OH, MY GOD!” EXCLAIMS PETER Westbrook. “Look at that! Un-believ-abel” Surrounding the 45-year-old fencing master are some 90 kids, 10 to 17, thrusting and parrying in their wire masks and white uniforms. In a lilting rap, Westbrook, a six-time Olympian, exhorts them to mind their footwork. “Okay, retreat. Advance! Oh, I like that, brother! Nice and light!”
It has become a cultural cliché, and often a dangerously deceptive one, that athletics has the power to rescue children from deprivation and poverty. But here, at Manhattan’s New York Fencers Club, Westbrook is spinning inspirational tales with a difference, persuading inner-city kids to take up the sport of aristocrats. Since 1987, through his nonprofit foundation, he and his staff of 12 have taught swordplay to more than 1,000 boys and girls, most of them poor and black. A radical idea? Perhaps, but Westbrook, whose autobiography, Harnessing Anger: The Way of an American Fencer, is out this month, is merely following his own example. Raised in the projects of Newark, N.J., he fenced his way into college and went on to win a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Thus far five of Westbrook’s pupils have won college fencing scholarships. “[He] has certainly incrementally changed lives,” says William J. Hybl, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which donates $35,000 a year to Westbrook’s foundation. (Westbrook, who draws no salary and lives on savings, raises $20,000 through donations.) Depending on need, pupils pay from 25 cents to $25 per semester. Westbrook also offers extensive academic tutoring, usually by local college students. Above all, though, he coaches fencers.
“I’m looking to create champions,” says Westbrook, who shares a Harlem apartment with his wife, Susann, 37, a social worker. This year, four of his athletes qualified for the U.S. Junior World Championship team. One of them, Akhnaten Spencer-El, 17, was street-fighting in Harlem before he took up the saber. Friends once mocked his sport as “wimpy,” but lately they’ve started to envy him. “Now that they see all this publicity I’m getting,” he reports, “they’re like, ‘Wow! I want to do it too!’ ” Few Westbrook protégés make the elite ranks, but most learn life lessons, some of them painful. “In fencing you lose a lot,” says the coach. “We tell them, ‘Stop crying; life is going to be this way.’ ” Adds Jessica Florendo, 11: “This is very hard. But I like hard.”
Peter Westbrook knows hard. His African-American father, Ulysses, was an Army corporal stationed in Kobe, Japan, when he married Mariko Wada. They came to St. Louis, where Peter and his sister Vivian were born, settled in Newark, then split when Peter was 3. Neighbors taunted the struggling, mixed-race family mercilessly, but Mariko stressed stoicism. “I was raised militaristically,” says Westbrook. “When people used to tease me, she yelled, ‘Don’t cry! Always be strong!’ When the clock rang in the morning, boom! I had to get up. Being late was not an option.”
When Peter was 14, his mother learned that Essex Catholic High School had a fencing program. The genteel sport seemed an ideal diversion from Newark’s myriad corruptions, so Mariko offered her son $5 to go to a practice. “I fell in love with the sport immediately,” Westbrook says. He won a fencing scholarship to New York University, graduated in 1975 and held several corporate marketing and advertising jobs. He went on to win a record 13 national saber titles.
The idea for his foundation came to him in the late ’80s. “I wanted to give back,” he says. “I’m so grateful for what God has given me.” But not even Westbrook could escape the pain of urban violence. While riding a Newark bus three winters ago, Mariko admonished a young mother for not bundling her child against the cold. Incensed, the woman kicked her out the door. Mariko’s head struck the pavement, and she fell into a coma. Four days later, she died. “I never knew what sadness meant,” Westbrook says of his loss.
His mother’s $5 is still paying dividends at the Fencers Club, where, well into Westbrook’s lesson, a straggler slinks in, trying to escape his notice. But tardiness is still no option. “My brother!” shouts Westbrook. “Give me 10 pushups, you’re LATE!” Turning to the class, he takes up his patter. “You see, you gotta have good footwork, because you can’t go nowhere, you can’t fight with anybody, unless you have good footwork. It’s im-possible. You can’t do nothing without good footwork—you know that?”
NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City