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Westbrook turns fighters into world-class fencers

8/17/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Where others saw only kids who liked to
fight, Peter Westbrook saw promising fencers.

But his vision extends way beyond that. If the most recognizable
swordsman in America since Zorro turns out to be right, his one-man
campaign to find and nurture talent will do more than just shift
the sport's stateside base from the affluent suburbs to New York's
inner-city.

Someday, it could alter the balance of power in the fencing
world.

"Put these kids in any arena,'' Westbrook said over the phone
from New York, "and they step up like you wouldn't believe.''

And at these Summer Games, American fencers drawn from both the
sport's traditional clubs and Westbrook's unconventional schools
are stepping up like never before.

Mariel Zagunis of Beaverton, Ore., won the gold medal in the
saber Tuesday, the first medal by a U.S. woman and the first gold
by a U.S. fencer since 1904. Earlier, Sada Jacobson, of suburban
Atlanta, captured a bronze.

Those were the first fencing medals won by an American since
Westbrook captured a bronze in the same discipline at the 1984
Games in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, Westbrook pupil Erinn Smart begins her quest for a
medal in foil. The following day, her older brother, Keeth, another
Westbrook disciple and the first American man to be ranked No. 1 in
the world, tries to lead the way to the podium in the team saber
competition.

The Smarts got their start when their father read an ad about
Westbrook's foundation. Neither had much of an idea what they were
getting into. Both, though, were good athletes, and only a year
apart, they were competitive to a fault.

"Keeth started a couple of months after me, and I handled him
for a long time,'' Erinn said, grinning. "He didn't grow into his
body, really, until he was about 18 or 19, and he didn't really
find the right weapon until he picked up a saber. But he was always
fast, and once he learned how to lunge with those long legs, I'd
had enough.''

Sitting in the stands at the Helliniko Olympic Complex earlier
this week to watch Keeth in the individual men's competition, Liz
Smart recalled those days and all the hectic commutes involved with
a roll of her eyes. She was in no mood to sacrifice her kids'
schooling for sport, and it was years before those schedules
meshed.

Even now, with Keeth having fenced and graduated from St. John's
and Erinn having done the same at Columbia, she wonders how she
survived it all.

"You make all the sacrifices, but in the back of my mind, I'd
keep asking myself, 'When is it going to happen?'' she recalled.
"Peter could sell anything he wanted to anybody and the thing he
always told us was, 'Keep the Dream.'

"I don't know how we did all those years,'' she added, "but
I'm glad we did.''

Westbrook has four fencers on the U.S. team, and their stories,
with a few twists, all resemble his. The son of a black U.S.
serviceman and a Japanese mother, he grew up in a Newark, N.J.,
housing project with too little structure and too much time on his
hands. His mother bribed him to take up the sport with the promise
of $5 each time he went to a fencing class; after his second day
there, motivation was never a problem again.

The money he made during a career stretching over two decades
enabled Westbrook to start his foundation and school in New York.
These days, he begs, borrows or steals what he needs to keep
classes running for as many as 130 kids drawn for each session from
the city's toughest neighborhoods.

After a few weeks, in between teaching his students about
footwork, how to parry and riposte, Westbrook slips in messages
about how much of the world a fencer can see when skills match
desire. Sometimes, when training sessions run into the night, he
reaches into his pocket for cab fare to make sure his kids get home
safely.

All Westbrook asks in return is a modest registration fee and
enough time to fan the sparks of anger he sees in their eyes into a
consuming, competitive flame.

"People with money are given things. They don't have to fight
for anything. These kids, like me, come from the other end of the
spectrum. They fight in their neighborhoods, at school, even when
they go home, there's almost no place they go where they're not
fighting.''

To prove his point, Ivan Lee, a third member of Westbrook's
school and, like Keeth Smart, a St. John's fencer and grad, could
barely wait for his next match. Beaten in the individual
competition by Russian Stanislav Pozdniakov -- "He was probably
junior world champion by the time I was born,'' Lee said -- he was
itching to jump back into action.

"Fencing is nothing but a fight, so the real challenge teaching
these kids is making the transition to sport. It's really serious
at the Olympic level. It requires focus and discipline, not just
anger, and a ton of hard work. But the intensity, the desire --
those are things they come to me already possessing,'' Westbrook
said.

"That's why I say they're naturals."