Westbrook turns fighters into world-class fencers

Updated: August 17, 2004, 3:44 PM ET
Associated Press

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."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press