When he was an altar boy growing up in Newark, N.J., Peter Westbrook used to fantasize that he would swing down from the church balcony with his sword in hand and rescue the nuns from some danger.
Over the past 30 years, Westbrook has lived out his fantasy as a "swashbuckler."
A 13-time US national champion, who will be in his sixth Olympic Games this summer, Westbrook has also lost his boyhood naivete.
Fencing, he quickly found out, is not like the 1940 movie "The Mark of Zorro" where a masked Tyrone Power carves Zs onto the uniform of Sergeant Garcia, the film's bad guy. As their blades clash, Power is always chivalrous.
Forget about chivalry today.
Describing his opponents, Westbrook says, "Let me tell you something. They are nothing but gangsters and thugs, take my word for it. These guys are brutal, they will chop your head off and not even say excuse me."
Excuse me? Is this fencing, that white European, aristocratic sport? Indeed it is.
Westbrook calls fencing "a combat sport" where angry, aggressive men with weapons attack each other. "You are dealing with a lot of crazy people," he says. And he knows. He used to be one of them.
To get himself ready for fencing tournaments Westbrook used to conjure up injustices: all his years living in Newark's housing projects, perceived insults to his Japanese mother and black father. He would work himself up into a deadly anger. And, using that energy, he would parry his way past stronger opponents.
"You must practice that intensity and sometimes it used to come into my personal life and make me a little crazy," says Westbrook.
He says he's now a different person. "I've learned to get the same result from more peacefulness, more joy, more thankfulness," he says, quickly spitting out that he still leaves a night of fencing a little deranged, "but not in the same way."
For Westbrook this shift will make winning a medal this summer more of a challenge. He admits that he really did not have the desire for a sixth Olympics, but succumbed to his long-time coach's plea.
"I'm not greedy, five is enough," says Westbrook who won a bronze medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. But his coach Casaba Elthes, who passed on last November, said, "Peter do this for me, you can do it. You have the skills."
Westbrook was not convinced. He is now fencing people half his age. "They are better, stronger, faster," he says. But, he started training, and his experience and skills got him onto yet another Olympic squad in his specialty: the saber.
His current coach, Bob Mormando, says Westbrook's success lies in his fast hands and uncanny defense.
After losing to Westbrook in six national championships, Mormando has developed a respect for the "Westbrook parry," the ability to intercept another saber with little apparent effort. "God reached down and gave Peter a lot of talent," says Mormando.
That talent developed at an early age. Westbrook started fencing when he was a student in high school in Newark. But he recalls always having a desire to fence. "You know how kids take the empty Christmas [wrapping paper] rolls or wax paper rolls - I always fenced my sister with those things," he recalls. On Halloween, he always dressed up as Zorro.
The aggression in the sport appealed to him. As a small boy in the projects, he had to learn to defend himself. He viewed fencing as "a more positive way to fight."
Those fighting skills resulted in a full scholarship to New York University, where he parried his way to an NCAA title. In 1976 he made his first Olympic team and came in 12th, despite having a serious injury. After his Olympic showing, Westbrook dominated the sport in the US. Mormando believes Westbrook would have won at least four gold medals in the Olympics if he were a European where fencers train full time. Westbrook has had to train after work.
The fencer attributes his success to a great sense of balance and extraordinary hand and foot speed. In addition, he says he has the unusual ability to see an opponent's blade before it arrives so he can deflect it. Stopping the blade is critical because fencers score points by "touching" their opponents with their blades. The touches are felt by electronic sensors. It usually takes 15 touches to win a match.
Five years ago Westbrook decided to give more back to the sport by starting the Peter Westbrook Foundation, which trains urban youths to fence. It hires coaches to train up to 60 teenagers at the Fencer's Club on Manhattan's West Side. Some of the inner-city kids are winning tournaments. Westbrook says a few can beat him on occasion.
In addition, he observes that fencing has given the students motivation which has resulted in higher grades. Kids have to show progress in school to remain in the program. "I told a mother we're going to turn your son from a thug into a mug," he quips. Now, other Olympic sports are considering similar efforts.
Westbrook says the foundation is one way he can remain positive. "No one understands what it takes to be the best in a combat sport for so long and to also have the love of God and to be a good Christian in a mad, callous, ruthless, uncaring sport," he says. "This is not so easy to do."