A few years ago, Nzingha Prescod was training to qualify for her third Olympics. But this summer, instead of competing in Tokyo, it will teach the sport to children in and around Brooklyn through its Fencing in the Park program.
She was still training at a world-class level when a painful hip injury forced her to retire at age 27 from the sport that has been her life since she was nine years old. Although it was a disappointment, Prescod had been thinking about what his life would be like after his professional fencing career.
He knew he wanted to stay in fencing and find a way to give back to his community and share what he learned from the sport with the next generation.
“It just opens a lot of doors. Open your networks, you travel the world. There are so many possibilities that they wouldn’t have even been in his purview, not even thought of in his mind as a possibility. You are exposed to so many things in this space, ”she says. “This can change the lives of many people where I am from. I change my life. The people I’m with changed their lives, why not? It’s bad that it’s not more accessible. “
Prescod says he noticed from an early age how exclusive fencing can be and has always thought about how to use sport to transform and empower communities economically, socially and emotionally, especially in his Flatlands neighborhood in Brooklyn. He wanted the children in his community, including his goddaughter, to have the opportunity to participate in fencing, which is not as accessible as other more conventional sports.
The facility is not easy to get to from Brooklyn, so parents must take their children to the Peter Westbrook Foundation in Harlem, where Prescod first trained. “I had to take it if I wanted to involve the kids in my neighborhood in fencing,” he says.
Last summer, Prescod spotted a soccer coach doing drills in a park near his home. He knew it would be a perfect place to teach fencing, especially during the height of the pandemic.
Absolute Fencing, one of Prescod’s sponsors, helped provide the equipment, and Fencing in the Park was born.
What started as a six-week summer clinic with 11 children last summer has grown into a consistent group of 25 and continues to evolve. Fencing in the Park hosted a spring series earlier this year, worked with schools in Harlem, and introduced a high-achieving program that awarded two scholarships to a pair of sisters to continue their advanced training. He wanted to make sure Fencing in the Park was a program that focused on developing children’s life skills through fencing, rather than just introducing them to the sport.
Prescod, her sister, and her best friend received scholarships to attend the Peter Westbrook Foundation’s rigorous and selective after-school fencing program. Westbrook, a six-time Olympic champion and U.S. champion, began his founding in 1991 to teach fencing and life skills to children from underserved communities in New York City and make fencing more visible to the people of Colour. Thirty years later, Westbrook has had a major impact on changing the landscape of fencing and has a reputation for training top-level athletes.
Although she was talented enough to enter the show, Prescod says she was not as good as the others in her first year, often losing to her sister and best friend. But he hated losing and he loved the sport because it was more strategic and analytical than any of the other sports he had played before. Above all, Prescod says he was inspired by the community and family that the organization had built.
“It was very inspiring at age nine to walk into a space with black shooters who are achieving excellence in their sport,” says Prescod. “The community is really the reason I stayed. My friends were there; we were friends with people who had similar backgrounds. I had a great people of people who supported me, and I was really good from a very young age, so it made sense. It wasn’t even a thought to stop. It just all made sense. ”
Prescod won his first national tournament in his age group when he was 10 years old. When he was 14 years old, he won his first World Cadet Championship in the U-17 group. At 15, she barely missed out on the 2008 Olympic team after finishing fifth in the playoffs. He continued training and competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
An eight-time world medalist and one of the most decorated fencers in the country, she earned a scholarship to Columbia University and practiced fencing at the school not far from where she first trained in Harlem as a child.
“Sport has been so powerful for me in my life, and I know other people’s lives, so I’m just trying to expand the mission and scale it to more people, because where I grew up, in my neighborhood, there wasn’t access to that kind of opportunity, definitely not in abundance, “says Prescod. “This elite offering of inspiring excellence, enrichment, that kind of caliber education is not accessible. It is transformative for people, so it is necessary. It is a necessary component of education to have these programs that inspire greatness. “
Prescod says finding funding to support the free clinics was the hard part of getting Fencing in the Park up and running, but training kids in a sport they’re not used to can also be challenging at times. It is a balance to encourage children, help them understand the value of sport and how it translates into their personal and academic future, while also ensuring that they have fun. It teaches patience, strategy, discipline, commitment, and the technical skills of fencing.
“I’m trying to develop a program that is impactful, whether they do it recreationally or with a high level of performance,” says Prescod. “That is really the goal.
“Everyone has a lot of fun because they are learning a new skill, they are learning as resilience life skills. And then it’s fun for me when I can raise some fencers and share my mastery of the sport. It’s just good vibes. “
Fencing has long been an exclusive and primarily white sport, but recently black fencers have made waves on Team USA. Ibtihaj Muhammad, another Peter Westbrook Foundation alumnus, made history as the first US Olympian. In competing in a hijab at the Rio Games in 2016, the women’s fencing foil team won three consecutive world championships from 2017 to 2019.
Prescod knows the sport still has a long way to go in terms of recruiting and retaining athletes, especially on the female side, but he’s happy to get the job done. She wants to continue to provide sustainable and scalable access so children can experience the same gift that fencing gave her at age nine. She says this is where she wants her energy to go for the long term.
“I am happy to share my sport and to be a point of connection with sport. It is attractive to have someone you can relate to and aspire to be, ”he says. “It takes that kind of person to attract people, encourage and motivate people and inspire people to participate in fencing.”
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Jacqueline LeBlanc is a contributor to Good sport, a media company dedicated to increasing the visibility of women and girls in sport.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.