Fencing gives a new thrust to kids' lives
Former Olympian teaches inner-city children - and sends three to Sydney
The notion that inner-city kids would be drawn to the sport of fencing hardly seems an obvious one - except, perhaps, to Peter Westbrook.Skip to next paragraph
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This six-time former Olympian fought his way out of a tough childhood with a saber in his hand. Now he's dedicated to seeing that as many other kids as possible follow his example.
That's why nine years ago he established the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers fencing lessons to New York City kids at a cost of $20 a year - a fee sometimes even further reduced for those families that can't manage the nominal payment.
In its short life, the foundation has already produced a number of internationally recognized young fencers and has helped, through fencing scholarships, to place some of its students in elite high schools and colleges like St. John's University and Columbia University, both in New York. And this year, the group is in the spotlight because three of the nine fencers the United States will send to the Olympics in Australia are Westbrook students.
Yet as much as Mr. Westbrook, a self-described natural competitor, dreams of seeing his young protgs excel at the sport he loves, he makes a point of insisting that that's not what his work is really about. "The fencing part leaves tomorrow," he says of what he teaches his students. "The other part will never leave." Discipline, energy, enthusiasm, and a new sense of themselves and their possibilities in life are the gifts Westbrook believes his students most need.
Fencing has seen a recent revival of interest among youths. Since 1996, the number of fencers under 20 registered with the US Fencing Association has tripled. More than one-third are girls. Many parents are eager to see their children fence because they believe it is a sport of both skill and intellect, helping to hone thinking skills and concentration along with coordination.
But there are few who know better than Westbrook - who grew up in a housing project in Newark, N.J. - about the positive effects fencing can have on a young life.
Westbrook's Japanese mother came to the US after marrying his father, an African-American GI serving in Japan during World War II. It was a decision that prompted her own family to disown her.
After settling in the US and having two children, the couple split up, leaving Mariko Westbrook alone in a strange country, struggling to support herself and her children. In addition to the family challenges, her son faced teasing and pummeling by other children because of his mixed racial background. His mother, worried that he would fall under the wrong influences, hit upon a solution that shaped the rest of his life. She fueled young Peter with tales of his samurai ancestors, and then offered him $5 for every fencing lesson he would take.
Westbrook says he was thrilled to so easily earn a little pocket money, and accepted the bribe willingly.
But once he began the lessons, he recalls, something else took over. As a child, he had been fascinated by "Zorro" on TV, and the notion of swashbuckling his way around a room, saber in hand, held immediate appeal.
Once he began to win matches, he was hooked for life.