Olympics-Building lives, and Olympians, one touch at a time

NEW YORK, June 12 Tue Jun 12, 2012 2:29am EDT

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NEW YORK, June 12 (Reuters) - For most athletes an Olympic medal is the pinnacle of success - for Peter Westbrook, it was only the beginning.

A mixed race child from the inner-city, Westbrook was an unlikely devotee to the sport of fencing, but having reaped the rewards of the sport all the way to Olympic bronze in 1984, the 60-year-old now devotes himself to producing other Olympians.

His Peter Westbrook Foundation (PWF) is marking its 20th year and can boast 10 Olympians and counting, as well producing lawyers, investment strategists and fencing coaches, not to mention a string of students at elite U.S. universities.

The latest Olympian moulded by Westbrook is women's foilist Nzingha Prescod, a 19-year old first generation American, who not only has three cadet and junior world titles to her name but possesses an Ivy League calibre mind.

Ranked 18th in the world in the senior division, she has put her studies at Columbia University on hold to grasp for the chance at Olympic glory.

"The pressure of making the team impacted my outlook. Now I feel free," the right-handed Prescod said recently before heading off to practice.

Even at the tender age of 19, and still in braces, she's not the youngest American on the U.S. fencing squad. That distinction goes to fellow foilist and world No. 4 ranked Lee Kiefer from Lexington, Kentucky, who only turns 18 this week.

Prescod trains at the New York Fencers Club, the oldest fencing salle in the United States. She'll be joined in London by club mates Nicole Ross and men's foilist Miles Chamley-Watson.

ACADEMIC TUTORING

The PWF runs its athletic and academic programs out of the club, where the walls are filled with portraits of Olympians past, that over time has reflected the growing diversity in the sport's elite ranks.

"Maybe a month or two ago it was just enough to make the team. Now I want to go for it. I want a medal at the Olympics and I don't want my mom's time to be a waste," she said, motivated by Kiefer's bronze at the 2011 World Championships in Catania, Italy.

Brooklyn-born Prescod picked up a foil for the first time in 2001 at the age of nine. After trying a variety of sport and dance, she eventually just wanted to follow her sister who was taken to the Saturday morning training sessions run by the PWF.

After fencing is finished at midday, the foundation runs an academic tutoring and test preparation programme for participants who want to excel in high school and boost their chances to get into top universities.

Prescod trains six days a week with her coach Buckie Leach.

"A good practice is a three or four T-shirt day," she said.

Her Saint Vincent-born mother Marva, a lawyer in Brookyln Family Court who raised the girls on her own, heard about the PWF from a colleague.

There Prescod found the unvarnished real world tough love message that Westbrook delivers weekly to the kids.

GANG-INFESTED HOUSING PROJECTS

Westbrook came from the gang-infested housing projects of Newark, New Jersey. His Japanese-born mother bribed him with $5 bills every time he went to fencing practice after school. His African-American father, a soldier, had long ago abandoned the family, creating emotional scars that Westbrook says has taken "years of therapy" to overcome.

The bribes worked. He was off the streets and into a world generally reserved for the white elite. Angry with his absent father and the discrimination he felt by being half Japanese, he fought his way to a college degree from New York University, a bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, 13 U.S. national titles, and gold medals at the Pan American Games.

In the 20 years since he started his foundation, he has done more to change the face of fencing in America, literally, by offering inner-city kids from underserved New York neighborhoods the chance to compete at world class levels in a sport dominated by Europeans.

"With every person that comes in, we try to make it so positive, to let them see their positive self. Let them see how the things in their lives, the negativity, how they view things, the pain. Whatever. The things that hamper them.... That I think is what really differentiates us," he said.

He recognizes that the majority of the kids won't become Olympians, but they can learn life skills, academic skills and have the capacity to dream ambitiously and then work towards making them reality.

"If you just deal with fencing, you get fencing results. But if you kind of let the person see their own scars, and we've all got scars, but if you let them see those scars and work with them, you get a much better product," Westbrook said.

The majority of the kids are minorities from lower income homes, although many do come from the wealthier suburbs. On a typical Saturday morning, 150 or more elementary and high school kids are run through 90 minutes of calisthenics and then choose a weapon: foil, epee, or sabre.

Foil is the lightest of the three weapons with valid touches, or points, made from the tip of the blade on an opponent's torso. Rules govern who has the right of way or advantage when making touches. Sabre has the same rules but points can be scored either with the tip or a slash of the blade from the waist upwards. Epee is simpler. The whole body is valid and the points go to the one who hits first with the tip.

Prescod herself helps run some of the training groups. She is composed and not easily ruffled on the strip. Yet she is also not easy to open up and reveal too much of her life.

While she has a relationship with her Anguillan father and his family, Prescod says the PWF filled in a missing part of her family, and then some.

"I don't know what it is like to have a two-parent home," she said. "PWF is like my family. They are not extended, but really close. A lot of other fencers don't really have that kind of support network and that is what I think makes us so successful." (Editing by Ossian Shine)

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