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Sep 18, 2006
The Right Touch - Forbes
 

 

 

Peter Westbrook is discovering future Olympic fencing champions in New York's inner city.

 

Scanning the team photos cluttering the walls of the venerable New York Fencers Club on West 25th Street, it would be a cinch to presume that the "Sport of Princes" was the exclusive domain of Waspish-looking men with upper lips as stiff as a Park Avenue cocktail.

A closer look at the photo of the 2004 American Olympic team reveals four dark faces peering out of the sea of white. Welcome to the great hope--make that the great black hope--of America's Olympic fencing aspirations. These four Olympians are veterans of an extraordinary program developed by fencing champ Peter Westbrook, who is recruiting inner-city kids into the ancient art of fencing and literally changing the face of the sport.

Come to the Peter Westbrook Foundation's Saturday morning classes at the Fencers Club, and find a tyke's version of the "rainbow coalition" doing their damndest to learn the fine art of hitting, jabbing and slicing your opponent 15 times with your weapon to win a bout. And while some of these kids are becoming the world's best practitioners in parry and riposte, they're gaining other things, too: an education, a chance for a better future and a fierce will to win that is probably more palpable here than on the playing fields of Eton.

Westbrook, 54, slim, athletic, hyperkinetic, knows all about the will to win. Despite being from the same disadvantaged background as many of his protégés, he spent time climbing the corporate ladder at IBM (nyse: IBM - news - people ). "Concentrate! Concentrate!" he yells over and over again to his battling students.

As a 14-year-old with mixed Japanese and African American parentage whose father had abandoned the family, Westbrook was living in the kind of Newark tenement where "fencing" was not a sport but an avocation.

"My mom started me on the long road to the Olympics by bribing me. She gave me $5 if I got onto the local Catholic school fencing team. There wasn't a single black face there. She was poor, on public assistance, but she knew I'd meet and be involved with a whole different kind of people from the kids in my housing project."

Soon Westbrook became the best fencer in Essex Catholic High School. "Fencing was the perfect way for channeling all the anger I felt growing up in the ghetto," he says. A fencing scholarship at New York University led to 13 national titles in sabre fighting, and in 1984, a bronze medal in the Olympics--the first American to win a medal since 1960.

"Peter's medal sent seismic waves through the fencing world," says Cindy Bent Findlay, spokesperson for the U.S. Fencing Association. "He gave the sense that we as a country can compete and win."

Westbrook's feat is even more impressive considering that he was competing as an amateur against Europe's best state-subsidized fencers, many of whom also served as judges in these events and didn't hesitate to score against the upstart American. "When people cheated me, when they discriminated against me, I could have cried about it or worked harder. I didn't see it as a choice. I worked harder." In 1989, computers entered the game and subjective calls by judges were replaced by the certainty of electric circuits counting body contacts. "I used to have to hit someone 20 times to win," says Westbrook. "After things went electric, I only had to hit them 15."

Westbrook runs the workshop like a drill instructor. A gymful of kids start by doing laps and other exercises around the room. Mistakes or other infractions are punished with rapid pushups on the floor. Before donning their suits, everyone gathers in the middle of the gym for a group powwow. "This is Black History Month," Westbrook announces. "By the end of the month I want an essay on your favorite hero. The best one gets $300." Even the parents and a ForbesLife correspondent seated on benches along the walls of the gym instantly switch into hero-conjuring mode.

After the pep talk the kids put on their white masks, jackets, gloves and knickers, and the place erupts into a cacophony of clinks 'n' clashes as five dozen sabres, épées and foils parry and thrust in light speed tangos up and down the metal fencing strips. It's like a scene from Star Wars--albeit one inhabited by pint-sized Luke Skywalkers. The 11- and 12-year-olds swing foils, while many of the older kids brandish épées--the classic flat-blade dueling swords known to fans of The Three Musketeers--and sabres, which are curved. But most of the action is below the waist, where there is so much complicated heeling-to-toeing and stepping to-and-froing that the whole gym seems to have channeled Fred Astaire.

Two of Westbrook's Olympians, the siblings Erinn and Keeth Smart, are each on their own strips, as they are most Saturdays, working one-on-one with especially promising kids. The siblings are the topped-ranked national athletes in their respective weapons of choice, foil and sabre. "I was one of the first ones in this program," says Keeth, who has been fencing for 15 years. "Fencing has picked up a lot in this country since then. Overseas I don't think anyone worries about my race anymore. They worry that I'm an American."

Moms and dads cheer their kids on from their perches along the walls of the gym. Some are single parents, here because they believe fencing could be the best ticket out of the projects for their kids, several of whom are attending private schools in the city on fencing scholarships they got through this program. "Fencing is becoming a very popular sport again in prep schools," Westbrook explains. "Some of our more talented kids are much in demand." After that, many colleges vie to get Westbrook's protégés for their fencing teams. "We have three kids enrolled at Princeton right now," Westbrook notes.

"I'm here for the tutoring," says Debbie Lannaman, referring to the academic tutors whom the Foundation assigns to its students. Out on the floor, her 11-year-old daughter, Chelsea, encased in a white fencing outfit, elegantly thrusts a foil into the stomach of another girl. They resemble dueling marshmallows.

"She has an inner ear problem and has trouble filtering out extraneous sounds," Lannaman says. "Her teachers at school thought she was deaf. But here she has learned to listen when the instructors talk. When she wins a match, I can't get her out of here."

It's a mixed crowd--in addition to underprivileged kids, several are from middle-class backgrounds, and there are even a couple of upper-crust types.

"One white parent told me that this was the only place his kid is ever exposed to black people," Westbrook says. "It's probably a good education in that sense, too."

It's also an outrageously great deal. Enrollment is $25 for the year. "I just want that little bit of commitment," says Westbrook. The lion's share of the program's $360,000 annual shoestring budget is paid for by contributions from several corporations, foundations and individuals; donors have included Oprah Winfrey. It's surprising to think that one of this country's top sports training centers might be a virtually free program, but where else can someone wander into a gym every week to train directly with members of the U.S. Olympic team to become potential Olympians themselves?

"Between Peter's medal in 1984 and now, we have so many new urban kids in the sport who are winning more international medals than I can count," says the U.S. Fencing Association's Findlay. "With some of the talents Peter has unleashed, we have a lot of reasons to hop up and down about our prospects for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing."

One boy, 14, with thick glasses and the awkward demeanor of a fellow whose only workout is lifting slide carousels in the AV lab, arrives alone, having taken the subway from Brooklyn. "I liked the Jedi training scenes in the Star Wars movies," he explains. He puts on his outfit, picks up a sabre and the transformation from gangly teenager to graceful duelist is complete. A moment later he is fencing with Keeth Smart. Olympic material? "Some of these kids are," says Westbrook. "But more importantly, they all know they could be or achieve other great things. This noble sport ennobles them."

For more information, contact the Peter Westbrook Foundation, P.O. Box 7554, New York, NY 10116; (212) 459-4538, www.peterwestbrook.org.

   
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