Fencing program heals lives

Updated: April 27, 2004, 7:23 PM ET
Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Carlton Henry can only guess where he would be without the Peter Westbrook Foundation.

"I'd probably be in jail, or dead,'' he said.

Westbrook, a six-time member of the U.S. Olympic team, started the foundation in 1991 to bring fencing to underprivileged children in New York.

"I realized how great the sport has been to me,'' Westbrook said. "I wanted to share it with other kids from the inner-cities.''

The foundation has been a great success. Approximately 130 children participate in the program, most of whom practice on Saturdays during the school year. The most talented students fence five-to-six days a week with some of the top coaches in the country.

But the Foundation does more than teach youngsters how to lunge and parry. To illustrate this point, Westbrook, seated behind a fencing strip at the U.S. Fencing National Championships, gestured toward Henry.

"Carlton ... came to us two or three years ago. Knew nothing about fencing. It's a sad story but it's a great story,'' Westbrook said. "He was living in a homeless shelter. His father died of AIDS. His mother, he never saw until the father's funeral last year.''

"Carlton was involved in gangs like crazy, and it didn't look like he was finishing high school on time, or maybe even not finishing.''

Henry, 20, grew up in the Bronx with his father and grandmother. He got himself into plenty of trouble but was fortunate to be guided to the Westbrook Foundation by a teacher.

"I came down and I really liked what was going on, so I kept coming and after a while Peter accepted me to the after-school program,'' he said.

Last year, Henry's father died. After the funeral, he wanted to fence that day. Westbrook told him to take a day off, and come back the following day. Henry obliged.

"After my father passed away and bills piled up on my grandmother, it was too hard for her to handle certain things,'' he said. "We had to move into the shelter. That was pretty rough.''

The Foundation helped Henry pull through the tough times.

"It's from being around positive people and seeing positive things, instead of being around negative people and only having negative things to see and do,'' Henry said. "I think that just gave me a new way to look at life.''

Henry finished high school and is out of the shelter. He lives in Harlem now, with his grandmother, sister, and two nieces. He is enrolled at Bronx Community College and hopes to get his grades up to the point that he could transfer to a college that has a fencing program.

"It's a pretty good all around school, not just for fencing, but for making the individual very well-rounded,'' Westbrook said of his foundation.

Westbrook grew up in the projects of Newark, N.J. He took up fencing as a teenager and later landed a full scholarship to NYU. From there, he began competing internationally, participating in his first Olympics in 1976. He won a bronze medal in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and drew his saber in the Olympics for the last time in 1996 in Atlanta.

"The sport of fencing has been great to me,'' he said. "It transformed my life, saved my life.''

Westbrook used to dominate the strips at the National Championships. Now, his fencers his fencers do it for him. Four of the 13 U.S. fencers headed to the 2004 Olympics learned the sport through his program, including saber fencers Keeth Smart and Ivan Lee.

The Westbrook Foundation men's saber team, including Smart, Lee, and Henry, lost the final 45-42 on Monday, the first time the program didn't win the title since 2000.

On Sunday, Smart and Lee faced each other in the semifinals of the men's saber event. Smart beat Lee 15-13 and went on to win the championship.

Henry didn't make it that far. He went 3-6 in pool play, and then lost his first elimination bout 15-13, finishing in 23rd place out of 38 fencers.

Still, Westbrook knows which fencer he's most proud of.

"Sometimes I don't know if I'm more impressed with Ivan and Keeth making the Olympic Games or Carlton, who made the Olympic Games in life. Which really is more important? In the whole scheme of things, it's really Carlton.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press