The notion that inner-city kids would be drawn to the sport of fencing hardly seems an obvious one - except, perhaps, to Peter Westbrook.
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.
Westbrook ultimately was awarded a fencing scholarship to New York University - a school renowned for its team - and quickly made a name for himself, racking up a host of national and international fencing titles.
Today, Westbrook's focus has shifted toward offering maximum support - academic, emotional, and athletic - to a new generation of kids who'd like to make that same leap. The foundation offers not just fencing lessons, but also academic tutors for any young fencers who need help with their school work. Students learn quickly that if they don't keep their grades up, they can't fence.
Lessons are offered at two levels. Saturday classes are open to beginners and those pursuing the sport more casually, with about 100 kids currently in attendance. But there is also a "superstar" division that includes 30 to 35 students who work out seriously every afternoon.
From that superstar division have sprung Akhi Spencer-El, and brother and sister pair Keeth and Errin Smart, all three of whom will represent the US on this year's Olympic team.
Ms. Smart, currently a junior at Barnard College in New York and a member of the Columbia University fencing team, remembers that she and her brother became two of Westbrook's first students when her enthusiastic father heard of the program in 1991 and rushed his children over to sign them up.
She fences foil and her brother fences saber. The foundation teaches all three forms of fencing: foil and saber, which focus more on thrust and have a more refined appearance, and pe, which has a more dramatic slashing style and is the most aggressive of the forms.
The siblings' prowess at the sport has clearly shaped the course of their young lives. The two have already traveled much of the globe to compete. Errin, who is majoring in economics at Barnard, says, "It's taught me to use my time very well. I've never had much time to just hang out with friends."
But she has no regrets. The sport suits her perfectly, she says. "I like competing, I'm a very aggressive person."
One of the reasons he's been so successful with city kids, says Westbrook, is that the hard edge of urban life tends to endow youngsters with a toughness, something he believes he can use positively by channeling that energy into fencing matches.
"These kids grow up in an overcrowded environment and develop a fighting spirit," he says. "You can turn that into a plus."
The recognition his students have received from the outside world has been a source of real joy to him, he adds. "These kids were not really wanted by society. Now they're being fought over by European coaches."
But Westbrook insists that the real reason for his success is his religious grounding, which he describes simply as Christian. As a coach, he asks all his young fencers - including those who insist they are nonbelievers - to pray before their matches. He says he sees his foundation "not just as a fencing school but as a spiritual movement, a big family."
The attraction is not simply the sport, he insists, but rather "the love and the spirit and something else."
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