Peter Westbrook is turning inner-city kids into America's top fencers
Since Fencers don't earn points for backstabbing, Keeth Smart decided to tell his opponent right to his face what he thought of his tactics. Never mind that the foe for this training bout in New York City was Smart's coach, the retired six-time Olympian, 47-year-old Peter Westbrook. "Second time you stepped on my foot," snapped Smart, who at 21 is the top-ranked sabre fencer in the U.S. as well as a two-time NCAA champion at St. John's. "Sorry, Keeth," Westbrook replied. "Accident, you know. Probably an accident."
Apologies and weapons extended, Westbrook won the bout 15-11. "Old man still doing good," Westbrook said. Then he pulled Smart aside and the real work began, a counseling session between the venerable Westbrook and his prot�g�. "See, Keeth, you get mad like this and like this and like that and you lose three, four, five points in a row, uh-huh" said Westbrook. "Stay mad and it won't get any better."
By instilling that spirit of self-discipline, Westbrook has been working wonders with inner-city swashbucklers since 1991, when he and Olympic teammate Mika'il Sankofa (known then as Michael Lofton) recruited six black children to come to Westbrook's first fencing class. Enrollment in what became the Peter Westbrook Foundation is now roughly 100. "No question, fencing gave me my life," says Westbrook, who grew up in Newark. "If not for fencing, I would have been another city kid on drugs, taking my hurt out on somebody else."
Westbrook's foundation has become one of the most successful inner-city sports programs in the country. Four of the top five sabre fencers in the U.S. have come through it, including Smart, Akhi Spencer-El and Herby Reynaud, members of the four-man U.S. team that won a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games in August. Last year Spencer-El became the first American to be ranked as the world's No. 1 junior in sabre. Keeth's 19-year-old sister, Erinn, who also trains under Westbrook, is the No. 3 American in women's foil. The foundation emphasizes education as well as fencing and has helped several participants get scholarships at colleges and New York City private schools.
Westbrook has a simple rule: Do well in school or don't fence. He hires tutors and holds bimonthly essay-writing contests, awarding $50 prizes to the top three entrants. He charges kids for private lessons so they'll feel obligated to get the most from their investment. The fee is a rock-bottom $20 a year, and he often reduces even that by asking, "So what can you pay?"
Westbrook began fencing when-he was five. He used a knife to carve a Z for Zorro in his mother's coffee table, and she insisted he take a fencing lesson, hoping it would help him mend his ways. Westbrook went on to win 13 national titles before retiring after the 1996 Atlanta Games. His bronze in '84, at Los Angeles, was the first Olympic medal by a U.S. fencer since 1960.
Last year Westbrook raised enough money to stake the foundation to a $97,000 budget, enough to pay for tutors, equipment, coaching help and travel to World Cup events. Even so, Westbrook, whose wife, Susann, is an accountant, has at times had to dip into his savings to keep the operation going.
"At first Peter had a nice dream: keep kids from drugs, give weekly structure—it was fantasy, really," says Aladar Kogler, who has coached seven Czech or U.S. Olympic teams. "Then came the results and the grades and the champions."
When Westbrook introduced Harvey Miller to the sport a year ago, the high school junior had nothing but D's and F's on his report card. Last week in Pittsburgh he placed 28th in his first national tournament, then hurried home to New York for the night classes and SAT courses that Westbrook is paying for. "Tell people what we do here and they think it's an exaggeration," says Miller, whose worst grade last semester was an A-minus. "I just think fencing does something to your brain. Or maybe it's Pete."