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Fencing program heals lives

4/27/2004

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.''