he's not crazy slow, he just has perfect timing. He has a monkey tempo -- such an unusual rhythm that there's nothing you can do."

Westbrook introduces his students to the language and history of their sport gradually, letting the action speak first. Although he takes great satisfaction in the accomplishments of Miller and the other champions he has trained, Westbrook knows that the true measure of his success must encompass the hundreds of Saturday-morning fencers who will never get closer to the Olympic Games than a TV screen. "The kids on Saturday might get more than the kids in the after-school program," Westbrook says. "They don't even know what they're getting, but it's more than fencing. They come to belong, to be part of something, part of a family. You have to let each one of these kids know that they have something special."

"It's almost impossible for inner-city kids not to get involved in negative things, because ninety percent of the stimuli in the community are negative," he says. "In the suburbs, or in small towns, kids have to make a bad choice for things to go wrong. Here they have to go out of their way to make something good happen." Every Saturday morning in the fencing salle Westbrook goes out of his way to help his students make something good happen -- to help them make positive choices in time.

Jeff Hull is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana. He is currently at work on a novel about fly-fishing guides.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; From the Streets to the Piste - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 84-87.